A dose of reality...

Northgate students Jada Jones, Josh Brooks, Tori Driscoll, Zoe Slavicek and Ian Thompson speak with counselors at the financial reality fair on Tuesday. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Deciding what to do post-high school has always posed problems for students. Get a job? Community college? Trade school? Start a business? Four-year college?

To help students make sense of it all by planning wisely, Northgate High School's Business, Computer, and Information Technology (BCIT) Department this past Tuesday hosted its first "financial reality fair," a program sponsored by credit union associations nationwide.

BCIT teacher Susanne Galupi explained the purpose of the event.

"A financial reality fair is a hands-on experience in which students, after identifying their career choices and starting salaries, are provided a budget sheet requiring them to live within their monthly salary while paying for basics such as housing, utilities, transportation, clothing, and food. Of course, there are many temptations for additional spending, and students must learn to balance their wants and needs to live on their own."

Information booths set up in the gymnasium were staffed by volunteer members of the Beaver County and Allegheny County Chamber of Credit Unions.

Fellow BCTI teacher Maureen Wertheimer worked with Galupi and Sandy Kowal, president of the Ambridge Area Federal Credit Union, to coordinate the day's activities. Students enrolled in personal finance classes, a course required for graduation and taken primarily in their sophomore year, attended the fair, along with some freshmen, juniors and seniors who are enrolled in the class as well.

After visiting all of the booths, students were to balance their budgets and then sit down with a financial counselor to review their findings.

"The fair is a unique opportunity for each student to experience some of the financial challenges he or she will face when starting life on their own," Galupi said.

In the financial reality fair experience, students were encouraged to save a minimum of 10 percent of their income, placing 3 percent in a long-term retirement investment and 7 percent in a shorter-term investment. The financial counselors explored the importance of planning for future needs and preparing for future financial challenges through savings. The fair tempted students to spend their income on "fun," but financial counselors brought the focus back to saving and thrift practices.

To prep students for the fair, Kowal visited the BCIT classes last week to explain the fair. During her visit, they selected their future careers and researched the starting salaries for potential jobs. Wertheimer and Galupi then transferred the starting salaries into a worksheet for each student. The worksheet included a student's gross monthly income, tax deductions, and net monthly pay. If applicable, it also included the amount of student loan the student would have to repay. Students then completed the worksheets with their choices of required and optional expenses.

At day's end, planners, as well as attendees, gave the event positive reviews.

"It was a very eye-opening lesson for the students. They all took it very seriously and are realizing the difference between wants and needs. I think, too, that this activity is helping them to understand the importance of planning for their futures. They found out today how hard life really is. Even with a full-time job and salary, it's hard to make ends meet. And, we didn't even make them consider having a spouse or children or pets to care for. They definitely would not have been ready to consider any of those realistic situations," Galupi said.

Ian Thompson, a junior, philosophically said, "I learned from all of this that life will always throw you something. If you make a wrong choice, it's going to affect you in the future."

And junior Niko Triplie had a very basic lesson taught to her. "I've learned that I have to take school more seriously so that I can have a good job instead of working at [a fast food restaurant].