ANTIOCH -- A $2,000 laptop computer purchased on a credit card with a 24 percent interest rate will take 11 years to pay off at the monthly minimum -- and will cost a whopping $3,800 by the time all is said and done.
That was one of the stark financial lessons Travis Credit Union and nearly two dozen volunteers brought to the teenage participants at Tuesday's Mad City Money financial literacy boot camp in Antioch.
The 50 teens gathered at Paradise Skate Roller Park were the first in Contra Costa County to go through the credit union's program, which has been wildly successful in Solano County since 2009, according to Travis' director of corporate relations, Sherry Cordonnier.
Part classroom lesson and part interactive role play, Mad City Money first teaches the teens the basics of managing their money -- writing checks, balancing a budget, prioritizing expenses and managing debt.
Then it's on to the shopping session, where the teens visit eight "stores" armed with imaginary income profiles, checkbooks and debit cards. There, the volunteers act as merchants, giving them the hard sell on leisure activities, food, clothes and big-ticket items like cars.
Cordonnier said the role-play part of the event is the perfect venue for missteps -- as opposed to the real world, where a $2 cup of coffee purchased on a debit card can turn into a $35 beverage once overdraft fees kick in.
"We welcome mistakes so we can correct them here," Cordonnier said. "We know it's not taught in schools."
Damian Alarcon, the credit union's financial education officer for Contra Costa County, compared financial literacy to any skill, such as sports or math, that takes time to get right.
"You have to practice, start early and do it often," Alarcon said, adding that some teens even take their new knowledge home and teach their parents the financial skills they've never learned.
Alarcon said this sort of outreach is what credit union members expect of their institution and that providing financial education ultimately strengthens communities. For example, he said, finances are among the top reasons that students drop out of college, and helping them navigate loans, budgets and tuition can help avoid that outcome. Many Mad City Money participants even go home and teach their parents financial skills they had never learned, Alarcon added.
Volunteer John Strickland, who works for Bay Alarm, was helping run the "fun stuff" booth, where activities the teens could choose from ran from going for a hike (free) to baseball tickets ($65 per person) or even a trip to Hawaii ($1,000 per person).
He said it's never too early to start kids thinking about what life will be like once they're on their own, managing their own finances.
"It's reality, really," Strickland said. "This will help the wheels start turning in their heads."
Among the teens who appeared to take the lesson to heart was 18-year-old Precious Madison, a senior at Antioch's Bidwell Continuation High School.
"It's nice to get your life started ahead of time so you have a plan for what to do," Madison said, adding that the most interesting parts of the lesson had been the ins and outs of check writing -- and the shocking example of what paying interest really means.
Later, as she "shopped" for household items, Madison was careful to choose only the things she thought she needed, rather than what she might have wanted had her budget been unlimited.
In this case, it was a couch and some towels. But she passed on the blender; smoothies are a want, not a need.