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Pint-sized personal finance

The day after taxes were due, Ryan Collom was staring at his checking account, which was woefully in the red by $231.

"What does that mean?" asked Ryan, 13, a student at Scenic Middle School in Central Point who spent Tuesday visiting a pretend bank, grocery store and other businesses in an exhibit called JA Finance Park.

"You're over your budget," said Holly Natho of Southern Oregon Credit Services who was a volunteer money-management coach for the educational exercise. She told him that he would have to cut back on his spending to get back in the black.

Ryan shrugged, scrolled through his household expenses on an iPad and decided that perhaps he couldn't afford a sports car any longer. He switched to a less expensive truck and his checking account balance instantly bounced into positive territory by $20. Fortunately, his Harley-Davidson stock was doing well.

Ryan was one of 130 schoolchildren spending Tuesday inside the Padgham Pavilion at The Expo learning about the high cost of housing, health care and raising children. Each student was given a profession, income and family size.

"My kids are killing me," said Jason Grous, 14, after he had to allocate $1,000 a month for childcare as part of the fictional adult role he was assigned. "I'm living in the cheapest house and driving the cheapest car and I still can't afford clothes."

The visit to the exhibit was organized by Junior Achievement of Oregon and SW Washington, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids about work readiness, entrepreneurship and personal finance.

The traveling exhibit — designed to help middle- and high-school students meet core financial literacy standards — is in Central Point through today before heading to Bend.

Students from Ruch Elementary School will conduct business at the 16 stations today and perhaps learn, through hard choices, how to prioritize expenses for home improvement, cable and groceries.

Across the state, schoolchildren are getting lessons in finance as part of new standards for social sciences. Kindergartners practice using money and high school students are learning to prepare tax forms.

John Hancock, president of Junior Achievement of Oregon and SW Washington, was at JA Finance Park, watching the children navigate among the information centers.

"On the surface, it seems that this is an exercise in making a budget," he said. "But it's really about creating a better life and the value of living within your means."

Teens surveyed by JA USA said the recession has motivated them to learn more about managing money, yet personal finance still is not discussed in most homes.

"The subject of financial literacy today is like the 'birds and the bees' used to be," Hancock said. "Parents across economic levels don't want to have that conversation."

This can result in poor decisions made early in life that can lead to a lifetime of debt and financial burden, according to the organization.

Scenic Middle School teacher Becky Burkhart said it was "intense" working through the 100-page workbook to prepare her students for the simulated environment.

There were discussions about realistic budgets, savings and the difference between needs and wants.

"They know that food is a necessity, but they included fast food and eating out as a need, too," she said. "It took a lot of time with calculators for them to see the difference."

They also used math skills to analyze income and investment decisions. At the exhibit, kids gathered around a stock market screen to check share prices for the Walt Disney Co. and Hershey Co. in the morning and later in the afternoon.

At the end of the four-hour-long exercise, Emily Lewis, 14, had $2,295 in her checking account after paying for her one-bedroom bungalow and other expenses while also saving for retirement.

In her pretend situation, she was a single, well-paid mechanical engineer who didn't have children. "I guess I'm too busy to get married," explained Emily.

Spending the day making wise choices — she bought her shoes at a discount store — helped her understand what her dad means when he mentions the family budget.

Her newfound skills also will help in the future.

"When I'm older, I will feel secure knowing that I will control my money," she said. "I won't do something crazy."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com

McKinsey Scarf, left, and Emily Lewis learn how to manage finances in the Junior Achievement Finance Park held Tuesday at The Expo in Central Point. - Julia Moore