Chamber's 'Reality Fair' provides a helpful glimpse at financial futures

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 5/29/24

Each student got 45 minutes to choose a career and work out what expenses they could afford, putting into perspective questions about the cost of living, which has become an issue at the center of society.

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Chamber's 'Reality Fair' provides a helpful glimpse at financial futures


A student looked dejected as he made his way over to the table where representatives from the Bristol Police Department sat waiting. He had just gotten a DUI, and was about to learn what exactly that meant for him in light of his immediate and long-term future.

Thankfully, it was just an educational exercise, and resulted from a bout of bad luck spinning a bonus wheel of possible outcomes after completing the inaugural “Reality Fair” exercise set up in the Mt. Hope gymnasium last Tuesday afternoon.

The imaginative event was set up by the East Bay Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with over 30 volunteers from their members and the guidance departments at Mt. Hope High School and Highlander Charter School.

Around 250 total juniors from the two schools were tasked with choosing a career path, which came with a gross and post-tax salary estimate for an entry level job in that field. Armed with this knowledge, they traversed around the Mt. Hope gym to 18 different tables that each contained an item they would be responsible for paying for as they began their journeys into adulthood. Everything from housing and utilities, purchasing a car and the requisite insurance, and money required for “extras”, like eating out and entertainment, were represented.

“This is an education that I think is so critical at the junior level,” said Don Saracen, owner of Saracen Sales & Marketing, who brought the concept to the Chamber’s education committee after visiting a similar program in Needham, Mass. “Now they’re going into their senior year thinking about do they want to go to college or do I want to get training in a technical program or whatever it may be.”

Each student got 45 minutes to work out what expenses they could afford, forcing them to prioritize necessities over luxuries, and putting into perspective how far their dream job’s initial salary would actually take them in a world where the cost of living has become an issue at the very center of society.

The students appeared to be engaged in the process once they got the hang of it. Of course, the bonus wheel (with a chance to win t-shirts, gift cards, and other goodies) certainly didn’t hurt.

“Most of them have already taken our financial literacy course, so they had already started to dive into this a little bit, but we were hoping that by bringing them here it became a little more real about the cost of living and what it takes to actually survive in this world,” said Helena Johns, a guidance counselor from Highlander Charter School. “The hope is when we get back, they can go through the list, add everything up and realize this is what it takes to live. ‘Oh, I can’t have all these luxuries’, and ‘This is what I need to live.’”

Hearkening back to the example in the introduction of this story, some students were also subjected to pitfalls, such as getting a ticket or a DUI, and would then be told about the consequences of those happenings by police volunteers standing by.

Student perspective
Two Mt. Hope students who participated in the exercise found it to be illuminating, but also said it was a topic they were already thinking about pretty regularly.

"Yeah I do [think about it] because college is right around the corner and my parents encourage me to think about this stuff a lot, and my friends and I talk about it all the time,” said Eliza White. “I’m worried about it but I’m more worried about the college stuff first. I don’t know if I have time to worry about this stuff yet.”

White said that when the time came to choose between her two possible careers for which she has the most passion for — law, or journalism — she wound up running the exercise on an entry level legal salary. (Editor’s note: This author, who completed the print journalism program at Suffolk University — an institution perhaps slightly more well known for its law school — will neither confirm nor deny that was a wise decision).

White’s friend, Lucy O’Brien, also got an advantageous starting salary after choosing “physicist” as her dream career. She had her doubts that the estimated near-six-figure starting salary would actually be realized, but still found the exercise overall to be useful in terms of thinking about the expenses that might be taken for granted while young and under the care of your parents.

"We’re both driving now, so you’re paying for gas suddenly and car insurance,” she said. “I am hearing a lot from my parents that things are now so much more expensive.”

“I didn’t even consider coffee to be a concern,” added White.

When asked if making the most money was their top priority when choosing a career, both students indicated it was more complicated than just chasing a big salary.

“Everyone wants money but I want to feel fulfilled and comfortable with my life, and I also want a family,” said White. “So I’m trying to find a job that toes the line and allows me to support a family, but also makes me feel good about myself and my life and not miserable when I go into work.”

"It’s tough for me because I know how much things cost, now especially after this, so I want a job that helps me feel comfortable, but I also want to do something that is meaningful,” O’Brien said. “So how do I balance finding a job with a good salary while doing something I’m passionate about? I feel like there’s no perfect answer for that.”

Switching back to the exercise, White and O’Brien agreed it made sense for them to live together to split housing costs, and to live in the city so they can utilize public transportation and not require an environmentally unfriendly car. But those savings might be compromised by their shared desire to eat organic foods. Of course, there’s always other ways to save, too.

“We’ll brew our own coffee,” O’Brien said with a smile.

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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email