Gift Card Balance Activity

Shopping is surprisingly more complex that we realize for many students who are working on life skills math. Staying within a spending limit is one issue. The concept of a running balance is another. In this post, I detail an activity in which a gift card in real life and ones in simulations are used in shopping activities. The purpose is to engage students with spending limits and balances.

Real Life Activity

I provided a student with a $10 gift card to buy a hot chocolate at Barnes and Noble. This experience allowed the student to order, pay, and monitor the balance. At some point the card will not have a balance to cover another drink. Not only does this provide real life experience, it provides an anchor for other instructional activities.

The student identified the price, the tax, the total, and the balance. Then he computed the balance to see for himself how this works.

Simulations in Instructional Settings

In our instructional setting, the student is provided an image of a gift card on a Google Slide and is prompted to buy 1 item at a time. This allows for immediate computation and tracking of a running balance.

In the image below, you can see a prompt for the student reflect on how the balance is computed by referring to the in person experience. I have the student compute on Google Calculator to allow me to record the work.

The running balance is recorded on the Google Calculator image ($18.75 below) and the next item is purchased with a new running balance computed.


I am in a position to conduct in person instruction at other settings. Obviously, most teachers do not have this opportunity. My recommendation is to collaborate with a parent to facilitate such activities. For example, if the family is going out to eat, the student can be provided a gift card and allow him or her to choose an item and pay independently. Another possibility is that the parent provides a student an e-gift card to spend during class with the teacher.

Weekly Food Budget Activity

Budgeting is a challenging topic for many students with special needs. The process has many components, multiple steps, and involves application of money and shopping math topics. This post describes an activity to develop competence in budgeting by shopping for a food for a week with a money limit.

Google Document

The activity is presented on a Google Doc and can be completed with online shopping at a grocery store of choice or at Stop and Shop. A gift card image is used to lead into a discussion or lessons on balance. This is a preview of a full budget activity shared on another post.

Identifying Food Items

The first step is to identify the foods to eat. To keep it simple, only the meals for a single day are identified and will be extrapolated to cover the whole week. This will not take into account snacks to reduce the task demand. This also leads into lessons on nutrition, e.g., identifying macronutrients and what they provide our bodies.


The student identifies the food item for each meal and enters the item, cost, and of servings. A discussion or minilesson on number of servings may be conducted first.

After shopping, the student determines if there are enough servings to cover all 7 days. If not, the number packages (bottles, etc.) are determined. This can be done by multiplying by 2, 3, 4 until more than 7 is computed. Then the total cost for the food item is computed.

Then the grand total is computed at the bottom. This leads to a discussion about the budget as the student compares the total with the amount or balance on the gift card(s).

Realistic Monthly Budget Activities

I have found that most students have little understanding of the living expenses and take home pay. This post provides details of a monthly budget plan that is useful for all levels of students and can be customized accordingly.

Here is a link to a Google Document with all components: job, take home pay, list of categories of expenses, and directions for activities to estimate the pay and expenses, and a comparison of take home pay and expenses with a look at other possible expenses. This can be revised to meet the needs or ability level of the students, as well as the user’s location. I have used this in whole class instruction in a general ed settings and for individuals working on life skills math.

Budget Activity

The Assignment starts with finding a job. I work with one student who has a postsecondary goal of college. He searched for a salaried position. Other students may be working for an hourly wage.

There is a take home pay calculator used in this assignment (2nd photo below). It is based on annual pay. I scaffold the conversion of hourly pay, which is a good calendar activity in of itself.

The chart below is the master list of expenses. Some expenses are computed on subsequent pages and some have the link in the row. The amounts are estimates intended to allow the student to engage in a monthly budget.

At the end, the student compares pay and expenses. I find that this is an eye opener for many students. They are not simply asked to take the word of parents or teachers on what life has in store for them, they see it for themselves.

Individual Activities

The individual sections are useful in isolation. I use buying a car to as an introduction to 2-step linear equations with down payment + monthly cost times number of months = price of car. For students learning to count money, the shopping activities can be used. I task students to shop online at a store like Target as if they had a $50 gift card (see image below). Once completed, they count out money to pay for items in the cart and they compute the balance on the card. This is an entry point into budgeting as they compare money they have with money they spend. I will keep a running list of prompts on Google Slides as data for how well the student stays under budget.

Online Personalized Consumer Math Board Game

The game is played on a Jamboard. There are moveable game pieces on the left (Lego figures chosen to mirror the players – no hair is me), along with movable bills. There is a white rectangle partially covering the cashier’s money. It is a moveable rectangle I use to reveal the money when the cashier pays out money to a player. The money is subsequently covered again. When money is paid, the appropriate number of bills are moved to the cashier’s counter. Change can be computed and given. (technical note: you can click on an object on Jamboard to change its order, e.g., click on the bills to move them back, behind the rectangle.)

The game is a version of the Allowance Game, which is appears to be a version of Monopoly. The goal is to simulate budgeting and real life spending situations in an interactive and gamified way. The spaces can be revised to cater to the interests and reality of the players. The activities are all ones that I have used in isolation with students I help. The game can be played online and with multiple players who need to learn consumer math topics. (When you share the Jamboard with others, you can make them editors which allows them to move pieces.)

Players start with money in a bank account (center of the board) and then roll a virtual die and move accordingly. If a player does not have enough money for a spending activity, the activity cannot be completed. For some experiences, they are limited in what they can spend, e.g., buying a birthday present. (For rent, I will use an IOU until the player makes enough money – obviously a lot to possibly unpack in this scenario.) Spaces have an activity that falls into one of three categories:

  • earn money at a job by rolling dice for the number of hours worked
  • have a static money experience, e.g., get $20 from birthday or spend $12 on tooth brush
  • have a dynamic money experience, e.g., spend money on Amazon or attend a baseball game and the player goes to a related website (for example, a player buys a Red Sox ticket and a YouTube video of highlights of a game is shown – maybe 2 minutes)

A couple notes: I left the START space empty and am thinking I will move the find a job activity to that space. As of this posting I did not have students find a job yet and simply opened a link to a Target store site for employment and showed them a job ad. I think I will start the game with each player finding a job and rolling the die to earn money at the start.

Below are the steps I use to create and revise the game. If you have any suggestions, please post in the comment section.

Here is a link to a master copy of the game on a Google Doc. It can be copied and then revised. I store my game pieces on here as well.

Here is a link to a master copy of a WORD document I use to position the board with a cashier to create the image shown on the Jamboard.

The image created can be uploaded to Jamboard using the Set background function.

Here is a link to the dice rolling site I use. Each player can open it or I will roll for everyone.

Unit Cost and Actual Shopping

I previously shared that grocery shopping has a lot of tasks that are overlooked. One is working with unit costs. There are two math tasks related to unit cost, interpreting what a unit cost is and computing the total cost for buying multiple items.

When I take a student into a grocery store to work on unit costs, where is what I do. I start with a pack of items (photo below) and ask the student to compute the cost for 1 item, in this case, “what is the price for the pack of chew sticks, how many in a pack, how much for 1 chewstick?” Then I prompt the student to compute the total if he buys 3 packs. This allows the student to differentiate between the two tasks.

The cost per items is easier to grasp and then is followed with the same prompts for a jar of sauce (below). I have the student compare unit costs for the large vs the small jars and ask, “do you want to pay $4.99 per ounce or $5.99 per ounce.” This language is more accessible than “which is a better deal?” You can work towards that language eventually.

These tasks can be previewed at school with a mock grocery store. The price labels can be created on the computer.

Counting Money – Jamboard

If you have a student who is learning to count money, here is a virtual set up to do so. I suggest having the student do a test run by moving coins into a box and bills into a box. It is easy to duplicate each item by clicking on the item to duplicate it.

If it works, you can insert images of items to purchase. Note, I start with just pennies or just $1 bills and incrementally add additional currency. This is useful for developing number sense.

I also present items to purchase that are of interest to the student – the image below was used with a student who loves Minecraft.