Caroline Krasodec of La Grange had a pretty good life on Thursday morning. As an unmarried park ranger making a good salary, she spent frugally yet lived well, got fairly lucky and managed to put away plenty of cash for retirement.
Stephen Stanczyk of Countryside was less fortunate. While trying to support his three kids on a welder’s salary, he caught a bad break when he lost his job—and things continued to spiral downhill from there.
“I found it really difficult to purchase anything that I really need for my family,” Stancyzk admitted ruefully. “I’m living with my parents now, and it’s really difficult to find things that I need!”
Thankfully for Stancyzk, this wasn’t reality, but the Reality Store: a life-simulation game being held for the first time this year with students in Lyons Township High School’s summer consumer-education classes. Entering juniors and seniors filled the South Campus Corral for four hours to tackle the financial challenges of life with the salary afforded them by their chosen vocation.
Students picked from one of nearly 250 possible careers, along with marital and family status; then, at stations with titles like “Housing,” “Groceries,” “Utilities” and “Child Care,” they discovered just how far their money would take them. In many cases, it wasn’t as far as they’d imagined.
“I started out buying a very expensive condo and very expensive car, and realized that realistically I couldn’t end up affording those, so I had to refinance both of them and get cheaper things,” recalled Felix Caruso of Western Springs, finding trouble even on the high pay of a lawyer. “You have to be realistic on your spending.”
“I found it a little difficult to live!” said La Grange Park senior Victoria Paredes, making do on the surprisingly low salary of an athletic trainer. “I wasn’t able to get a car; I had to take public transportation. But you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
“It was a huge reality check. I feel like kids these days just think, ‘oh, I’ll just go to college, get a great education, come out and make $100,000, $200,000’—that’s not the reality of it, and I think this activity helps us realize that we have to be frugal.”
That’s the point, said Linda Hunt of the Rotary Club of La Grange, which organized the debut of the event along with the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Students had to contend with harsh reality over starry-eyed glamour—those who chose to be actors or secret agents got a rude surprise when their payday came around. And a truly unfortunate few were forced to make a long walk to the unemployment desk after a bad spin on the “Wheel of Fortune.”
“The biggest this is just opening the eyes of the students to what life is going to be like once they are out school and mom and dad aren’t protecting them any more,” Hunt said. “The goal here is to give them a salary and make them understand that all of these expenses are things that they are going to have to consider.”
Near the end of the simulation, students were offered the opportunity to donate some extra cash to charity, in keeping with Rotary Club values. (That is, if they had any left.)
Members of the Chamber operated the stations as volunteers, dispensing advice along with play money. District 204 superintendent Tim Kilrea was on-hand and voiced particular approval of this aspect of the event.
“When you get our students working with business leaders and community leaders who work in these fields and can give some real life pointers and tips to supplement what they’re learning, it’s always a great thing,” Kilrea said.
“The Chamber is always trying to find ways that the businesses can give back to the community,” added Katherine Leibforth, director of the WSCCI Foundation. “This was just a creative new way to make the business owners in the area have a role in what the future workforce is, and [be] involved in the community with the students.
“It’s been going pretty great. I think that we’ll probably do it every year, and see if we can start getting it going with some other high schools."