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Financial Literacy

How Financial Literacy Can Engage and Motivate Reluctant Math Students

Through practical exercises in earning and spending, students can discover the complexities of personal finance and practice math in the process.

May 24, 2024

“When am I ever going to need to know this?” is a question that math teachers around the world often hear from students.

In response, many educators are left wondering how they can show students the real-world implications of the math they’re doing—while driving classroom engagement in the process. According to former middle school teacher Pamela Kranz, one answer is to tie foundational math concepts to topics that students are inherently interested in, like personal finance.

For adults, creating and sticking to a budget is one of the many drudgeries of life. But for Kranz’s sixth-grade students, a detailed unit around balancing checkbooks, paying bills, and planning for unexpected costs proved to be an informative and engaging look at the tangible uses of math.

“Students loved this unit and were so sad when it was over,” Kranz told Edutopia; they often asked, “Can we keep doing this forever?”

Kranz’s students aren’t unique; surveys show that the majority of students want to learn about financial literacy in schools. Kranz says personal finance is a great bridge to getting kids more engaged in math class—and an important step toward preparing the next generation for their postgraduate life: “It answers the question, ‘When are we going to have to use this?’”

We spoke to Kranz to learn more about her unit and how teachers can re-create it.


To begin the unit, which took up a chunk of Kranz’s math and English language arts (ELA) classes over the course of a month, Kranz had students pick a career from dozens of options—everything from car mechanic to museum curator. To ensure that the class ended up with a diverse mix of careers—not just athletes and doctors—she had students select their five favorite jobs, from which Kranz chose final assignments.

Kranz assigned students an hourly wage for each job that was based on real-world salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kranz says she told students their salary only after they selected their job: “I wanted them to think about ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ not ‘How much money do you want to make when you grow up?’”

Based on this hourly salary, students practiced their multiplication skills and used their understanding of percentages to calculate how much they’d make over the course of a month; they were to assume that they worked 40 hours a week for four weeks and had a flat tax rate of 15 percent.

This final figure was their budget for the month. A mechanic with an hourly wage of $23, for example, might have a monthly budget of $3,128, while a curator with an hourly wage of $28 might have a monthly budget of $3,808.


Students spent the rest of the month figuring out how to fit real-world expenses into their budget. For each expense, choosing between options and calculating how much they would have to pay took a class period or two; students filled out simple worksheets to show their work, which Kranz later assessed.

Rent: To help students decide where they wanted to live, Kranz brought in magazines and let students use sites like Zillow or to look for rentals in their city. It was up to each student to balance affordability with other desirable qualities, such as a good location or amenities. Kranz’s only rule was that students could not spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent; if they couldn’t find any options in that range, they had to find a roommate. 

Utilities: At the end of the month, students paid for common utilities like water, electricity, and internet if they weren’t already included in their apartment’s rent. To determine how much they owed, Kranz introduced some randomness: With gas, for example, students drew four cards labeled 0 to 9 and had to arrange them into the largest dollar amount they could—like “$86.33” or “$65.10.” If students had a conversation with their parents about real-life ways to save on utility bills, Kranz gave them a 10 percent discount.

Transportation: Each student was assigned a random building in the city that would be their designated workplace. It was up to them to decide on an affordable means of transportation to get to their workplace from their new apartment. Students used sites like Google Maps to compare and contrast public transportation options, decide on one, and calculate how much their commute would cost each month. Meanwhile, students who wished to buy a car went online to compare the prices of new and used cars. They used Bank of America’s auto loan calculator to determine what the monthly loan payment would be, but many discovered that a car loan wouldn’t fit into their monthly budget.

Groceries: To help students better understand food prices, Kranz took them on a field trip to the grocery store. Students made shopping lists in advance—starting with everything they believed they needed for the month and including other things they simply wanted. With the help of a handful of parents, kids walked around the aisles and wrote down the prices of everything on their list—weighing fruits and vegetables as needed. When students got back to class and totaled up their grocery bill, “they were shocked at how much money they spent,” and many parents expressed gratitude for their children’s newfound empathy, Kranz says.

Unexpected costs: In real life, unexpected costs pop up no matter how well you budget. To mimic these, a few times each week, Kranz had students pull a slip of paper from a bin of surprise expenses. Some stated, simply, that it was a good week with no issues. Others mentioned car problems, dropped phones, or medical emergencies—with set prices students had to pay, like $50 to fix a cracked phone screen or $200 for stitches at the hospital.

Photo of two student taking notes in drugstore
Courtesy of Pamela Kranz
Kranz’s students go on a field trip to the store to learn about prices.


Students paid for expenses with mock checks that they put in envelopes and handed to the “bank.” A handful of students in each class were assigned the role of banker, and they’d create a record of the money coming in and out of each of their clients’ accounts. (Bankers had about five clients each.)

At the end of the month—and unit—every student had to balance their checkbook and ensure that their own personal record of expenses matched up with the bank’s. When it didn’t, due to an error by either the student or the banker, the two compared records and calculations to determine who was wrong and why. Kranz would sometimes step in and use her own records to address financial disputes that students couldn’t work out among themselves.

Despite their best attempts, some students were in the red by the end of the month and didn’t have enough left for their utilities or other expenses. “Some were very upset about it—I had tears in the classroom and everything,” Kranz says. “And we had a discussion about what happens in real life if you can’t pay your bills,” as well as the importance of building up savings. 

Students wrote a final reflection on what they had learned during the unit. Many, Kranz says, wrote about their frustrations—like clerical errors from the banker or the random unexpected costs. Kranz says these reflections are important: “We all have frustrations in life, and it’s good to think about how you’re going to deal with them in advance.”


In addition to helping students develop a more hands-on understanding of math concepts such as percentages, adding and subtracting decimals, weights and measures, and estimation, Kranz says the unit has many other academic benefits.

Looking through websites and magazines for housing, transportation, and career information boosts students’ reading comprehension and technological literacy—which is why Kranz incorporated the unit into her sixth-grade ELA classes, not just math.

But perhaps the biggest benefit, Kranz says, is that her students—including many who didn’t previously love math class—became highly engaged, finding a sense of relevance in the work they did. One student commented “that it felt like real life and not some made-up resource with examples that don‘t really apply to them,” Kranz says.

While a monthlong personal finance unit might be difficult for most teachers to incorporate into their schedule, Kranz says there are many ways to introduce financial literacy in more concise ways. As a starting point, she encourages teachers to pick and choose some of the most relevant elements from her unit—like, perhaps, the grocery store field trip or a crash course in finding apartments that fall within your budget.

With a topic like financial literacy, Kranz believes that a hands-on unit based on real-world financial decisions is the best approach: “I suppose students could learn about personal finance through a textbook and check it off the list of topics ‘covered,’ but there’s no connection to the individual,” she says.

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  • 6-8 Middle School

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