When John Thomas walked into William Tennent High School Wednesday morning, he felt pretty confident about his choice of mechanical engineering as a career. When the Neshaminy senior left Tennent a few hours later, he was more certain than ever that he made the right decision.
His participation in the REAL Solutions Financial Reality Fair gave Thomas a dry run of what to expect when he graduates college and enters the workforce. The workshop showed Thomas that his lifelong philosophy of save, save, save has served him well.
"I've been saving since I was born," said Thomas. "It's how I bought my jeep. The fair gives you the option to save between 3 and 6 percent, but I boosted it up to 10 percent and still managed to have a good life without sacrificing too much."
Reinforcing that financial responsibility is the ultimate goal of the Financial Reality Fair, said John Kebles, program manager for the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, which organized the popular event. Wednesday morning was the sixth fair in three weeks held by the Pennsylvania Credit Union, reaching more than 1,000 students from 40 high schools.
Juniors and seniors from Tennent, Neshaminy, Bensalem, Central Bucks East and Plymouth-Whitemarsh High Schools were eager to get a healthy dose of financial advice from experts in the industry. The most common reaction Kebles sees at these fairs is surprise about how much it costs to live in the real world.
"A lot of them are used to their parents paying for everything," says Kebles. "So, when they walk up to the car booth, they are shocked to discover they won't be able to afford that shiny, new Cadillac. I always tell them to think about buying roller skates instead."
How the Reality Fair works is that students pre-select a certain career, which is assigned an annual salary. After taking money out for taxes, health care and retirement savings, the students will stop at separate booths representing different aspects of a monthly budget and decide how they want to spend their paychecks.
"We don't tell them how to choose," said Josh Green, a representative from TruMark Financial Credit Union. "However, when they make a choice, we ask them pointed to questions to see how well they thought through the decision."
One example Green cited was when a student picked out a motorcycle as his vehicle. When Green pointed out to the student that with real estate as his chosen career it would be difficult to take clients around to different properties, the student changed his mind to an SUV.
"I'm actually surprised that there have been a lot of conservative decisions at this booth today," said Green. "Instead of the cool convertible, the kids are being more economical and going for more reliable vehicles with better gas mileage. That's a great extension of what they are learning in the classroom."
At another booth, students spin a chance wheel that can either throw a financial curve ball, like a new transmission for the car, or some unexpected income ike a $200 tax refund. Once they have completed their budgets, the students met with financial counselors who reviewed their choices and, if they were in the red, gave them some advice about reducing expenses and managing the money.
"They really pay attention to what the counselors tell them," said Kebles. "Even the hard-edged kids that come in with a bit of an attitude, they leave here appreciative of what they learned."