HomeLearning DifficultiesHealth & DevelopmentLife After High School

Dollars and sense: Financial skills for teens with learning disabilities

Help your child with LD or AD/HD develop his money management know-how with these expert tips.

By Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D.

Becoming a responsible consumer is essential for adjusting to adult life, yet many adults with learning disabilities (LD) rank handling money and banking as the most difficult among the problems they encounter. Problems in this area are often tied to specific characteristics of LD or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). This article describes common pitfalls and offers parents strategies for providing teens with LD or AD/HD a foundation of money management know-how necessary for independent living.

The table below illustrates some of the ways various characteristics of LD and AD/HD can result in financial challenges.

Learning or attention problem Challenges when managing money
Impulsivity Problems with impulse buying beyond the limit of one's budget
Memory problems Difficulty remembering to record bank transactions (for example, ATM cash withdrawals)
Temporal problems Issues with remembering to pay bills on time
Organizational problems Difficulty gathering all the items (monthly statement, check register, calculator, etc.) necessary to balance one's checkbook
Distractibility Trouble maintaining concentration during the process of reviewing one's checking account
Visual discrimination Tendency to make errors in calculation due to number inversions (for example, writing "61" or "19" instead of "16")
Spatial issues Tendency to misalign numbers in the check register columns, leading to computation errors
Visual figure-ground problems (focusing on one image against a busy background) Problems focusing on individual lines of the monthly bank statement
Reading Trouble reading store signs (or price tags), notices from the bank, and contracts (for instance, for membership to a gym)
Spelling Difficulty spelling numbers correctly when writing out checks
Math Problems performing mental math (estimating how much an item on sale at 25% off will cost, for instance, or knowing how much change to expect when making purchases); difficulty performing calculations involved in reconciling a checking account


Teaching your teen financial skills

Money management skills can be introduced very early, with children in the lower elementary school grades learning the value of the coins and currency they save in their piggybanks and having your guidance when deciding how to spend their savings. As your child with LD or AD/HD matures, you should gradually introduce more complex skills, such as budgeting and managing a checking account.

Here are some strategies for teaching consumer skills and money management during your child's middle and high school years:

Consumer skills

  • Orient your child to a variety of types of stores, such as the drugstore, grocery store, and department store. In each store, note the layout and the groupings of items. Point out the aisle signs and conduct "think alouds" as you shop (for example, "We need some Band-Aids, so I'm going to the aisle that says first aid. If I can't find them there, I can ask the clerk at the cash register where they are.") By middle school your child should be able to find items she commonly uses (school supplies, hair products, etc). By the end of high school, she should be able to shop on her own at any of these stores for basic items.
  • Help your child learn the sizes of the shoes and clothing she wears. Too many parents of middle and even high school students with LD and AD/HD continue to choose their children's clothing well beyond the point when this type of control is appropriate. By middle school, your child should be able to choose her own clothing, within guidelines you have set. This is one way you can foster the self-determination necessary for successful adjustment to adult life.
  • Discuss tipping with your teen. List the kinds of people she might tip (waiters, bellhops, etc.) and how to determine the tip for each person based on the quality of service and the going rate. When you dine out together, have your teen calculate the tip using a tip chart (available in most stationery stores).
  • Counsel her about credit cards. Explain how credit cards work as well as the associated dangers of using them. When your teen reaches age 18, numerous banks will start sending her invitations to apply for credit cards. Choose one reputable bank, and have her apply for a card with a credit limit of $500 or less. Discuss with her what may be charged, and walk her through the process of paying the monthly bills — preferably in full to avoid paying interest while still establishing her credit history.
  • Teach your teen about basic contracts, such as rental leases, gym memberships, cell phone agreements, and Internet service contracts. Warn her about high-pressure sales tactics that offer a special price "only if you sign up today."

Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., an expert on transition issues in special education, is a Professor at Lesley University, where she served as founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities, from 1981 to 1996. She has served on the professional advisory boards of several national LD organizations and maintains a private practice in psychology.