TAMPA — Zach Karikas was supporting his two children on a college professor's salary when all of a sudden, his car engine blew out. And just like that, a hefty $700 car repair bill landed on top of all his other expenses, tipping the family's strict monthly budget.
What's an 18-year-old to do?
Okay, so Zach is not really a college professor. He doesn't have two kids. And he doesn't even own a car yet.
That fiscal scenario came from an interactive computer game in Zach's senior-year economics class at Freedom High School. The first-person game developed by Junior Achievement builds a fantasy life, like the popular Sims or Sim City. Piloted at Freedom High and Sickles High this year, the JA Finance Park Virtual game will be available in the fall to Hillsborough County public high schools, the school district announced in May.
It joins an expansive curriculum designed to teach high school seniors how to handle their money in today's tumultuous economy, said Dennis Holt, the school district's supervisor of secondary social science.
"It's to help people understand that economic choices have a consequence," Holt said. "They're already making economics decisions on what they buy, what kind of education they're going to pursue."
Personal finance lessons have been integrated in public high school's mandatory economic course for about a decade, Holt said. But now teachers face the challenges of introducing complicated investment issues like subprime mortgages and derivatives — topics that many people often struggle to understand.
At the same time, Holt said economics teachers try to present information in an unbiased way.
"The last thing we would want to do," he said, "is be seen in the role of advising students to invest in a certain way. But we would want to have enough information to help them make decisions among various investment options."
Financial simulations, such as the role-playing computer game, translate money situations into terms familiar to teens, Holt said.
With the same strategy, a Tampa Preparatory School teacher asked her high school seniors a simple question in their personal economics seminar: Would you want to date someone with bad credit or huge debts?
No way, the students said without hesitation. That's a deal-breaker.
"It really did matter to them," said history and social sciences teacher Kim Jago.
The goal, educators agree, is to embed critical decision-making skills and guide teens toward making their own informed and responsible choices.
Zach, the 18-year-old trying to balance a computer character's bills, didn't realize his family worked out a monthly budget until his dad gave him a money-management tutorial.
"I had no idea," Zach said. "I thought people just went out and bought and took care of those things."
Zach is college-bound in the fall, heading to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., to study athletic training. He already has his first financial conundrum: Among upcoming college expenses and the costs of prom and grad bash, he also wants a car.
So he says no to friends on Sunday if they've already hung out on Friday and Saturday, forgoing the cost of another restaurant meal, ice cream cone or movie. Zach banks his $100 paychecks from working weekends at a carwash. He puts every receipt into a box.
So far, he has saved $1,000 for a fuel-efficient Kia, like his dad's.
"I see myself able to be independent with money," Zach said, "and able to make financial decisions."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.