WESLEY CHAPEL — It wasn't the best of days for 18-year-old Zach Wark. The tuition bill was due, and his car had been vandalized to the tune of $600. Now he needed a place to live and was having a tough time rounding up a roommate — a real necessity in keeping a roof over his head on his $25,000 annual salary as a receptionist, before taxes.
He wanted to tuck some money away, maybe even invest a little. But then there were living expenses to think about, like that $4,000 car insurance bill for that new Toyota Yaris that would run about him an additional $4,100 a year.
"I don't know about that — I think I'm going to have, like, 100 bucks left," Zach said, as he carried his clipboard to the "travel agency" table in the media center at Wesley Chapel High School. "Life with a $25,000 salary looks like a big downer."
And a bit of a wake-up call for Zach and other Wesley Chapel High students last week who were treated to a taste of what's to come at the school's annual Reality Store.
It's a game of sorts and a rite of passage for the past seven years for graduating seniors. During one class period they have to figure out how to live on a salary doled out randomly. While Zach had only $25,000 to work with, the luck of the draw gave classmate Alicia Menendez, 18, a lot more wiggle room with $47,550 to live on.
"I can afford my own apartment," Alicia said.
And the $4,500 in child care expenses that she had been handed.
Throughout the class, students visited various tables manned by volunteers to figure out their expenses. First stop was Uncle Sam, where they learned how much will come out of their paycheck for taxes and Social Security. After that came the Realtor, the car dealership, the investment banker and the travel agent, where they might get a week in Europe or a weekend at the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach.
"This is a little reality check," said guidance counselor Kristina Kiser, who organized this year's event. "It gives them a taste of real life experience — how to afford things, how to save, how to pay bills."
Those bills include rent, food, car insurance, tuition and other unexpected expenses that might crop up when you take a turn on the "wheel of fortune." One spin can mean more out-of-pocket expenses for a trip to the doctor, child care, braces or a traffic ticket that's going to cost a bundle or add even more dollars to that car insurance payment.
"This is a good jumping-off point for them to see what things really cost," said economics teacher Mathew Kirouac. "A lot of these kids don't think about these things because their parents take care of everything."
His students were working for a grade, but would also spend time discussing how they could improve the hand they were dealt at the Reality Store. "We'll talk about what you can do about it. Can you change your way of living? Maybe take the bus and get rid of that car?"
In the future, Kirouac's students will take a closer look at what next year is really going to cost for them.
"We'll research their individual school campus, what their living expenses will be so they can get a clearer picture of what it's going to cost," he said.
Those life lessons weren't lost on Zach as he tallied up his expenses at the Reality Store. When all was said and done, he had a little over $300 left after opting for a short trip to the Bahamas.
"If it's going to be a life of downers you might as well have a good time," said Zach, who in real life already pays for his own car insurance, gas and entertainment expenses.
"So did you learn anything?" Kiser asked him as he packed up his belongings for the next class.
"Yeah — not to be a receptionist."