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Teens Get a Lesson in Reality Gift Shopping

Fillmore economics class gives students imaginary salaries to budget for holiday gifts. 'Fate cards' add in the cost of the unexpected.


At Fillmore High School last week, economics teacher Debbie Hoffman put her students through Christmas-shopping boot camp. The process also taught the teacher a thing or two about kids' gift preferences.

Holiday shopping was the topic for the semester's final written assignment in a required senior course that covered investing, personal and government financial issues--and the nitty-gritty of keeping a checking account in balance.

Hoffman reported that parents frequently asked her to include the checkbook lesson in her state-mandated economics class. So her students use fake checks to draw on an imaginary $300 weekly salary from an imaginary job chosen from newspaper employment ads.

This fall, after assigning students a series of life-skill problems such as juggling rent, grocery shopping and utilities, Hoffman told them: "Write a list of what you would actually buy for your families and other people--not yourselves. If you have the money in your account, total up the cost and write a check to Santa."

How much will teenagers spend on Christmas presents when the money involved is, theoretically, their own?


The students' checks to Santa--mostly in the $100 to $200 range--paid for items chosen from catalogs and newspaper advertisements.

Some students spent more than $200, having accumulated larger balances by being frugal with their imaginary salaries. Some had balances closer to $75 because they spent money on themselves or because of bad-luck expenses.

Hoffman added a big dose of reality to the exercise by dropping "fate cards"--representing the unexpected cost of a medical bill or speeding ticket--on some students' desks.

The fate cards, by the way, made a strong impression on the students. Hoffman said that while they were making out their shopping lists, "they prayed they wouldn't be dealt a fate card that would take away a lot of their Christmas gift money."

A spending pattern emerged among the 90 students in Hoffman's three classes. "They were more into the entertainment type of thing--videos, action figures, playing cards and quartz watches [many] based on 'Toy Story,' " she noted. "The kids always know what's in the video store, and they see the movie ads."

She posted ads on her classroom wall representing Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, Circuit City, Toy 'R' Us and Target. But conventional advertising wasn't nearly as effective as movie tie-ins.

Most purchases were "connected with entertainment such as Mickey Mouse or 'Mission Impossible' and 'The Nutty Professor' movies," she said. "A lot bought Barbie. A lot."

Hoffman put up the Pottery Barn catalogs--whose wares she personally fancies--in hopes of encouraging students to give relatives some home-decor items. "Pottery Barn sold nothing," she said. "And it also depressed me that books were not being bought. People don't read for entertainment."


After the movie tie-in gifts, the Fillmore students tended to choose cordless phones (which nowadays sell for as low as $25), portable audiocassette players, automatic cameras and jewelry. In last place were toys not connected with movies: humble Erector sets, trucks and in-line skates.

Adults might raise an eyebrow at such priorities. But there's a lesson here for adults, too. If you have to get a last-minute gift for a teenager, think "Toy Story," "Mission Impossible" and "The Nutty Professor."

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