Loudoun County High School seniors Emma Powers and Carter Brown were flummoxed. As the couple stood in line with their baby, they tried to manage their finances between them.
“Childcare is $1,200 a month and I'm only getting $2,500 a month myself,” Brown lamented. “That's half my salary right there.”
But Brown and Powers aren't teenage parents; rather, the two are participants in the Loudoun Volunteer Financial Council's Reality Store. The baby, which Brown casually swung on his shoulders, is a plastic doll.
Founded in 2002, the Loudoun Volunteer Financial Council is a Leesburg-based nonprofit organization that aims to teach financial literacy to teenagers. The group has been hosting the Reality Store since 2003.
The premise of the event is simple. Seniors arrive at their school gymnasium, where they are given packets that randomly assign them a career, a salary and a family situation. Then, the student travels to various booths, including “Uncle Sam,” to take out taxes, then uses his or her net income to pay for everything ranging from groceries and housing to childcare and credit cards.
The curriculum stems from Virginia Tech's Virginia Cooperative Extension, but the LVFC relies on local sponsors and volunteers to bring the program to Loudoun.
“It takes a lot of time and volunteers to put on what you saw [at the Reality Store],” said Andrea Brown, the LVFC's youth financial coordinator. “Depending on how much money we get from sponsors is how many stores we can put on a year.”
Thus far this year the program has been held at Tuscarora, Woodgrove and Loudoun County high schools. Loudoun Valley's Reality Store will take place May 20.
For their part, the students immerse themselves in the event, eagerly bouncing from booth to booth, hunching over tables as they type in numbers at calculators.
“I think it's a fun look at reality. Instead of sitting in a class learning what all this means, we get to experience it hands-on,” Loudoun County senior Yousef Mouchkelly said.
Tammy Bullock, a Loudoun County business and information technology teacher, looks forward to integrating the event with the new personal finance and education classes, currently offered as a pilot program at five area high schools, but expanding to the remaining schools next year in accordance with state law.
“They have to make financial decisions here,” Bullock said, noting this will be an excellent segue from the junior year financial class. “This reinforces what they learn.”