Collyn Camara is in a tough spot: He’s $1,600 in the hole every month after paying for car insurance, housing and food for his family of four, despite working full time.

Child support eats up half of Becky Mairura’s $10,000-a-month income, something she didn’t expect, she said.

“Oh, my God,” Mairura said. “I’m slowly going broke — this sucks.”

Luckily for them, the two are high school freshmen and their money woes are imaginary. They were among 400 Apple Valley High School students who participated in a Reality Fair last month with their civics class. The idea was to simulate the real-world challenges of managing money while playing an assigned role with an occupation, income and family.

Students visited 12 volunteer-staffed stations to buy clothing, cars, day care and insurance, all while keeping their income in mind.

“This gives students an opportunity to get a glimpse of some real-life scenarios that we as teachers aren’t able to provide very often,” said Evan Brewer, who teaches ninth-grade civics at Apple Valley High School.

The event was organized by Wings Financial Credit Union. Burnsville-Eagan-Savage students attended a fair earlier in the month.

“Our mission as a cooperative is really to help consumers make smart financial decisions,” said Frank Weid-ner, CEO of Wings Financial. “We see every day the impacts of the decisions younger folks are making and what that means to them, for better or worse.”

The fairs are the first of their kind in Minnesota, said Trysh Olson, manager of education and youth programs for Wings Financial.

A ‘pretty dreadful’ reality

Wings Financial sponsors classes for adults and youth to learn about personal finance, reaching about 5,000 people annually, said Weidner. Topics include planning for retirement and buying a home.

Schools also provide some financial education, said Brewer, including an assignment in which they receive an imaginary $100,000 and can invest in the stock market or save it. They track their progress over time.

Keeping activities realistic and interactive is key, Brewer said.

“If [financial education] can be done in real-world ways like this, I think it’s extremely important,” he said.

Brewer saw students becoming frustrated when they couldn’t make ends meet, he said. He hopes the experience motivates them to continue their education.

Student Mady Winters said the fair made her “realize how expensive everything is and not to take money for granted.”

Teachers and administrators have given positive feedback about the two fairs held so far, said John Wagner, senior vice president of Wings Financial.

Each station was run by volunteers, many who actually work in the field they’re pretending to represent.

“The idea of the whole reality fair is pretty awesome,” said Jacklyn Rassmussen, an administrative assistant at New Horizon Academy day-care center and a fair volunteer. “More schools should offer this kind of thing.”

Students received a pre-assigned number of children but had to roll the dice to find out their ages, Rassmussen said, which determines the cost of day care. They must also choose between in-home day care and a day-care center.

Fatuma Muse, who had to pay $2,000 in child support and fork over $30 when she got sick, described her experience as “pretty dreadful.”

But financial education is useful, she said. “So when I get out of college, I’ll know how to do my taxes instead of [just] dissect a frog.”