Gina Brandon surveyed her expenses and realized she was nearly broke.
"I'm almost bankrupt," sighed Brandon as she went over her budget, trying to figure out where she had gone wrong. She realized she had spent too much on her car, a Cadillac Escalade, and way too much on designer clothes from Sergio Rossi.
Brandon, 15, was among more than 100 students at Alexandria's Minnie Howard School who participated in the Reality Store program last week.
Sponsored by the Alexandria Business and Professional Women organization, the program introduces students to real life -- teaching them about budget and finance and how things such as career choices and spending habits affect their lives. During the workshop, students chose a career and then figured out how to live off their income.
The program was started eight years ago, said Barbara Strother, the event's coordinator.
"We wanted to help young people early in life with the choices that they will have to make in their lives," Strother said, "choices like whether they go to college, whether they will have kids or not . . . this will affect the rest of their lives."
There were computer programmers, doctors, nurses, graphic artists, athletes and musicians. Brandon, a freshman, decided that she would become a boxer. Tough choice. She knew she likely would only make a few thousand dollars a year. By the time she paid for rent, clothes and a car, there wasn't enough money to go around.
The students, who had to imagine what they would be doing when they are 28 years old, spent an hour going from table to table, where counselors helped them determine a profession, income, taxes they would pay, day care and housing costs, savings and other life-maintenance expenses, such as insurance and medical bills.
For many of the students, who fill out the line items in a booklet with input from the counselors, the reality of what their parents go through daily hit them for the first time.
"They don't think of themselves as being an expense to their parents," said Lee Perkins, one of the counselors. "But they soon find out."
Freshman Sonia Otero agreed, saying the exercise helped her realize why her parents always seemed to be stressed during tax season.
"It opened my eyes to the real world," said Otero, 14. "I see my parents with taxes. I didn't realize that they pay so much."
Sophomore Randi Anthony chose to be a pediatrician, which provided her a higher salary, but she also chose to have four children. She fell behind in her budget when she saw how much she would have to pay for child care.
Strother asked Anthony, 15, if she really wanted to have four children by the time she was 28 and working as a physician.
"You might want to rethink when you start having your family," Strother advised.
Sophomore Michael Banks, 15, who chose to be a professional basketball player, easily stayed within his budget by keeping his financial obligations low. "I don't have a child, I didn't get married, I have a used car and I rent my house," he said. Counselor Christine Morris said that in the previous years, many students had unrealistic expectations of becoming professional athletes or superstar rappers. But this year, more seemed realistic about their futures.
Take freshman Jeremy Molizone, 14. He chose to be a graphic artist; his wife, a nurse. He would have two kids, an apartment and one car.
"I think I'll make it," he said of his proposed budget.
Morris said students really do learn about the realities of life with the exercise. She recalled a previous student who had attended the workshop and settled for a job as a clerk at McDonald's.
When the student saw how little money he would make and that it wouldn't cover the kind of lifestyle he wanted, he told Morris, "You can't have a big life with a small job."