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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Financial reality sets in for Butler eighth graders

Jun 29, 2023 02:41PM ● By Julie Slama

At Butler Middle’s Reality Town, students were engaged in learning how to balance their budget and make wise financial decisions. (Eileen Kasteler/Brighton High)

It was a taste of reality for a day for about 300 Butler Middle eighth graders.

Some students dressed professionally, matching their assigned professions—doctors, dancers, auto mechanics, archeologists, tattoo artists, servers, college administrators. Additionally, some got a salary boost if they were studying a second language or bilingual and if they created a resume.

All were expected to purchase housing for themselves and their assigned families as well as provide transportation and food.

Many wanted a family pet, but that wasn’t a requirement in Reality Town, where the students learned the importance of planning and budgeting, said Eileen Kasteler, work-based learning facilitator.

“A lot of the students discovered what they wanted, they didn’t have enough money for and had to get a second job, cut back on their spending, or they had to make choices,” she said. “They learned a sports car doesn’t work for a family of seven. Some ended up getting a house together or they used public transportation, so they’d have money to pay for child care. They learned to problem-solve to stretch their salaries.”

About 50 volunteers staffed tables labeled with housing, groceries, entertainment, property tax, kids’ corner. They helped students understand how to balance their budget, explain the difference of a debit versus credit card, and review their spending.

“Students learned quickly that they didn’t want a $25 overdraft on a $5 hamburger. They learned if they didn’t have money, they shouldn’t buy it,” she said.

Before the experience at Reality Town, eighth graders received some training.

“We explained that it was an opportunity to be an adult for a day and although it’s fun, they also needed to be prepared and make wise choices. Those who didn’t, learned financial consequences—and no, they couldn’t give their kids up for adoption to avoid paying for childcare or so they could go on a luxurious vacation,” Kasteler said.

While the careers and salaries were based on the students’ GPAs, their families were randomly assigned by the Utah-based Reality Town company.

“Some had a working spouse, some were single parents; they had to work with what they had, but all had children. That led to the realization of their expense—do I put them in a club sport or dance or a community option? Can I afford a personal trainer, or can I go to the community gym? They learned they have choices, but they had to live within their budget,” she said. 

There were a handful of Brighton High students who returned to help staff a booth, lending advice from their Reality Town days. 

“It’s a rite of passage,” Kasteler said. “Their siblings have did Reality Town and they can’t wait for their turn; often during the day, they turn to these students for advice from their experiences.”

Cyprus Credit Union volunteers also shared some money-saving tips as well as told them the importance of savings and emergency savings accounts.

“Many students realized the importance of their education and training and made the connection that it often will lead them to a better-paying job and one with benefits, so they don’t have to pay additionally for those,” she said. “It really opened their eyes. What we hope is that they review their Reality Town choices with their parents and learn maybe what they could do differently.”

Canyons School District Career and Technical Education Coordinator Patti Larkin said that students learn the importance of being financially secure.

“Even though they may really want to donate $400, they learned they can’t if they don’t have it,” she said. “They discovered they can’t buy a lot of pets if they hadn’t bought groceries yet. We’re hoping they get a taste of being able to plan to pay their monthly expenses without running out of money and at the same time, think about having funds in hand for emergencies and even look ahead to their future.” λ