Zach Panek

Zach Panek webLast year, Mahtomedi Middle School eighth-grader Zach Panek had the highly unusual—and eye-opening—experience of being married and raising two children, all while juggling a demanding family budget as an underpaid social worker.

Of course Zach, a blue-eyed, blondish-haired 14-year-old with a football player’s husky build, wasn’t experiencing this in real life. Instead, he was a participant in the specially designed “virtual reality” financial literacy program for middle-school students known as JA Finance Park.

The JA Finance Park program is a computer-based simulation that allows students to experience the reality of managing a family budget and allocating scarce resources among competing demands. Zach participated in the program as part of a “Skills for Life” class offered through the Mahtomedi school system.

“Skills for Life was a class where we learned things like how to cook, sew, how to buy and handle items related to a home and stuff like that,” says Zach. “It gave us a chance to do all these things that relate to the world around us and taught us how to live in the world around us.”

As part of that class, Zach also had the opportunity to put theory into practice by participating in JA Finance Park.

“[The simulation] gives you a background and then you apply that background to your ‘virtual’ life,” he explains. “Your background is assigned with things like, ‘You have this job, you’re married, you have this many kids, you make this much money.’ I was married with two little girls and that was hard. It blew me away.”

As part of the simulation, the “town” in JA Finance Park contains various local amenities such as grocery stores and other businesses that students can patronize to fill various needs for their family.

“We’d go to the computer lab, log in and receive assignments such as marketing for our home,” says Zach about the simulation. “You’d go into different parts of your little town and you had to meet the budget for every part of that. For instance, you’d need to buy clothing so you would go to a clothing store, and you had a budget you had to stay under. You have to buy items for everyone in your family and it was hard,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “I learned that you have to be prepared in the real world and that you always have to be ready for the unexpected. Things would come up like, ‘Your daughter is a flower girl in a wedding and you have to buy her a dress.’ It was a pretty fun experience but you have to balance your choices.”

The concept behind JA Finance Park is to give students a chance to experience the reality of managing a budget, a home and a family, oftentimes with resources that won’t stretch far enough to meet every ‘want’ the family might have.

Instead, students soon realize that discriminating between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ becomes a necessity. For instance, discretionary items in the budget—such as spending on entertainment or restaurant meals—often must be trimmed in favor of more immediate needs such as school costs or housing.

And although the financial literacy lessons contained in the simulation are practical, Zach said he and his friends found the experience to be both fun and entertaining. Part of the rules of the game allow students to win points for handling their budgets well and making good financial decisions, turning the process into a friendly competition in the classroom.

In fact, Zach first heard about the simulation from his brother Josh, who’s a grade ahead of him in school and who had played the game a year before. In turn, Zach said he’s told his younger sister, Sydney, 11, about how much fun he had with the game.

This fall, Zach will be transferring to Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul for his freshman year. For the immediate future, Zach’s plans include working out in football camp throughout the summer—he hopes to play sports at Cretin-Derham—and continuing his favorite activities of exercising, playing lacrosse, hanging out with friends and four-wheeling. And Zach says that another passion—reading—has become very important to him as well, even though that wasn’t always the case.

“I really like to read now, but that wasn’t always easy for me,” he admits. “I had trouble sitting still, but my parents used to sit me down and say, ‘You have to read for this long.’ I’d fight them on it but now I love it. My Mom [Nichole] was an English teacher, so she really pounded that one home,” he says, gesturing across a table toward her while his Mom shakes her head and smiles.

After he finishes high school, Zach is determined to follow that up with college, perhaps to be either a doctor, like his father, T.J., an orthopedic surgeon, or a lawyer.

Whatever academic course his life eventually follows, Zach says he’ll remember the lessons he learned as part of JA Finance Park.

“My budget wasn’t very high and I had to spread that around throughout the family. I was a social worker and my wife didn’t work outside of the home so it was tough to meet my budget. The game taught me to take every moment you can, analyze it and then do everything you can to do the best that you can at that time.”