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Senior Chris Lahey, 18, of Concord tries to balance his budget as a veterinary assistant with a wife who is a mail carrier during Bite of Reality, a finance learning program at Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. The program - offered by the Richard Myles Johnson Foundation, the state foundation for credit unions in California and Nevada-is designed to teach young people the basics of finance in a fun, interactive way. Students were given fictional occupation, salary, spouse and family, student loan debt, credit card debt, and medical insurance payments. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- Reality bites.

Especially when you are a forest ranger married to a nurse with a 3-year-old still in diapers and you have to pay your mom $300 per month to take care of your kid, who you think should be toilet-trained by now. And you have credit card debt and the house and car payments are eating up your combined $4,422 family income. Plus, there's that Hawaiian vacation you were hoping would make up for your having missed out on a honeymoon while your husband was in nursing school.

Approximately 90 students at Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord were given a "Bite of Reality" during a personal finance workshop recently.

Bouncing like pinballs between stations arranged in the school's gym, students participated in a simulation presented by the Richard Myles Johnson Foundation, an offshoot of the credit unions in California and Nevada.

"Our mission is youth financial education," said RMJ Foundation executive director Tena Lozano. "Each student gets a portfolio with an identity, salary, family and financial obligations. We've done 13 programs this year. We provide the materials and local credit unions volunteer to staff the tables."

Seven local credit unions from Concord, Clayton, Walnut Creek and Antioch assigned their staff members roles as aggressive salespeople -- pushing plush housing, new cars and big-ticket vacations against the reality of rent, insurance, debt, food, utilities, household goods and child care.

The assignment from CVCHS personal finance teacher Gary Stofer was to balance the books.

"It's reality. These kids don't have that in school," Stofer said. "They're the math-haters. But they're turning out to like it. It's the first math they've had that they feel they can use."

Stofer said math is a way of developing the mind: if this is true, then that is true. Unlike geometry -- the other course he teaches -- controlling finances is a skill they'll need regardless of the career path they choose.

Lozano said the workshops are terrific fun, partly because it's hard for credit union people to play the antihero (trying to get people to buy expensive items), but mostly because kids learn.

"Child care is the worst," said 17-year-old Amy Harris. "And you can't have your kid running around naked: I asked."

Mackenzie Bell, the 16-year-old junior with dreams of Hawaii clouded by unexpected car repairs, intends to be a forensic investigator in real life. "I'm going to manage my money. I'll be away from home working a lot so my kids will need child care."

Eric Burkley, 16, makes $2,151 per month as an agricultural scientist. He's met his household obligations, but is headed to the credit union station for a loan to pay off his Chevy.

"This is putting you in the perspective of an adult. This is stuff I'm actually going to apply in life. In general, what I learn in school is 20 percent something I'll use. For this class, it's 100 percent."

Jasmine Partida, 17, said $7,851 in credit card debt is taking a "big, big bite" out of her lawyer's salary. "It was probably clothes, knowing me," she said, mixing simulation with reality. "This will help me be careful and gives me a better picture of what life's going to be like."

Clayton Smith, an 18-year-old senior with plans to become a mechanical engineer, was one of the few students who knew the difference between a credit union and a bank.

"I'm already a member of one, because my parents belong to one," he said. "I think they give better rates."

Banks are owned by stockholders and are in the business of making money for stockholders, Lozano explained. A credit union is held by members and is in the business to help their members.

"At a bank, you're a customer. Their goal is to make as much money off of you as they can. They want to charge as much as they can and pay you as little as possible," she said.

So why don't more people join credit unions?

"That's the million dollar question," Lozano said. "The deposits are insured by the Nation Credit Union Share Insurance Fund; same coverage as the FDIC. Not every person can join every credit union, but every person can find a credit union they can join."

As the workshop concluded, the line leading up to the credit union desk grew, snaking across the gym. Volunteers said students who earlier chose top-of-the-line items were returning, saying, "I'll take secondhand," or "Maybe we'll do Hawaii next year."

Even so, there were a few dreamers in the crowd.

"I'm married to a minister and I've decided we're Amish, so he can ride a horse and we save the expense of a car," Harris said. "I'll talk to the credit union about a loan to feed the horse. But I'm a paralegal, so it's not working out for me -- I need to use a computer and pay for electricity."

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