Bright Idea: Teach Unaccompanied Youth to Live Within Their Means

Photograph of an open wallet with dollar bills falling out

Managing money can be one of the toughest skills for young people to learn as they transition to adulthood. We spoke to Karen Chan, creator of All My Money, a hands-on curriculum emphasizing money management skills for people with limited financial resources. In this two-part series, we share Chan’s tips on teaching young people about spending, saving and making good money choices.

Learning to live on what they earn and not overspend  is the most important money-management concept for youth, Chan says. It’s also the most challenging for them to learn. For one thing, she says, the cost of very basic living today is beyond the income that many young people can expect to earn, at least in the short-term.

And when young people just start out earning money, it’s easy for them to have unrealistic expectations of their income and what they can afford. Youth workers can help young people set a budget and figure out how to stick to it.

Six Steps to Making a Monthly Budget for Youth

  1. Have young people track their expenses for a month so they can see where their money goes. Include even small expenses. Be as complete and accurate as possible so you can help set a realistic budget.
  2. Ask young people to divide their expenses into needs (expenses that are unavoidable) and wants (expenses that could be cut if necessary). Help young people make a list of their regular, unavoidable expenses and the dates they must be paid. That way, they’ll never miss a payment.
  3. Help young people figure out their weekly or monthly income. Include full- or part-time jobs, odd jobs and other earnings.
  4. Explain the importance of savings, and help youth open a bank account. Talk about what they might want to save money for in the long term: a car, college, a home. Explain how checks work and how banks operate. Be sure to mention interest payments and possible service charges.
  5. Have young people also set some short-term spending goals. Help them figure out how much money needs to be set aside in the budget to meet their goals, like buying a new bike or cell phone or paying the deposit for a new apartment.
  6. Finally, help young people prioritize their expenses. Encourage them to put saving for their long- and short-term goals at the top of the list. Then have them list the rest of the expenses, in order of preference. If they run out of money before they run out of items on their list, the things at the bottom get cut.

Bean Counting Game

It might be hard for young people to wrap their minds around budgeting at first. Chan suggests playing a simple game with beans. Give young people a certain number of beans, which represents their budget for the week. Game cards represent different expenses. Young people must make decisions about budgeting and what they can afford to buy.

In the middle of the game, their budget is reduced, they lose some of their beans, and they have to create a new budget. They have to decide what to do next.

Chan says you can use this activity to start discussions about decision-making, the need for trade-offs, what’s important to each individual, and needs versus wants.

More Information

All My Money is a train-the-trainer program for staff and volunteers in community agencies and social service organizations. For more information, email Karen Chan at

For more financial education resources, check out the Jump$tart Coalition Clearinghouse.

What Do You Think?

How do you teach youth to live within their means? Email us and let us know.

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