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Financial literacy can be hard to teach. That's because numbers on a page don't feel real. With our society's increasing dependence on credit cards, it's more important than ever to help students "feel" the realness of their own money. Any effective financial literacy lesson needs to be hands on.

Why Does Money Not "Feel Real" to So Many?

For some reason, using credit cards causes us to buy more junk food. And studies have shown that the more transparent our spending (cash versus credit), the less we're likely to spend.

As I teach accounting, for example, I find that debits and credits alone don't excite my students. But when I have them use debits and credits to keep track of their assets, profits, and losses while playing Monopoly, they care about accounting for every penny. As the money changes hands between them, they feel how each dollar is something very real.

They may be using play money, but the tactile experience of having it move through their fingers makes the financial concepts stick. And that is what we want, isn't it?

There are several ways to make financial literacy experiences hands on:

  • Simulations
  • Games
  • Real entrepreneurial experiences where kids start their own business in class

Simulations and Entrepreneurship

At Westwood Schools, my fellow teachers Andrea Stargel and Jill Pollock have a genius way of teaching how to count money. It starts with each student bringing a dozen baked goods to school.

The teachers have prepared colored price tags, and when the students arrive with the baked goods, the teachers attach a tag to each package. The prices range from two or three dollars to $50 or more. But don't worry -- no one is spending real money on these high-ticket items. The teachers have a whole set of play money, but the transactions will have very real consequences.

Baggies of cookies and cakes with pink, green, and orange price stickers ranging anywhere from $7.25 to $19.67

For the counting change simulation, students each get a $100 bill of play money. They may select three snacks for up to $100. They take the snacks to the register and must add and count change for their purchases. They count it for each other, and they count it for themselves. They practice for the first few hours of the day.

Then the real sale starts. Now that they have practiced counting money, all the treats go back on the table. The fifth grade class starts selling their goodies to the rest of the school at just 50 cents a bag. Now they're counting money for real as they sell their wares under the watchful eye of their teacher.

At the end of the day, they count their class earnings and celebrate.

This creative lesson has students practice with many denominations of money, finally leveling up to real money.

How Can You Teach Financial Literacy in Your School?

There are many ways that you can help students become more financially literate, and you don’t need to have them bring their own money to do it. Look for activities and events that give you a chance to "buy" and "sell." Let students be entrepreneurs. Let them manage their sales, and teach them the process of accountability.

In three weeks, I will have four National Honor Society students counting out the money for our school's poinsettia sale. For each package, they'll be using a double-counting process that I teach them so that we account for every dime. Experiences like this help money become real.

And with an increasing dependence on credit and debit cards, the more real that money can become, the more we're setting up our students for a financially literate -- and financially secure -- future.

As teachers, our job is to look for these experiences and help students become more involved with money in age-appropriate and allowed ways in our schools. It's their future, and they're counting on us.

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Sponsored by Horace Mann, this series offers unique and fun ways to incorporate financial literacy into your curriculum.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Vicki,
I think that financial literacy is one of the most under-taught areas in schools today. I work with a lot of university students and they are always concerned that they haven't learnt about the basics of credit, debit, insurance etc while they were at school.

Having said that, I can acknowledge that it is sometimes a dry subject to teach - that's why I love your idea of using games like monopoly! I've never thought of that!

Mara's picture

I have worked in a 5th and 6th grade math class where the students do not understand how to round money to the nearest cent or dollar because they haven't had the practice that they need working with money. They seemed to understand rounding, but when it came to rounding money they would become confused. I think playing games using the "buy" and "sell" method would help them see the concept of rounding to the nearest penny or dollar.

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

You may be familiar with my program, The Middle School Student's Guide to Study Skills. I've recently completed The 21st Century Student's Guide to Financial Literacy - Going Global, which offers 17 classroom-ready, lessons in the evolution of money, the rise of capitalism, currency, entrepreneurship, innovation, venture capital, startups, intellectual property, securities and stock markets, wealth disparity, and global free trade agreements. Students will learn about the roles of such powerful institutions as the SEC, USPTO, Federal Reserve Bank, IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, G7, G20, and Eurozone.

I am now hard at work on Vol. 2, The 21st Century Student's Guide to Financial Literacy - Getting Personal (Spring 2016) which covers all aspects of personal finance. Together, these resources meet and exceed the National Financial Literacy Standards and are ideal for teaching a comprehensive fin lit course in grades 8-12. They can be previewed at www.c21student.com and www.middleschoolguide.com.

mandypants82's picture

I work with MID and MOID kids, so many of them will be unable to have jobs or live alone, but I still try to teach them money math at least twice a week. I have begun creating "shopping lists" for our community trips and it is their job to find the price of those items and then solve problems using those numbers. Prior to teaching I worked for a financial institution and it is shocking to see just how many adults do not know basic checkbook skills. This type of education has disappeared from public school, especially since most people use debit or credit cards instead of cash. A lot of my kids do not even understand how money "gets on" those cards. Their response to me when I told them they needed to budget or they would have to put things back was "I'll just swipe my card". I wish they would bring back some type of class that focuses on those skills, they still teach home economics, why not include units on personal finance in that class?

CashCrunch's picture

Great article. There are so many ways to teach money in the classroom. Whether it is money habits, the value of money to how long you would have to work to pay the good wanted.

A great one that I like to do is get some monopoly money. Put the money which would reflect an agreed monthly wage and then start thinking about all the associated costs - rent, food , gasoline, phone etc. As each expense is talked about, an agreed amount is taken from the pile and so on.

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

The 21st Century Student's Guide to Financial Literacy - Getting Personal - is on track for June 2016. If you are planning or wanting to teach financial literacy, this program is classroom-ready with 18 lessons in all aspects of personal money management. Lessons 1-12 can be previewed at c21student(dot)com. Feel free to contact me with questions.

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