Shopping with Spreadsheets

Creating budgets, maintaining classroom bank accounts, and other activities that help students understand the concept of financial management are often found in classrooms from 2nd grade up to seniors in high school. I’ve taught enough students how to balance checking accounts, plan out spending sprees, and create budgets that I’ve taken to having them create spreadsheets to keep better track of all the transactions, while saving lots of time and paper in looking over work.

I particularly enjoyed a project I did with a 4th grade class a couple of years ago in which they were responsible for purchasing items to help a family fill up their new beach house given a limited budget. They were each assigned a family member and created a list of items based on what their individual family member’s tastes, hobbies, and interests were. Once they had a good idea of what they wanted to buy I unleashed them on the internet to visit major retailer sites like,, and others. We used spreadsheets to record, itemize, and tabulate how much we had spent, and then used a simple subtraction formula to figure out how much was left to spend.

While we could have done the entire project on paper, the object wasn’t necessarily to practice the math skills, but to show how useful office software could be beyond the “type a report” and “make a slideshow” which I see dominating computer-use time in many schools. It was nice to see the students start to understand how they could use productivity programs in their real lives, not just their academic lives, while still learning some vital budgeting and finance skills.

If you’d like to try a project like this on your own there’s an excellent project that can be found here that explores using spreadsheets to help plan a shopping spree. It includes an imaginary $1,000 check that you can print out and give to each student as well as an example of the order form students can create using Excel or another spreadsheet tool. Don’t have any spreadsheet software? There’s even an online interactive spreadsheet that learners can use in place of software. Thanks to Christopher Wright over at What in Tarnation?!?!? for sharing this resource.


  1. My 6th graders LOVE this project! I have them create their own spreadsheet formulas and we spend 3 lab sessions building, then ‘shopping’. Although it’s a great site, I avoid using the WalMart page and instead point kids to Meijer as well as eToys and KMart. Interestingly, you have to locate a store to get a price at the Meijer web site. Hmmmm.

    Having done this project for a couple of years, I have some rules that have developed – no gift certificates (one young man figured he’d take a short cut and proceeded to spend 40 minutes figuring out the exact price – includig state tax – for 2 gift certificates which ended up being a lot more math than the rest of the kids were doing!!) and you have to be able to show me the page where you found each item (prevents ’rounding up or down’ to get to exactly $1000). I usually have at least one student in each class who can spend exactly $1000, and many that get down to 3 to 10 cents. If can prove they spent exactly $1000, I copy their whole sheet and paste it to sheet 2, delete all the items & prices, and change their $1000 to $500. Bonus!

    It’s really interesting to see what kind of things each student is interested in buying. Sort of a small window to their personality. And I enjoy being able to say “When you’re finished with your keyboarding practice, GO SHOPPING!” Not many teachers get a chance to say that!

  2. Good idea on not using gift certificates Marilyn. I hadn’t run across that problem, so I didn’t think of making a point of it. As for using WalMart; when I did this project it was in a very rural area and the only major retailers that we had in the country were a Meijer and a Super WalMart. Unfortunately, it was before Meijer had introduced their new website with online shopping, and I wanted them to feel comfortable shopping at a place that was familiar to them so WalMart is was 🙁

    It was a task to get amny of them to search other sites and get them off of the WalMart site. I noticed that many of them went to WalMart to search for items that could better be found elsewhere, like Amazon for music, and Barnes & Noble for books. I’ll have to take come of your ideas and work them into the project if I get a chance to do it again.

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