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Florence-Carlton High School seniors played the game of life emphasizing financial decisions on Tuesday.

Ravalli County Federal Credit Union hosted the financial education “Reality Fair” with job scenarios, paycheck earnings, budget decision-making and the occasional hazards of life. The hands-on, real-life situations simulate the financial challenges beyond high school.

Laci Rose, CFO of RCFCU, said the fair helps students learn to make sound financial decisions and prepare for a successful life.

“We reached out to seniors because they are about to experience the real world,” Rose said. “This isn’t a teaching session or a workshop but a game of life. We get great feedback from students such as ‘their wife will need to get a job’ or they ‘aren’t having kids because they are too expensive.’”

Stations are manned by community professionals representing the various life needs — housing, transportation, student loans, food, cell phones and credit. Volunteers from By Owner Realty, Bitterroot College, Payne West Insurance, Retire Montana, RFCU and Montana’s Credit Union, who created the “Reality Fair,” came to run the stations so students could get real answers.

“We are teaching students the good and bad of credit cards and how establishing credit helps them with other loans,” Rose said.

During the “Reality Fair” game of life when students wanted to purchase a vehicle, they found that if they had a credit card they had established credit and had lower payments.

“We don’t go into depth with credit scores because that is a whole full-semester topic and this is just an hour-long fun run through for the students,” Rose said. “They will learn renting versus buying a house, we have knowledgeable volunteers.”

There is no winner or loser but the goal for the students is to come out with extra money in the end.

Two thirds of FCHS’s 62 seniors played the game, met with “financial counselors” and had conversations about what they can afford on the salary they were given or how they can save money.

The other seniors were at a track meet.

Every student spun a “chance wheel” that had good life bonuses such as a $500 pay raise and harsh life lessons such as $200 fee for dropping your cell phone.

Senior Ethan Post spun the “chance wheel” and dropped his cell phone and said he was disappointed. He really wanted a bonus not a fee.

“Not everything in life is perfect,” Rose said. “You might have a flat tire. This represents real life and these are things you have to think about when you get out into the real world.”

Senior Brenden Bailey randomly drew a career of an air traffic controller but in real life would prefer to work in construction.

“I came out ahead financially but did experience hardship at the chance wheel,” he said. “My computer crashed and that was $350 gone. Sharing car payments and the price of gas with a co-worker helped me come out on top.”

Bailey said he enjoyed the game of life.

Senior Taylah Lawson said the experience was helpful.

“I was a painter and barely came out ahead,” she said. “A better plan for a car would be to meet in the middle. You can’t settle for the lowest but you have to have something. I came out with $600 a month left over.”

Lawson said she would paint on the side but not as her career.

“I want to go into marketing,” she said. “This was stressful but a good thing.”

Kendra Edlin, from Montana’s Credit Union Network, said she’d like financial literacy classes required for graduation, especially on topics of compounding interest, student loans and when they have to start paying those back.

“Sometimes after high school graduation they make all the wrong mistakes really quickly and it affects their credit score that takes five to seven years for them to fix,” Edlin said. “By then they’ve needed a car loan, a house or had a child.”

Edlin said she designed the “Reality Fair” and allowed each credit union in Montana to customize it for their area. RCFCU has customized the game for the Bitterroot Valley with vocations that graduated seniors might actually hold.

Darci Parsons, president of RCFCU, said the game gives education and experience.

“We want to educate kids on the reality of life,” she said. “We want to give them an idea of budgeting and an inkling of what is to come. It is really interesting when they get to the tables on daycare or groceries they are like ‘What? Who spends that much?’”

FCHS educator Keri Briney teaches a personal finance class.

“I interlace it with college prep throughout the year,” she said. “This is one of the most useful classes students can take. The real world can slap them up real quick but this helps them to be ready.”

Briney called the “Reality Fair” fun education.

“It gets the kids more life skills, interaction with community members and hands-on experience,” she said. “It is enlightening to me what they know and don’t know. Sometimes something simple like how to fill out a check is an unknown to them.”

Briney said she has had feedback from former students who experienced the value of knowing financial literacy.

After the hour-long interactive event students cheered in appreciation of the experience.

RCFCU Administrative Assistant Samantha Collins advised students to keep credit card balances low and pay them on time.

“If a payment is 30-days late your credit score is dropped and they raise your rates,” she said.

“Remember, the ‘chance wheel’ was our way to show you that life can be unpredictable but if you have a good grasp on your budget you can overcome any financial obstacle that comes your way.”

Most schools in the Bitterroot Valley offer a class on economics and personal finance, though only two schools require it for graduation.

RCFCU plans to do two “Reality Fairs” full of potential financial situations each year for public schools in the Bitterroot Valley.

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