Longtime friends Joseph Heller and Robert Thomas recently went through the paces of finding a $1,100 per month Antioch apartment.

The students at Diablo Valley College budgeted for their shared affinity for having a large dog. And their decision to not have a car and to buy less-expensive clothing resulted in their finances being "in the black."

The Pleasant Hill and Pacheco residents, 21 and 20, respectively, were part of a simulated activity designed to hone their cost-saving skills.

"We're looking to manage our finances for our future. You need to prepare for the unexpected," says Thomas.

For more than a dozen years, teachers, parents and community volunteers have been giving high school students at the Floyd I. Marchus School in Concord a leg up, as they set their sights on living a self-sufficient, budget-savvy life.

Built into each independent education plan is an independent living skills component that is unique to each special education student.

Wrapping up a six-week curricular classroom unit covering the myriad factors that students need to consider -- from opting for public transit or buying a car to finding an affordable apartment and a suitable roommate -- On Your Own Day links their education to real life.

Students are allotted $1,400 to spend each month based on a premise that they are employed full time in a minimum wage, entry-level job and cannot go into debt.


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While comparing the cost of clothes, be they used or new, San Ramon resident Karina Biggs soon learned that "you need to be careful with your money."

She wanted to make sure the apartment complex was pet-friendly and her mom, parent volunteer Annette Biggs, noted how she "got her roommate to pay for (the cat)."

While the experience initially caught her off guard, Concord resident Chelsey Lacayo, 18, still came in $250 under budget.

"I learned to spend just so much; just the things you need," she says.

Meanwhile, her faux roommate Samantha Fisk, 17, felt a meld of excitement and nervousness at the prospect of living on her own.

The Walnut Creek sophomore's choices, including finding a cheap apartment, opting for public transit and just a cell phone, yielded a $300 surplus.

At On Your Own Day, the students move from station to station, getting such cost-saving tips as energy-conserving ways to lower the PG&E bill, to figuring out if they can afford a phone, Internet and cable bundle plan.

"This program gives you an idea of what you need to solve the problem (of finances)," Heller says. "You come to know there's help in the real world. There's always public assistance."

And while they learn about proactive ways to stay healthy, they discover that there are non-negotiable expenses with the now mandatory health insurance coverage, and also the need for budgeting for the unexpected.

"They're finding out what they're going to do with, and what they'll do without," says El Sobrante resident Liz Wilson Palmer, one of the former Marchus teachers who came up with the On Your Own idea. "They're getting the idea that they can't spend a dollar more than once."

Over time, the retired transition counselor with the event's sponsoring Contra Costa County Office of Education, has seen how the requisite, albeit subjective, weighing of luxury items versus necessities has morphed, given the impact of the cost of technology on a budget.

"Cell phones and computers are moving into the needs category," says Wilson Palmer.

She said there is the need for practical applications, such as these essential life skills, to be infused into the academic curriculum.

Wilson Palmer added that the On Your Own experience also offered a social component as students needed to learn how to cohabitate well in order to afford an apartment.

Heller and Thomas lightheartedly refer to their friendship as being a "love-hate friend relationship," with Thomas offering occasionally annoying reminders.

"Do you want to pay rent or play video games on the street?" he facetiously poses to his friend.

"We get on each other's nerves and then quickly get over it," he adds.