“Life is hard,” a Western Dubuque High School student was overheard saying after participating in the Real Life Academy, Jan. 18, in Epworth.

The annual event, sponsored by the Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce, gave students the opportunity to take a look at many of the challenges faced by everyday families.

“At first I was not really thrilled to do this. But as we did it, it was interesting to see how much things cost, how some things seem to be priced so high and some things I thought would cost a lot of money were quite low,” said senior Brady Horsfall. “Life insurance for me and my spouse was only $40-some, but at the child care table it was $800 for only two kids.”

Chamber Executive Director Karla Thompson explained the importance of the event.

“This is our 15th year. Real Life Academy is an event where the kids can actually practice real life. This is an opportunity to experience that,” Thompson said. “They have a job, an income, they have a family and they’re going to pay bills, just like their parents do. Sometimes there are unexpected expenses that come up, like a speeding ticket, you break your arm, or the Girl Scouts show up at the door.”

Participants get a peek at the volume of everyday expenses faced by families.

“We have 23 tables of volunteers and it’s anything you would pay a bill for in a month,” Thompson said. “We have bankers where you would pay a loan back, we have utilities you have to pay for, daycare, groceries, a convenience store. It’s anything you have to pay for.”

Western Dubuque Instructional Strategist Matt Manning assisted students preparing to tour the gym and experience a small taste of the world that awaits.

“My role is to assist students in realizing the importance of Real Life Academy,” said Manning. “I help them make connections as to how this correlates to their future lives and the importance of their families when they are growing up.”

Students got a peek at the importance of budgeting and learned one often must deal with the consequences of their actions. Any unanticipated expense can throw a household budget into a difficult situation, and a visit to the “Fate” table often led to unpleasant results.

“I’m learning how to budget and what’s more important in life. I learned how to manage my money a lot better. I would have probably splurged on some things,” said senior Danielle Ploessl. “When you have an unexpected fee and you have to pay it even when you don’t want to, it hurts. Apparently, I colored my hair by myself and had to go to a stylist to fix it. But I’d never do that in real life.”

Thompson looks at each student’s chosen occupation and estimates a monthly salary. From there, it’s up to the student to handle the money.

“The student tells us what they want to do for a career and if they want a cat, a dog, or no pet at all. I give them a marital status, zero to three kids and a credit score. We research how much that career would make and break it down into a monthly income,” Thompson said. “Sometimes their spouse has a job and we take taxes out. What they have at the end is how much they have to pay bills with.”

A major takeaway for many students was to build a solid credit rating.

“I was just shocked at how much some things cost. Your insurance goes up if your credit score is bad and your driving record is bad,” said Horsfall. “I was assigned a bad credit score and that caused rates for everything to skyrocket. Credit score is very important and you need to stay on top of it.

“Your credit score certainly affects your insurance, especially your car insurance.”