Educator Toolkit: Cold, Hard Cash

by Kara Dunn

Why This Matters Now

In case you haven’t heard, April is Financial Literacy Month in the U.S. It’s a great time to lead a class discussion about money – that’s right: cold, hard cash.

Today’s high school students — the digital natives of Generation Z — are much more likely to swipe, wave or click a payment than they are to hand over a wad of bills. Financial technology is exciting and accessible, and it can also be dangerous. We recently spoke with Jennifer Barrett, chief education officer of Acorns, a micro investing app that encourages users to invest their spare change as a way to slowly and intentionally build wealth. She said, “There have been lots of studies about the difference [in spending] when you use a card versus cash — that there is a visceral emotion attached to parting with your cash. I tried it out personally. When I was getting my finances together, I used only cash for a month just to see how it would change the way I spend. It’s incredible. It really does [change your spending behavior] because you become so much more mindful about how you’re spending. The challenge now is: how do you become mindful about your spending when you’re not physically feeling that money and peeling the bills out of your wallet?”

How do your students spend? Do any of them prefer cash over Venmo, or is it technology all the way? Are any of their families unbanked, relying heavily on cash for all their needs? Celebrate financial literacy month with a discussion about a topic that none of us can avoid and many of us obsess over — money. The topic is likely to generate interest and spark debate among your students.


Where Do You Stand on the Cash Debate?
This KWHS article and accompanying conversation starters will get your students thinking about different dimensions of cash vs. technology. In addition to exploring how the two influence spending habits, it is a great way to consider socioeconomic issues, such as financial inclusion.

Going cashless might seem the logical route for retailers and other establishments that want to take full advantage of the digital economy. The Amazon Go convenience stores in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and a few retailers in Philadelphia are among those to embrace a cashless system.

However, the City of Philadelphia has now stopped the cashless brigade in its tracks, making the case that it excludes people who don’t have credit cards or bank accounts, or those who simply prefer to pay cash.

Read, discuss, and make students more mindful of the financial choices they make.

Lesson Plan
Advantages and Pitfalls of Using Cash and Prepaid Cards
Another consideration in the conversation over cold, hard cash is the hot appeal of plastic. As students begin to think about getting credit cards, controlling their spending might become a challenge. For some students, the temptation of using a credit card to overspend is too much. An alternative would be to use prepaid cards or a cash budgeting system.

This lesson plan, developed for Knowledge@Wharton High School in the last few years by financial educator Brian Page, includes guided notes, motivational activities and a Kahoot quiz to support students’ exploration of their spending options and preferences.

Hands-on Learning
People who exclusively use cash are often known as the unbanked. In order to avoid banking fees like overdraft, some families choose to live only on cash. But being unbanked has many disadvantages because you end up paying for services that people who are in the banking system get for free. Introduce this concept of the unbanked, informing students that globally, an estimated 1.7 billion adults are unbanked and unable to access financial services of any kind.

From there, have students watch the American Express documentary Spent: Looking for Change, a film about everyday Americans with limited financial options. It looks at the cost of living outside the financial system in America. Once students have watched the film, break them into groups and have them discuss ideas and ultimately make their own money-inspired mini-documentaries about spending, saving and borrowing.

Using their smart phone technology, ask each student group to spend a week researching a money issue that intrigues them and putting together their own informal, phone-supported documentary. Possibly they will interview parents, friends, educators, experts, small business owners about the topic they choose. Suggest searching the KWHS website for more information on a variety of money-related issues. For those who need some inspiration, here are a few potential topics:

  • Financial Exclusion
  • Financial Inclusion
  • How Debt Fits into Our Lives
  • Cash or Technology?
  • Financial Responsibility: What Does It Mean?
  • A Completely Cashless Society
  • Payday Lenders and Pawn Shops
  • Reimagining Financial Services

Video Glossary
Provide an extra layer of learning for your students with our video glossary. Here, Wharton professors define terms: Credit, Inclusion, High-income Household, Low-income Household and Middle-income Household.

KWHS Quote of the Month
“It’s not about having the biggest amount of money. It’s about your lifestyle. We all have different definitions of the life that will make us happy. Think about the life you see for yourself, and then think about how money is going to help you get there.” – Yuliya Tarasava, co-founder, CNote

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