Diana Clement: Precious lesson in stretching money

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Budgeting for Christmas or a similar celebration is a great practical lesson for children. Photo / Getty Images
Budgeting for Christmas or a similar celebration is a great practical lesson for children. Photo / Getty Images

Christmas can make or break a child's financial future. The lessons children learn at this high-stakes time of year will help shape them as spenders or budgeters.

Teachers up and down the country (and around the world, for that matter) have devised financial literacy lessons surrounding Christmas that could be repeated in homes.

My son came home with maths homework last week that involved him cutting objects of desire from advertising flyers and sticking them on to a poster. The exercise was part addition and part budgeting, his teacher told me later.

That was an excellent exercise that can be repeated at home. The only thing that raised an eyebrow was suggesting to a child that he might get $500 of presents in one hit. "Not in our house, matey," I said to myself.

The spending limit was a great idea, however, to make the children realise that they couldn't afford everything they'd like as if Santa had won the lottery.

Another purpose this poster could be useful for is creating a dream board. The idea is that a person's goals are easier to achieve if they are depicted visually and seen regularly. The children can then save for the items mean old Mum and Dad didn't buy at Christmas.

Lyn Morris, of the Young Enterprise Trust, has trained a group of Fijian teachers in how to deliver the trust's Budget Challenge to children in that country.

The challenge is aimed at 13- to 15-year-old students who have a day to plan the what, when, where, who and how of an entire family celebration, such as Christmas or Diwali.

Often, says Morris, Pacific families feel they have to host an event, but go into debt to do so. "Generally in these Pacific cultures you spend whatever is necessary to put on a good show then you borrow an incredible amount of money, which gets you in [financial] trouble.

"Each group is given $500 to spend for a particular event. That's the equivalent of $10 a week saved into a Christmas club for the year."

They had to work out where the party was going to be, how many people would be invited, how many adults and children there would be and what the spending limit was for food, gifts, decorations and music. Each group worked out three options for every step of the process and had to juggle the spending within the budget.

The groups were also encouraged to ensure one of the invitees was a neighbour or other person who would otherwise be on their own that day, to engender the spirit of Christmas.

The day was an eye-opener even for the teachers, who went through the exercise themselves before delivering it to the children. The teachers were put into groups with a mix of ethnicities (Fijian and Indian) and genders, which helped challenge their thinking.

There were many compromises to be made in this exercise, says Morris. While many wanted to cook food in an umu, they realised that style of food was too expensive and had to consider a buffet.

"It wasn't the top choice for an event like this but it still worked," says Morris. At each stage of the process, the teenagers needed to get a series of documents signed off at the brainstorming, planning and budgeting stages of the exercise. That way they can't just think: 'Such and such would be nice.'

"The teachers said this is a really good way to get people to think sensibly about some of these events," adds Morris.

It was this type of lesson, carried out at Sunnynook Primary School, that first got me thinking about financial literacy lessons that could be repeated at home. There, teacher Vivienne Goldsmith gave the children a budget from which they needed to plan all the presents for not just themselves, but the entire family.

Some of the compromises they had to make were over the number of presents they wanted to see under the tree in their houses, said Goldsmith. Many wanted to buy one expensive present but soon realised that there would be no money left for the small presents they like to see under the tree.

Financial literacy lessons aren't compulsory in schools, although the New Zealand Curriculum "expects schools to develop units of work that enhance students' financial capability, positioning them to make well-informed financial decisions throughout their lives".

One school that champions financial literacy for its children is St Teresa's School, Featherston. Principal Carol Pilcher says the Year 1 to 8 students are encouraged to talk about money. "Our junior school have reintroduced 'playing' shops with play money during our Finding out Friday sessions.

"Several of our special needs students with their teacher aides shop for the morning tea for the staff - walking to the shops, finding and selecting the correct milk, paying for it and carrying a shopping bag back to school is a worthwhile skill for these children." Older students are given a Christmas spending exercise and have to budget for their own camp.

When you start to think through these exercises then the advice about creating a Christmas budget from Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossnan falls into place. Even families that aren't short of money can do their children a whole lot of long-term good by itemising everything to be spent at Christmas in a budget (or spending plan for those who can't utter the B-word).

Another popular lesson schools have is Christmas markets. I've written previously about Sunnynook Primary School, which had a market to raise money for Oxfam where each child brought in $1 and the school looked at ways of making that money go further by making and selling items.

Another example I found, this time on the UK's Personal Finance Education Group website Pfeg.org, was a school where children made items in the design and technology department and sold them at a Christmas market.

At home, children can make Christmas crafts to sell - although a 12-year-old might have more success than a 5-year-old. Gift shops may be willing to sell handmade cards. There is no harm in asking.

If they're not crafty they could sell off their unwanted toys and clothes to raise spending money for the holidays. It's easy to run a garage sale from home or go to a car boot sale such as the one in Auckland's Browns Bay. Most children would be happy to have $30 to $40 in their pocket for a morning's effort. A well-planned garage sale will make many times that.

Publisher Learning Media, which produces financial literacy resources for New Zealand schools, sent me a few of its Figure It Out guides this week. They are books that look at particular financial issues for children such as Saving for a Holiday, Granny's Gift and the Real Cost of Pets.

Parents who have no idea where to start in teaching their children about money can get some good starting points from these publications about how to begin financial literacy conversations with their children.

These excellent publications can be downloaded by parents as PDFs at nzmaths.co.nz/figure-it-out. Be warned, however, they're not easy to find even when you land on the right page.

It's a good idea to also download the detailed teachers' notes, which have the answers and an explanation of the pedagogy behind the exercises.

Although the Ministry of Education wants to engage whanau in their children's education, parents do need to be wary that there is a real risk of being overzealous and undoing the good work done at school.

There is no reason why parents have to stick to New Zealand-based lessons.

Many developed countries have similar financial literacy lessons available online. At Pfeg.org, for example, there is a Christmas list activity at www.pfeg.org/teaching-resources/resources/christmas-list.html , which includes a Summer-time Fun worksheet, and a Not so much Fun worksheet for ways to make money.

I got quite lost in cyberspace looking at the various financial literacy resources available at other websites such as rbsmoneysense.co.uk, educationworld.com, econedlink.org, jumpstart.org's "clearing house" of financial education resources, and lessonplanet.com.

- NZ Herald

Diana Clement is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and careers. She has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years in both New Zealand and the UK. Diana has contributed to a large number of local and international publications. Her pet topic is the secrets of saving money.

Read more by Diana Clement

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