STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's a sign of the times: A growing number of states require some sort of education in financial literacy in junior high school or high school. There's evidence that young people take financial literacy more seriously if it's presented in realistic terms. So many school systems are creating a kind of virtual visit to the world of credit cards and home loans and cable bills.
As part of our series on financial literacy, NPR's Larry Abramson paid a visit to Finance Park in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Unidentified Woman #1: Your minimum monthly payment is 861. The maximum you can pay is 1148.
Unidentified Woman #2: So can I get this one?
LARRY ABRAMSON: Fairfax County in the Washington, D.C. suburbs has plenty of shopping malls, but Finance Park is the only one exclusively for tweenagers. Every eighth grader in this large suburban school system must show up at this mock-up of the real world, spend money, and act like an adult for a day.
Ms. JACQUE WEIR (Student): I'm a single mom with an eight-year-old.
ABRAMSON: That's the identity that student Jacque Weir ended up. It's not her choice, just luck of the draw. She's earning good money - 82K - but she still has to walk around to the furniture store, the supermarket, and she has to get a home loan from the bank. She must do all that and more without going over budget before she checks out of Finance Park in the afternoon. That won't be easy, since all these students are obsessed with one thing.
Ms. WEIR: I'm buying a really expensive car. I have to pay almost $2,000 for it each month.
ABRAMSON: The need to save money is drummed into students at every turn but that doesn't stop the fantasies. In fact, the brush with adulthood just seems to whet their appetites.
Unidentified Man: I wish I could buy a Lamborghini.
ABRAMSON: Well, you can't, because if you don't keep your budget in the black, you'll be sent back to go, and you won't get 200 dollars.
Unidentified Woman #3: Triple play is the phone, Internet and TV.
Unidentified Woman #4: Oh, these all are. These both are.
Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, OK.
ABRAMSON: Volunteers try to help students sort through the same TV, phone and Internet bundles that drive average adults insane. The Verizon store looks like the real thing, thanks to the self-interested generosity of the corporate sponsors who teamed up with Junior Achievement - that's the non-profit group that helps educate young people about the world of business.
If that makes this place seem like a product placement laboratory, that's part of the idea, for Kristen Charnock, who teaches physics at Washington Irving Junior High.
Ms. KRISTEN CHARNOCK (Teacher): I think it brings some reality to it. I think it makes it more realistic to them. Some of the names they'll recognize and some they won't. But it's nice that they've designed the storefronts to make it look authentic.
ABRAMSON: And as grownups know, budgeting is not just a math exercise. David van Vleet of the Fairfax County Schools says the point is to teach good decision-making.
Mr. DAVID VAN VLEET (Fairfax County Schools): These concepts are taught in civics classes. We teach taxes in mathematics courses. So they have these concepts that they're learning in school but they need to see the practicality of those.
ABRAMSON: Many of these students say they had no idea about how tough it is for their parents to keep their suburban lifestyles on track.
Student Lauren Katington says when finances come up at her house...
Ms. LAUREN KATINGTON (Student): They tell me to go out of the room.
ABRAMSON: So they don't tell you how much they make?
Ms. KATINGTON: No.
ABRAMSON: If it gets bad, do you think they should tell you?
Ms. KATINGTON: Not really, 'cause then I feel bad for, like, asking for things.
ABRAMSON: Which raises an important point: If this stuff is so important, maybe parents need to share more and discuss these things at home.
Most kids told me they had fun in Finance Park, although much of the experience stresses how un-fun it is to be an adult - how you can be earning good money and still be broke.
Unidentified Woman #5: At this time, (unintelligible), you need to throw everything away and exit the Burger King storefront.
ABRAMSON: Of course, Finance Park is not reality. Students are cut a lot of slack here. They only have to choose between baskets of food, not between hundreds of items with confusing food nutrition labels. They do not face the credit card hucksters and the used car dealers who will prey on them later in life. Here, if they enter the checkout line and find out that they screwed up their budget...
Unidentified Woman #6: Oh, we forgot insurance. You can't drive your car with the insurance.
Unidentified Female: Do I have to go back?
Unidentified Woman #6: No, I'll be right here.
Unidentified Female: Oh.
Unidentified Woman #6: I have the power.
ABRAMSON: The kindly checkout clerk, one of the teachers, can re-jigger the numbers and make it all better.
There is some research indicating that this kind of thing works, that students come out of this whole process better prepared to spend and save smarter. The question is, will it stop them from buying into the next real estate bubble or from blowing their savings on a Lamborghini?
Larry Abramson, NPR News.