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Grocery Store As Classroom

When teaching your kids about the realities of money, don’t lecture in the abstract. Instead, talk on the scene, using real-life settings as classrooms – and start early, well in advance of the peer-pressured tween and teen years, if possible.

image of grocery cart full of moneyA place of thousands of purchasing decisions

The grocery store is a great place to start. Certainly, we walk these aisles often enough, and children of all ages can relate to the store’s products: they are the stuff of everyday life. The aisles are packed with opportunities to investigate the many factors associated with purchase decisions.

Scheduling shopping trips that include younger family members might take some doing. But how many of us manage to juggle schedules to get kids to sports practice? In the long run, the financial lesson is far more critical.

It’s important to take your time selecting products in the grocery store classroom. True, you may know why you buy certain brands and sizes. But now you need to build a case for these tried-and-true-purchases. Take the time to put them through their shopping paces with your children. Re-examining these purchases might even surprise you — you might change some old buying habits in light of new information. Talk through purchases with young shoppers. Your job is to provide the commentary. Take the time to help youngsters weigh all factors that go into a purchase decision. Here’s how.

In the aisles

Together, read labels to check ingredients. Are they real or synthetic? Ingredients must be listed according to their amounts. If the first ingredient listed in spaghetti sauce is water and not tomatoes, you’ve learned something about the quality of the sauce. Reading labels and noting ingredients helps you talk to young shoppers about value in relation to price.

The place of quality. Factor in the use of the product. If the spaghetti sauce will top homemade noodles to celebrate a birthday, then you may be searching for a gourmet sauce. If you’re hosting a carbo-cram for the cross-country team, the need for quantity may overtake the need for quality. A good value-for-the-price sauce may do. By talking through the purpose of the sauce, you are teaching children that purpose controls the need for value and quality in a purchase.

Do the math. How many sheets in this box of facial tissues? Calculate the price per sheet to compare brands and then consider the quality issues (often found on shelf labels below the products.) Noses that are sore from a bad cold may need softer, costlier tissues with aloe. If you’re buying a box of tissues for your child’s classroom, quantity is more important than the highest quality.

Likewise, knowing the price-per-ounce of peanut butter will also help you decide whether to buy two small jars or one large jar. The large size should offer a savings, but do the math, because this is not always true. Another consideration: can you consume the large size quickly enough or will it grow stale?

The lessons here? Price per-unit and the utility of size should influence the purchase decision.

Store brands vs. name brands. Sometimes, store brands are as good, or better, than their higher-priced counterparts. Other times, store brands lack quality. Low-cost paper towels that don’t absorb waste your money. Ask the family to research products by testing them at home. Blind tests are best. They’re a fun extension of the value lesson that helps kids learn about getting their money’s worth.
Consider packaging. Does the container drive up the cost? Are you willing to pay more for the container? When it adds to convenience or function, you might. When it’s simply cosmetic, you might not.

Emphasize planning. Make out a list before you enter the store to teach children to focus on needs. Simply walking up and down aisles and throwing items into the basket models impulse purchasing. It’s a habit that drives up the numbers at the bottom of the cash register receipt.

Set Limits. Youngsters have to learn that money is limited. Therefore, estimate how much you should spend on groceries and find ways to stay within that amount. Occasionally, it takes tough decisions or making trade-offs.

Expand the lesson

Learning to make decisions about groceries based on a mix of factors gives young people practice in decision-making that will eventually help them in the mall, the electronics store, and throughout life.

However, the principles so easily understood when shopping for soup can begin to blur when shopping for clothes, games, and other forms of entertainment in the tween and teen years. Therefore, use the early childhood years to lay the groundwork for difficult decisions to be made later on.

  • While children are still young, extend the lesson to the mall. Let your kids see you shop for yourself and for them. While shopping stay focused on fulfilling real needs.
  • If you go to the mall every time a big sale is announced, your behavior telegraphs that shopping is entertainment — it’s what you do for fun. That’s the wrong message, especially for young people. What should the message be? Purchasing is decision-making in which you examine several factors: your need for the item, its price, its purpose, as well as the importance of quality or the need to economize.
  • If you always buy a designer label, perhaps you should rethink that habit. Instead, judge garments on fabric and craftsmanship, and teach your child how to evaluate such qualities.
  • When economy is important, compare features to the price of an item. Weigh the factors and explain about trade-offs you might have to make when you buy.

Working with children and aligning your actions with your words, brings the lesson home.

The importance of modeling

You may say that you don’t have to economize – that you can afford to buy pretty much the best of everything. That’s great for you as a person, but you’re a parent, too, and you’re setting a wrong standard for your children. Being financially “able” to purchase runs counter to good modeling because, as young adults, your children probably won’t have the income that you have now, but they may try to imitate your lifestyle. Modeling good shopping behavior takes a serious parental commitment. Read leaving the nest. It’s important.

Want to turn the shopping excursion into a game? Play the Grocery Store Challenge.