DIXON – At just 14 years old, Reagan Middle School eighth-grader Owen Rick is already making adult decisions.
He has to keep a checkbook balanced, pay utilities, and save money for college.
"I don't spend a lot of money on things like a car," Rick said. "I didn't get the most expensive car, and for an apartment, I went for a middle-priced one and not the most expensive one."
Rick has been making these types of decisions through a financial literacy program at the Dixon school.
With the help of Blackhawk Area Credit Union based in Savanna, students in the class have been using Banzai, a financial literacy program.
Students use Banzai to learn personal financial management skills. They receive fictional paychecks, they budget and track their expenses, and they pay bills virtually.
"There are different scenarios, and it teaches students what it will be like when they get out of school and they have to budget their finances," said Diane Conklen, a Reagan teacher who uses Banzai in her class. "This walks the students through the concepts of finance."
Blackhawk Area Credit Union gives 71 schools – between Carroll, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson and Jo Daviess counties – the chance to use Banzai for free.
Students who use the program are exposed to real-life scenarios where they learn to pay bills and balance a budget.
They also have to manage unexpected expenses such as parking tickets, interest charges, and overdraft fees.
The educational program also introduces kids to auto loans and bank statements, among other things.
Salinda Belander, a teacher at West Carroll High School, also uses Banzai.
"It's referred to as a game, but it's really realistic," Belander said. "It tells them how much their car payments will be each month, or it will tell them they have to move because of the job they have."
Students have to put away $2,000 for college while they try to pay rent, food and utilities, among other things.
"If they don't successfully save for college, they lose the game," Conklen said.
Belander and Conklen both say they played the game – and they lost.
"I've been on my own for quite a few years, and I only had $1,300 in my savings account," Belander said with a laugh.
Students also have the opportunity to "buy" vehicles. They are given details about the car and the payments.
"I failed the first time I did this because I bought a very expensive vehicle," said Andrew Thomas, an eighth-grader at Reagan. "I only had $100 for insurance, and the transmission on the car went out."
Thomas was able to start the program over and he has not only bought a less expensive car, he was able to spend more money for insurance.
"I'm making better choices now," he said with a laugh.
Students are given a list of bills each month, and they have to determine how to spend the money.
"They get imaginary jars, but it gives students a visual as to what goes where," Conklen said. "If there is an emergency that comes up, they will have to take money out of their college fund. They need to make good choices in the beginning and throughout."
One thing that is commonly overlooked is insurance.
"Several kids decide not to pick it up," Belander said. "If a student decides not to get flood insurance and a flood happens, it wipes out their savings."
Conklen said the students are not graded for their work at Reagan. About 180 kids in the school use the program.
"I just want them to learn, and I want to give them a taste of real life," Conklen said. "This gives them an opportunity to explore what they will be facing once they graduate from high school or college."
Belander said about 40 students in West Carroll, from freshmen to seniors, participate in the program.
She said seniors seem more interested in the program, since some of them are already holding down a job.
Students at West Carroll are not just using the program for fun.
"I use this as part of a lesson that I teach," Belander said. "Students are actually doing this for a grade."
Rick was among a few students to save $2,000 for college at Reagan. He had to make some sacrifices to do so.
"One question was, Do you want to go out with your friends?" he said. "I declined the offer so I could save money."
Thomas said working with the financial literacy program is the closest thing to the real world.
"It's kind of fun to play," he said, "but it's also a real life game."