New London — Seniors at New London High School had three hours Thursday to find a place to live, buy a car and pay for clothing, auto and renter's insurance, utility bills, food, furniture and more.
At the Credit for Life financial literacy fair, sponsored by seven local banking institutions, Bob's Discount Furniture and Sava Insurance Group, 150 students were 25 years old for a day with careers, salaries and credit scores.
In advance of the fair, students were able to choose from more than 90 occupations — including clergy, fitness instructor, real estate agent and translator.
The 14 booths at the fair exposed the students for the first time to the discipline of not only maintaining a budget, but also remaining out of debt.
Senior Johanilett Batista chose to be a veterinarian with a salary of $65,349 and a 650 credit score. Her friends, Cintya Urena and Brian Martinez, were nurses with salaries of $54,366 and credit scores of 600.
As a veterinarian, after state and federal taxes, Social Security, health insurance and student loans, Batista's monthly take-home pay was $3,112.
As nurses, and after the same deductions, Urena and Martinez each brought home $2,525 a month.
"Our goal is to plant a seed of financial education and to take away a part of financial choice," said Calvin Price, vice president of community development at Liberty Bank. "It's about students learning to balance their budgets and live within their means."
In real life, Batista, Urena and Martinez plan to move in together after graduation and already have begun the hunt for an apartment in Norwich. So their participation in Thursday's credit fair was a dose of soon-to-come, real-world experience.
Urena plans to secure a nursing job as soon as she finishes her certification, while Batista and Martinez plan to attend Three Rivers Community College.
At the fair, after finding a $1,200 three-bedroom apartment and agreeing to split the rent, the trio moved to the food and nutrition booth, where Batista argued for the cheapest grocery plan, saying the group should shun brand-name food and not go out to eat to save money. The cheapest grocery option was $175, and that meant savvy shopping, eating before shopping and a diet of macaroni and cheese, tuna and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Shortly after the group set off to buy furniture, they experienced their first reality check — an unexpected but necessary expense.
"Attention! Attention!" a voice boomed over the loudspeaker. "If you purchased the 2006 Solara, deduct $200 from your savings account or use your credit card because you now need to repair a muffler."
A collective low groan filled the room. For some, this meant a major rebudgeting. It sent others to the lending booth.
While the group opted to purchase and share a used 2004 Chrysler Sebring for $7,109, and to chip in on gas, they were spared the muffler expense. But each had their own unexpected reality check: Urena dropped her cellphone in a toilet at a night club, which cost her $150 for a replacement; a broken pipe in the apartment above Batista's leaked through the ceiling and doused her mattress, so she had to shell out $300 for a new one; and Martinez was caught texting and driving, which resulted in a $160 ticket from the police.
"I took the personal-finance class but it was nothing like this," Batista said, checking her math and tallying her monthly expenses. "I didn't know it was going to be this hard. Getting all the numbers and deducting everything has been confusing."
The group debated adopting a dog but instead agreed that Martinez would bring his dog to their new apartment, so all they needed to pay for was food and veterinary expenses. In saving money on the adoption fee, Batista was able to donate $5 a month to United Way.
"This is definitely helping me learn how to spend money. I've never had a large budget like this," Martinez said, admitting that he felt a bit intimidated and challenged.
At the end of the three hours, a final credit check was needed. As the three friends calculated, budgeted, saved and adjusted, they managed to make it through the activity debt free. All three finished with more than $1,000 each.
Urena figured that money was for having some fun.
"I'll put at least $500 in savings now," she said. "But I'm definitely going to the club."