“But you can just use your credit card, Mom.”

This is the response from the kids every time I tell them we are not buying what they want because it costs too much. This scenario has played out so often that I have realized two things. First, my response isn’t really communicating what I mean, which is that we are choosing to use our money for other things. This a part of a bigger financial education discussion that will no doubt provide rich content for future posts. Second, money is already a bit of an abstract concept…virtual money is very abstract. Less and less do our kids observe us pay with cash, collect a receipt in hand, and check the results. This is what I want to address…finding ways to make money moments mathy moments.

Last week the 8-year-old wanted to buy Pokemon cards. He heard that The Dollar Store sells packs of cards for…\$1 each! So, I took him there, and sure enough, there were the packets, \$1 each, right at the check-out register. He had a \$5, so he piled 5 packets on the counter with undisguised excitement. I hated to be the one to pop that bubble, but I had to remind him to read the packets carefully to know what he was really buying. Sure enough, it turns out there are only 3 cards in each of those packets, as opposed to the 10 cards each he was expecting. Sadness ensued. Disappointment. Reality. In a fit of parental kindness, I offered to drive him to Walmart. Along the way, we did math.

“Hey kid, those packs of 3 cards each were \$1 each. So, how much would you be spending, really, on each card?”

There was a long pause. Hopefully he was marinating in what do about fractional cents. I’m not sure what his brain was up to, but I do know that he was actually trying to figure out the answer, because it mattered. After an extended bit of time, I suggested that he estimate his answer and not worry about exact amounts. Why not assume the packets were 99 cents or 90 cents each to make division by 3 easier? He smiled and said each card would be 33 cents. We compared that to the per card cost of Pokemon cards bought at our favorite local toy store (\$5 for a 10 card pack.) He was surprised to realize that the per card price of a card at The Dollar Store saved him about 20 cents each. Maybe he should have bought a bunch of packs there after all.

But we were on the road to Walmart and there was no stopping us.

Walmart is dangerous with kids. Yes, it’s big and you might lose them…but that’s not the danger I’m speaking of. I’m speaking of the toy aisles. Ohmigosh. I quickly and deftly deterred him from spending him college savings on Nerf paraphernalia by reminding him that we were focused on finding Pokemon cards, which were at the front of the store by the cash registers (I should know this by now.)

Once the 8-year-old finished dancing with glee at discovering the wall of Pokemon joy at the front of the store, he picked out a pack of 10 cards. (Know that he did try repeatedly to get me to purchase the \$20 box packs…”use your credit card, Mom!”)

Once all was said and done, he had given the cashier \$5 for a pack of 10 cards, got some change in return, and walked out with victory and satisfaction in his eyes. His goal had been accomplished…more Pokemon cards. I asked him if he had checked his receipt.

“What?”

Your receipt. Find the piece of paper the cashier gave you. Yeah, that’s it. Look at it. What do you see? What kind of information is on it?

“Mom! There’s today’s date! And the time!” (Yes, he really did say that with excitement. I will never tire of the joy children show for the most mundane of observations.) Then he observed the cost of his cards (\$3.98), the amount he had tendered (\$5.00), and the change he had received (\$1.02). He was delighted to see it all printed out in front of him. And then I asked him…was it worth coming up to Walmart? Did he save money? He did the math and determined that it was about the same as buying the same number of cards at The Dollar Store.

Wait. Hold on. Truthful moment…he did not do the math. I did the math. He was too excited to care any more because when he opened his pack, he discovered THE card he had been hoping and wishing and yearning for and declared the trip…WORTH IT!!

(Mathematically…it is good practice to begin instilling the habit of checking receipts and doing mental math to figure out costs. As soon as your child is able to recognize numbers, start handing over receipts for them to interpret. What numbers do they see? What do they think they mean? What other information is on that little piece of paper? Eventually, point out the math. Ask your kids to check the math. Was correct change given? And what if you rarely get paper receipts because you are usually doing all your payments virtually? Go get some cash. Ask for a paper receipt. Do it for the kids.)

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