Financial Reality Comes To Staples

A few years ago this month, I got a panicked text from a soccer player I’d coached at Staples High School.

He graduated from college the previous year. Now — less than a year into his first job — he said, “I owe thousands of dollars to the IRS. How come no one ever taught me about taxes at Staples??!!”

Sarah White

The chances I’ll receive a similar text are a lot lower today. Two-thirds of seniors take Personal Finance — a math department elective taught lovingly but toughly by Stacey Delmhorst, Jen Giudice, Lenny Klein and Sarah White.

And a couple of weeks ago, every senior took part in Staples’ first-ever Financial Reality Fair. They gave it high marks.

The event was part of a larger 4-hour “Real World” event. Students learned about substance abuse, sexual assault and reproductive health.

But the money shot involved money.

The idea came from the classes’ regular visits to Financial Reality Fairs at other schools. White and Klein asked each other, Why not do one at Staples?

White took the lead. Principal James D’Amico and the school’s Collaborative Team gave their blessings. But making it a reality took a ton of work.

Connecticut’s Credit Unions were the sponsors. They provided the curriculum, materials and a number of experts.

The Staples PTA provided a $4,000 Wrecker Mini-Grant. They also put out a call for (financially literate) volunteers. The response was tremendous — including members of Westport’s Board of Finance and Education. Students who had previously been to a Financial Reality Fair also volunteered.

Staples parent Margie Adler and senior Vaughan Picirillo-Sealey: volunteers at the Financial Reality Fair.

Students began the day by choosing a career. They could pick anything — business executive, doctor, lawyer, actor, financial analyst, pilot, military member, writer, teacher, whatever.

They were then given the starting salary (in Connecticut) for that job. Each student was also saddled with student loan debt. The amount owed depended on the years of education required for that profession. The longer they were in school, the higher their debt.

They were also assigned — randomly — a credit score.

Tables in the gym were marked with various real-life expenditures: Housing, Transportation, Food, Clothing.

Wait — food costs money?!

Those were mandatory. Others were optional: Nightlife, Fitness & Gym, Hair/Nails/Spa, Cell Phone, Cable/Internet, Pets, Travel.

By themselves, or — if they wished — with a “roommate,” students visited tables. There were many options. How often would they eat out? Did they want basic cable, or the platinum package? What kind of vacations would they take?

Staples seniors Ben Schwartz and Lefty Pendarakis discuss options with Financial Reality Fair volunteers.

They could choose one-off expenses too, like buying an Xbox. If they wanted to buy a car, fine — but they had to take out a credit union loan. (Hey, they were the sponsors!)

There was also a mandatory “wheel” to spin. It saddled them with unexpected costs (lost cell phone, broken leg) or extra funds (overtime pay, birthday gift).

The wheel of fortune. Or misfortune.

Each choice carried consequences. As the students quickly learned, each consequence led to others.

When they were done with their budget, each teenager met with a volunteer financial counselor. They had undergone training, to ask questions like, “Why did you make that decision?”

The final step: meeting with a financial counselor.

It was a very engaging — and educational — day.

The students were surprised at the effect of student debt on their budgets. They were even more amazed at the impact of credit scores.

“I had to pay more than my friend for the same truck!” one boy said, astonished.

Feedback was excellent. The soon-to-go-off-to-college-and-then-become-adults began seeing finances not as something provided by the Bank of Mom and Dad, but as actual living, changing realities.

It was a reality check for some. A wake-up call for others.

And for one — well, who knows?

“I realize I’m not ready for life,” the student said.

But he or she is a lot more ready than that former soccer player who texted me — panic-stricken — after his first encounter with the IRS.

8 responses to “Financial Reality Comes To Staples

  1. Richard Fogel

    have the very wealthy teach you about taxes. You will pay to none. Only the hard working people of society pay taxes. Lesson 1

    • William Strittmatter

      I’m curious if you really believe that? If so, you might read this study from ITEP (a liberal, but non-partisan, think tank).

      You will note that the top 1% pays a disproportionate share of federal taxes. The all in tax burden, which includes more regressive sales and property taxes at the state and local level, still shows the “rich” paying a disproportionate amount of taxes.

      Since CT has a relatively high and progressive income tax system compared to other states, the rich in CT are probably paying even more than shown.

      One can debate whether taxes are progressive enough and one might debate the use of taxable income as the correct basis for analysis, but you can’t really argue that the “rich” don’t pay any taxes or, in aggregate, pay a lower tax rate than poor people.

  2. Janine Scotti

    This is great! However could they please do it for juniors, or juniors and seniors? They are still in the decision making process about schools and loans etc.

  3. Danielle Jackson

    This is great! Too many young adults choose an educational/ career path with no understanding of the financial implications down the road. This should be in every school in the US and should be started younger than seniors.

  4. Nathalie Fonteyne

    What great program, and very much in need. I agree with Janine that it would be wonderful to start a bit earlier as students are starting to look at colleges. I am aware of the huge time commitment to organize the event and am very grateful to the group who donated their time. Anything is better than nothing.

  5. It sounds like an excellent program. But, just re basic budget concepts (and I hope I don’t seem ignorant): aren’t the vast majority of students at Staples already used to the notion of having significant limits on spending?

    On a related subject: roughly what percentage of Staples students today have summer jobs and/or part-time jobs during the school year where they earn their own money?

  6. Merideth Haas

    My son is a Senior and I volunteered for this activity. I was so impressed with our students and how they prioritized their spending, putting “needs” first. I believe they really internalized what they had been taught and took this “Fair” very seriously. I also think many are taking the Personal Finance course which is an amazing opportunity for kids that age.The worksheet and other supporting materials were so impressive! As a note, the exercise was really aimed more at post-college (note that they had to choose a career, were assigned the salary, and also given student debt) so I think Senior year for this particular program was appropriate. Thank you to all of those at SHS who put this together!

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take everything you have.