Teaching kids how to spend money wisely is an important part of preparing them for life after school, but in middle and high school the traditional mathematics sequence usually crowds out coursework in financial literacy.
A look at state level policy provides clarity: Less than “half of states require a personal finance course as a graduation requirement, and only one in four students have access to such classes," writes Nimah Gobir in an article for KQED’s Mindshift. Meanwhile, the research confirms that “students are more likely to budget, save and manage their credit after they take a financial literacy class."
Hoping to discover what high-quality financial literacy might look like, Gobir visited San Marcos High School and Mission Hills High School in Southern California, both about 30 miles from San Diego. She found that students at both schools were highly engaged in their financial coursework, and teachers were shocked by how popular the classes had become in a short period of time. “I went from thinking I was going to teach one section of [the class] to it being what I teach full time now,” says Jeff Montooth, a social science teacher at Mission Hills High School.
It’s a topic that can require some sensitivity, Montooth acknowledges, given students’ different economic backgrounds, so he often centers class discussions around his own financial journey—including the mistakes he’s made. That’s obviously not a requirement for teaching financial literacy, but Montooth says it helps put kids at ease. “By being open with them from the very beginning, I think it sets the tone of letting them know that it’s OK that somebody doesn’t have all the right answers,” Montooth tells Gobir.
While a stand-alone financial literacy course may not be in the cards for many schools, we curated a set of ideas—drawn from Gobir’s reporting and from our archives—that teachers are using to slip engaging lessons about money, savings, and financial planning into the curriculum.
Play credit score Jenga
To teach her high school students about credit scores, Kailen Stover, a family and consumer sciences teacher in Colorado, likes a riff on the game of Jenga. She prepares for the activity by writing a number from 1 to 50 on every Jenga block, with numbers corresponding to one of 50 possible finance-related events. Some are good events (“You pay off your credit card every month in full: +45”); some are bad (“You forgot and paid your car loan 30 days late: -70”); and some are neutral (“You went to the movie theater and paid in cash for the ticket. No change”). As the game progresses, students keep track of how each event impacts their overall credit score—for better or for worse. If someone knocks over their tower, it’s financial catastrophe: The person’s credit score plummets.
Draft budgets for the future
At both high schools that Gobir visited, students were asked to imagine their future lives, then attempt to sketch out a corresponding budget. It’s a straightforward but surprisingly powerful activity. Students can think about a job they’d want in the future, look up its average salary, then try to construct a budget around that figure—factoring in estimated prices for rent, groceries, utility bills, etc. While the activity slots easily into math class, it might also work in a social studies lesson during which students explore how geography impacts personal finances, or look at how macroeconomic conditions like inflation and earnings-to-debt ratio affect consumer spending power.
Play needs versus wants
Understanding the difference between what they need and what they want isn’t always clear for kids. As part of teaching students the importance of planning and saving, educators at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School in Las Vegas have students play a card game that gets them distinguishing between the two.
In the game, groups of students are given a variety of cards (made from cut-up pieces of printer paper) that have the names and pictures of items on them—things like blankets, cellphones, dried food, and candy. In their groups, the students have to choose six items that they’d take with them on a deserted island. The game helps kids think through important financial and quality of life questions, setting up classroom conversations that typically might not happen until they’re much older. (Jump to 3:05 in the video below to see the game in action.)
Work From real-world examples
For a lesson about compound interest, Montooth told his students he didn’t start saving for retirement until his thirties. He then “took out a calculator and showed students how much money he would have made if he started earlier,” Gobir reports. Similarly, teachers could show students sample credit card statements or retirement accounts. Many students will have heard about 401(k) accounts, but have very little sense for what retirement savings actually look like or how those savings grow. In the same vein, Tara Razi, a personal finance teacher at San Marcos High School, uses her own mortgage as an example to teach her students about mortgages, principal, interest rates, and loan terms—though there are many other resources to support this lesson that don’t involve sharing personal information.
Parcel Out Beans
In a financial literacy class at Parkdale High School in Riverdale, Maryland, students are given 20 beans (though you could use tokens or any small objects) and a piece of paper depicting a selection of typical living expenses such as housing, food, clothing, and transportation.
Some of the options are more expensive than others; within transportation, for example, riding a bus equals 1 bean, while buying a new car and gas equals 4 beans. In small teams, students have to decide how to budget their 20 beans. Then, the teacher spins a digital wheel to see if an adverse event occurs to the whole class. An unexpected injury like a broken leg, for instance, means students must remove 3 beans from somewhere on their page, if they chose not to include health insurance in their original budget. This simple game can launch a conversation about budgeting, how to prioritize the essentials, and how to engage in basic risk analysis. (Check it out below, starting around 1:20.)
Break down credit cards
Kids are curious about getting their first credit cards, but they often don’t understand the mechanisms at play behind credit, interest, debt, and hidden fees. In her class at San Marcos High School, Razi has students compare the interest rates, cashback policies, benefits, and late fees of a variety of credit cards in order to determine which have the best terms, Gobir reports.
“[Razi] literally brought her wallet into class and showed us her different credit cards,” said one of her students. In math class, consider having students use formulas to create spreadsheets to see how interest rates, fees, monthly payments, and cashback bonuses factor in over time, impacting a credit card holder’s net gain or net loss.
Practice filing mock taxes
No one likes it, apparently—except kids. High school students in Montooth’s class at Mission Hills seem eager to learn more about the process of filing taxes, Gobir reports, and they use sample pay stubs or real ones from their part-time jobs to complete returns. They really enjoy seeing who ends up with the biggest return, says Montooth. “Those kids aren’t going to be scared the first time they have to do their taxes,” he says. As an add-on to the activity, consider having students analyze a sample pay stub to explore pre-tax and post-tax deductions, as per this PBS Learning Media lesson, and discuss the breakdown of city, state, and federal taxes so students better understand where their tax dollars are going.