Dollars & Sense Blog

There’s something for everyone. News, advice, scholarship information, curriculum – you’ll find it all here. Don’t forget to check back for the latest in personal finance content.

Expand Archives
Ideas & Info for:


(Photo provided by Amanda Volz)

Meet H&R Block Budget Challenge Classroom Grant Winner: Ms. Amanda Volz

St. Clair High School teacher Amanda Volz knows a thing or two about what it takes to lead a class of money management masters. Not only did her class last year include H&R Block Budget Challenge grand prize winner Sean Lawrence, six of her students this year won scholarships, along with a $5,000 classroom grant. We caught up with her to find out how she keeps her students motivated in the program and why she’d recommend it to others.

You’ve had two straight years with high-performing students involved in the program. What’s your secret?

I’m fortunate enough to teach the inclusive personal finance class. My financial management class is year-long and we cover all the personal finance topics, so we talk about budgeting, credit, how to deal with mortgages, etc. So, this is content that I purposely tie to the simulation. My students are graded on the quizzes they take, and their participation is recorded so that’s definitely a positive for me that I’m teaching those exact concepts in my class.

How did you include the simulation in your curriculum?

This year I taught it as more of project-based learning format. Last year I did it as more of a culminating project using the concepts I teach. The Budget Challenge was a great support to the curriculum I already teach, and students were learning as they improved. My students were constantly asking questions as they progressed.

What were your students’ reactions when you told them they’d be participating in the program?

They were very into it and started making their budgets and talking to their parents. They knew at the beginning they had to make some really good decisions to hopefully win the scholarship. I know that 100 percent of my class found value in the simulation even though some of them may not have been into it as much as the other students in the Budget Challenge.

How did you motivate your students to participate in the simulation?

All of my kids that won scholarships this year were very engaged, so they didn’t get lazy at any point and used the budgeting tools that were provided by the Budget Challenge. They were strategic and worked together, bouncing ideas off each other, and reminding each other of certain things. I think having a grand-prize winner last year was a huge motivator for my classes this year to see that winning is a possibility for them. One of the ways I introduced the simulation this year was by showing footage of last year and how Sean Lawrence went on to win and I think that was really effective.

Did you get any feedback from your students’ parents?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from parents about how their son or daughter was really talking about these concepts at home with them. I think the Budget Challenge was increasing a lot of dialogue at home and a lot of good comments from parents about making personal finance fun. This program is game-based so it makes the process fun.

What did you find most rewarding when including the H&R Block Budget Challenge in your teaching?
I really like that students are taking exactly what they’re learning in my class and the simulation and applying it to their daily lives. I think that’s a huge reward. There’s never any question of “When am I ever going to use this?”

What’s your stance on financial courses in high schools? Do you think they should be required?

Most definitely. I think finance is a major part of everyone’s lives. These are household skills that help our economy. One of the most rewarding parts of teaching this is how kids see the value in all this information that they’re learning.

Would you recommend this program to other teachers?

I definitely recommend the program. I have not found another program that better simulates the money management concept. I think it’s great that everything happens in real time, too. It’s very hands-on and relevant. The game-based aspect of it makes it fun for the students and the scholarship money — that’s a life-changing amount of money for someone to win. It’s also available at no cost to teachers.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


Does My Teen Have to File a Tax Return?

With the deadline to file tax returns three months out, and what accountants refer to as “busy season” more than a month away, you may be wondering why we chose now to discuss tax returns.

No, it’s not to stress you out. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

A little preparation now will go a long way in making your life easier come busy season — especially if your teenager recently entered the workforce in 2015 with a summer or part-time job.

There are several somewhat confusing rules that will determine whether or not your teen needs to file a tax return, so let’s start with the basics.

Is your teen a dependent?

Your child is your dependent if the child lived with you for more than half the year, did not provide more than half of their own support, and they were under 19 years old on Dec. 31. A child under 24 years old who isa full-time student or a child of any age who is permanently disabled may also be a dependent. In most cases, if your teen is a dependent they will not be required to file a tax return. But there are exceptions.

How much did your teen earn this past year?

Even as a dependent, your teen may have to file taxes depending on their yearly earnings. For instance, if their earned income is more than the standard deduction, then they must file. Standard deduction amounts can fluctuate from year to year, so check with the IRS for the most accurate figure.

Alternatively, if your teen has unearned income from dividends, investment gains, or interest that totals more than $1,050, they will be required to file a tax return. (Again, consult the IRS for accurate figures)

Lastly, your teen will need to file a return if the combined values from earned and unearned income for the year totals more than the larger of $1,050 or if their earned income exceeds $5,950 plus $350.

This last part is by no means simple to understand, so it may be best to let a tax professional do the math if your teen has both earned and unearned income for the year. A tax professional can also determine if your teen was hired as a contractor rather than a “regular” W-2 employee and what that means in terms of either owing or receiving money from the government.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


What Did South Lyon High School Students Learn from the H&R Block Budget Challenge?

Students from two classes at South Lyon High School in South Lyon, Mich., are part of the newest batch of money management masters thanks to the H&R Block Budget Challenge. Here are the top 5 things that each team learned by participating in the simulation!

Top 5 Things that the Lucid Lyons Team learned:

  1. That you must be very organized and have a strategy in order to properly manage your money. –Justin
  2. How important it is to keep extra money for unexpected expenditures and how big of an impact they can have on your budget. -Maia
  3. How to manage a budget in order to make sure I have enough money for bills and other expenses. –Kayla
  4. That it is very important to stay up-to-date on all of your bills because if you don’t, it’s very difficult to catch up. –Tony
  5. That I will probably go into debt when I’m older, and I need to focus on knowing when to pay my bills. –Aidan

Top 5 Things that the Liberated Lyons Team learned:

  1. Preparing me for the real world. I now know how to pay bills properly. -Charlie
  2. How important it is to manage my money, so I’ll be prepared for the real world. –Karissa
  3. When I get older, I will try not to have as much frivolous spending, like going out to dinner three times a week. –Spencer
  4. The importance of saving early for retirement. It’s never too early to start. –Brooke
  5. Creating and balancing my very own budget from money I earn. –Steve

 Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.

(Photo provided by Noah Westrick)

Meet H&R Block Budget Challenge Scholarship Winner: Noah Westrick

St. Clair (Mich.) High School senior Noah Westrick is a personal finance whiz and now has a $20,000 scholarship to show for it through his participation in the H&R Block Budget Challenge! We spoke with him to learn more about what financial skills have made him real-world ready and how the scholarship changed his life.

Would you say your St. Clair classmates are financially savvy?

In many states, financial classes aren’t required, and I think they absolutely should be. I’ve learned so much, and I’m not even halfway through the year. I’d like to see education like this happen around the world. There are no negatives to it.

Did you have any prior financial education before taking the H&R Block Budget Challenge?

I had nothing, pretty much. All I knew was anything that my family told me and anything I found out on my own. I went into this class where we took the H&R Block Budget Challenge to learn as much as I could about finances,and so far that’s helped me. 

When you were introduced to the H&R Block Budget Challenge, how interested were you in participating?

To be honest, at the beginning, I was ready to do it and thought it’d be a great way to learn. But I wasn’t as excited as I was halfway through when I saw my rank rose from 965 to 57 in one day. Then I started to really enjoy the simulation. Every day I’d wake up, and the first thing I’d do is check and see how I was doing. Near the end, it would be multiple times a day I’d log in to see if anything happened.

Did you talk to your family about what you learned throughout the simulation?

I remember at the beginning when I did the vendor selection I didn’t know what a deductible was, and I had to ask my dad about that.

How did you and your classmates encourage each other to participate?

Two of my best friends, who also won scholarships, all three of us talked all the time about the Budget Challenge and tried to make a strategy together. We did things like that throughout the entire simulation.

Did you enjoy participating in the H&R Block Budget Challenge?

Yes! The H&R Block Budget Challenge taught me a lot, like how to use credit cards properly, what a 401K was, and how to write a check.

Do you think the H&R Block Budget Challenge has helped you become real-world ready?

Yes, I do. I feel like this has improved my real-world skills so much. I feel like this has taken years of hardship of me. I’ve learned so much about finances through the simulation. I loved it.

Where will you be continuing your education after high school graduation?

For my first two years I’m going to go to St. Clair Community College, then I’m going to transfer to probably Western Michigan University, and that’s when I’ll use my $20,000 scholarship.

Is it cool to be financially savvy as a teen?

I think yes, especially in St. Clair, because the winners have been congratulated by everyone. Now everyone wants to take the H&R Block Budget Challenge and win $20,000 too.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage your teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


3 New Year’s Resolutions That Can Save You Money (and Are Actually Attainable)

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s natural for people of all ages to reflect back on the past year. Common questions one may ponder are: “Did I have a successful year? Did I achieve any or all of the goals I set for myself? Where did I fail?”

That last question is the one that resonates most loudly, especially when it comes to finances. Whether failing to save for a new skateboard or putting too little into a 401K fund, we look to January 1 as a chance to start from scratch. Yes, it’s New Year’s Resolution time!

The Washington Post reported that less than half the population sticks to their resolutions for six months. However, a article stated that resolutions of a financial nature tend to have better success than those having to do with health or fitness.

So this year, instead of making grand resolutions that are difficult to keep—I’ll run a marathon—and then give up a month in when you see yourself veering off track, you and your family should make smaller financial goals that are attainable. The same methods that can help your son or daughter save for their first car can help you save up for their college education.

Here are three realistic financial resolutions that your whole family can make to start 2016 off on the right foot.

1. Create a budget

Budgeting is the most important step to being a smart money manager. If you don’t know what you’re spending your money on, it’s hard to accurately save. The easiest way to start building a budget plan is to record spending habits for a month. There are several mobile apps that can simplify this process. Track expenses like bills, cost of transportation, and money spent on both food and leisure activities. Once you see where you spend your money, you can forecast for the next month, with the intention of putting aside more money for savings.

2. Set aside a little bit every week

In 2015, it was estimated that roughly one-third of Americans had no savings set aside, meaning more than 72 million people don’t have a safety net to catch them in the event of hard times. No matter your age, savings are absolutely vital in the money management process. Even a little of savings is better than none, and there’s no better time than the present to begin. Put aside a small amount—$10 for instance—every week, and include it into your budget plan. It may not seem like much, but $10 every week for a year will amount to $520.

  1. Eliminate wasteful spending

If you’re finding it difficult to set aside money for savings, there’s one simple way to get over the hump: reel back on wasteful spending. With an accurate budget in place, it becomes very clear where and when you spend money on non-essential items. Even if you only eliminate that after-school or after-work treat—enough to save you $10 for weekly savings—you’re doing a great job. The more fat you can cut from your spending, the more you can save. It’s that easy!

It may not seem like much, but these three simple financial resolutions can pave the way to more disciplined financial behavior, especially if you tackle them together as a family.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how you and your class can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage your teacher to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


Meet H&R Block Budget Challenge Scholarship Winner: Jonathan Chang

The right financial skills can really change your life and no one knows that better than H&R Block Budget Challenge scholarship winner Jonathan Chang. Jonathan is a senior at Clements High School in Texas and received a $20,000 scholarship to help pay for college. Read more about what he had to say about the program.

Do you think there is a need for teaching teens financial skills?

During my freshman year of high school, I don’t think I gave financial education too much thought. It definitely seemed a lot more important as I got older. Later, I was looking forward to college, so I began to worry about college tuition, how I would survive during my college years, if I had to get a job.

Did you have any financial knowledge before participating in the H&R Block Budget Challenge?

I didn’t have any financial lessons; however, most of the things I learned, I picked up from my mother. She’d explain to us to save and not buy what we don’t need. We started getting small allowances when we were young, but we had to do chores. If we didn’t do chores or behave in school, we wouldn’t get the weekly allowance. 

What was your reaction to the simulation when your teacher introduced it to your class?

I thought it was going to be pretty fun, and it’s about life, and that’s something I’ve been looking forward to since I’m a senior heading to college. At first I didn’t even realize there was a scholarship involved, and I was just doing it for fun to see how far my own personal knowledge could carry me.

What did you think of the program as you were participating?

I thought the simulation was easy and straight-forward. The program was explained really well, so we had all the directions and knew how it worked. It also explained the penalties. We were all kind of confused in the beginning about the credit card penalties, but we worked that out.

Did you learn anything that surprised you when participating in the Budget Challenge?

For sure. At first, I hadn’t realized how valuable a credit card would be, but through the simulation I realized that if your paycheck is not as much as you need, the credit card is a very good way to put off some of the bills so that you can earn the money to pay them off. I‘m not saying using a credit card is good to pay off all your expenses, but if you have to use it in an emergency and pay off bills it’s really useful.

Did you and your classmates team up during the program and work together?

Throughout the planning I worked with a friend of mine, and we kind of planned our budgets out. We didn’t play it the same, but we had references and advised each other on what would be the better choices on policies, insurance plans, and other things.

Did you share what you were learning with your family?

My mother was actually very happy when I was participating. She was interested because I was bringing up financial topics with her. I was taking the initiative to learn about these things because I wanted to learn as much as I could before the simulation started. I talked to her about the vendor selections, insurance plans, housing, and even the pros and cons of having a roommate.

How has winning the scholarship changed your life?

I was already planning on going to college; however, I had been a bit worried about if my parents could pay my college tuition. I have two younger sisters, so I was worried if my parents had enough money to pay for all three of us. It definitely is relieving that I’ve lessened my own tuition burden on my parents.

Where do you plan on attending college and what will you be studying?

Chances are I’ll go to either University of Texas at Dallas or Texas A&M. I plan on studying computer science right now; however, just this year my interest in business and finances has grown since playing the simulation, so I might look into that.

Would you recommend the H&R Block Budget Challenge to other students?

I’d recommend it to all my friends. The lessons you learn will definitely benefit you in real life. You look into insurance policies, real-life scenarios, housing, etc., in real life. I’m very excited and looking forward to college, and I’ll be using the lessons I learned from the simulation.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


The Financial Benefits of Giving Back This Holiday Season

As much as we all love receiving gifts during the holiday season, we’re often reminded that it’s better to give. For teens, this concept may be more difficult to comprehend because what could be better than getting a brand new snowboard?

That’s where parents can lead by example. And the best example of giving is donating your time or money to charities.

The emotional joy that a family experiences by helping those less fortunate is more tangible when you physically lend your assistance at a soup kitchen or food shelter, which may be the best way to introduce your teen to charitable giving.

Donating used clothes and giving money to a charity of your choice, however, also does a tremendous amount of good and even has practical benefits when it comes to tax season..

You can verify that a charity is legitimate by checking with one of the many organizations that keep an eye on charities, such as the Better Business Bureau or GuideStar. Remember, that not all charities are listed, especially newer, smaller ones, and if the charity you’re interested in supporting isn’t listed, you can request more information from that charity. If you ask, a legitimate charity will send you their mission statement and a description of how they use donations. If anything about a charity makes you uneasy, trust your gut and help your teen pick a different organization to support.

Check to make sure your donation is tax-deductible by asking for a receipt that clearly states the amount you donated can be deducted and explain what that means to your child. You want to help them understand the whole process of donating and possible tax deductions are a part of that.

Highlighting the implications of charitable giving on taxes is an effective way to measure its practicality in the real world—not to mention a good time to make your teens aware of the annual tax preparation process they will eventually tackle on their own. Hopefully by planting the charity seed, your teen will continue to use the holiday season for giving as they grow into adulthood.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage your teen’s teacher to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


How Teens Can Earn A Quick Buck This Holiday Season

For many people, the holiday season is a time to exhaust savings accounts and go into debt. But for your teen, it can be a time to actually make some money.

If your teen has a credit card and is expecting to use it to buy gifts this year, advise against it. According to ABC News, consumer counseling agencies see a 25 percent increase in the number of people seeking help in January and February. Instead, have your teen earn a few bucks to help pay for their holiday spending.

The winter break is a perfect time for teens to make some extra cash because there’s always someone who needs an extra hand to shovel some snow or run some errands.

Encourage your teen to lend a hand in any way they can by finding odd jobs. Does the neighbor down the block need help putting lights up around his house? Odd job. Do the folks next door need someone to help take their Christmas tree inside the house and put it in a stand? Odd job. The neighbor lady needs her driveway shoveled and de-iced? Odd job.

The best way to let the neighborhood know that your teen is available for any odd jobs is to post flyers around town or reach out through social media. If they offer their services for a small $5 fee, they’ll likely see a larger number of people interested. And being the holiday season and all, your teen may experience a little holiday joy in the form of additional cash for a job well done.

If your teen is willing to take on some larger jobs and get a little creative there may be more money to be had. For instance, offering to do someone’s shopping—both at the supermarket or the mall—can save someone the time and hassle, while fattening up your teen’s pockets. By using a mobile pay app like Venmo a person can send the amount they’re willing to spend with a list of their items to your teen. Once your teen buys the items and drops them off, they will get paid for their time and service.

With the winter holidays come winter vacation and many people leaving town. Do your neighbors or friends have pets that need taking care of while their owners are out of town? This can be a great chance for your teen to some easy cash and also teach them a bit about responsibility at the same time!

On a small scale, this will help teach your teen about the value of a dollar and the importance of working for a salary. Plus, it gets them out of the house for a bit so you can figure out how to budget your own expenses this holiday season!

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how your teenagers or students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage teachers to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


Holiday Budgeting: Giving Gifts on a Budget

‘Tis the season of giving, but don’t give up on managing your money in the process.

Last year, consumers celebrating the holiday season spent an average of $804.42, according to a study conducted by the National Retail Federation. Of that, only a little more than half ($459.87) was spent on family members. The rest was spent on friends, co-workers, employees (e.g., babysitters) and even pets.

While we’re not suggesting a Grinch-inspired holiday season where you cut out gifts entirely, there are several techniques the whole family can follow that will keep costs reasonable.

Make a list and check it more than twice

When it comes to deciding whom to buy gifts for, making a list should be your first step. Once you’ve written down all the people who make the cut, it’s helpful to place them into tiers, with each tier having a maximum dollar amount to spend. For instance, you may place members of your immediate family in Tier 1. For parents, the Tier 1 dollar amount may be as high as $500; for teens it could be closer to $75 or $100. As you go down the tiers, the total dollar amount to spend on that group goes down until you reach the last tier, which may be something very affordable like a card. If the list system works for Santa Claus, why shouldn’t it work for you?

Not-so-secret Santa

Some people would argue that the surprise of giving and receiving gifts is half the fun. But other people may bemoan the wasted money spent on gifts that people just plain don’t like. For those people, we suggest using an honesty policy. This works best with family members who won’t be shy to tell you what they want. Alternatively, for teens that are buying gifts for friends, it may prove useful for them to go in with other friends on the cost of purchase. That way, your teen and her friend can buy their mutual friend a nicer gift instead of both buying her a cheaper gift that she doesn’t really want. Using this method, you can save money and give gifts that people actually want, which is a gift all on its own.

Find the right gift (card)

For the people who live at the bottom of your tiered gift-giving list (see above), don’t be embarrassed to give a gift card. Even a $5 card to a local coffee shop is nice gesture and a better use of your money than giving yet another pair of mittens. Gift cards are nice presents no matter what tier the person is in, especially if you can’t think of a good gift idea. Remember, it’s the thought that counts!

Above all else, don’t forget why you’re buying gifts for people: because you care for them. So let them know! Words can be more powerful than material items.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. To find out more about how you can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequences, encourage your teacher to register here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.


What Your Teen Can Teach You about Saving: The Foreign World of a Thrifty Teen

For generations, parents have marveled at the differences between the lives their teens lead and the ones they led as teenagers.

That sentiment holds true now more than ever with today’s crop of teenagers. Due to the ubiquity of smartphones, teens don’t find much use in their parents’ antiquated, “analog” advice.

And since parents generally aren’t fluent in all things digital, the divide between generations has grown. But believe it or not, many teens are using their phones for practical purposes, many of which can help save money and budget savings.

With the holiday shopping season bearing down on us, now’s the time to take a tip out of your teen’s book—or iBook, as it is.

Mobile couponing

Gone are the days of lugging around a bulging binder of coupons that you cut out of the weekly circular. There are dozens of ways to stay up on deals, sales, and coupons from your favorite stores or places of entertainment in mobile form. The chances your teen is using one or more app on their smartphone to save some cash is very good. (The chances they’re calling it “couponing” is conversely very slim.) We detailed the myriad ways your smartphone can help you save, and even earn, money in our last post that you can read in full here (link to Dec. mobile couponing post).

With that in mind, you can now save with coupons sent directly to your phone. If that’s not easy enough for you, several apps give you rewards points that you can use for cash back by simply entering a store. Have your teen give you a brief tutorial and start your holiday shopping saving!

Social media

Yes, it may have begun as a way to share pictures with friends, but social media has connected people on a global scale, making it easier to share deals. Many of the mobile coupon apps provide incentives by liking their page or sharing it with friends. Plus, by simply using social media as a discussion forum, you have access to priceless knowledge from millions of people. You’d be surprised how many thoughtful and useful answers you can receive by asking a simple question. Looking to make an affordable DIY gift? Look to Pinterest. Want to know where your daughter’s friend bought those boots? Post something on Facebook. Social media is all about how you use it!

Gently used, not second hand

The tech industry is flourishing in part because of business models that take advantage of the sharing economy. Why? Because it turns out people are willing to share, trade, and barter if it means saving money. If your teen hasn’t already partaken in this type of shopping, they can certainly talk like they have. Yerdle is an online garage sale type of app where you can get rid of items you no longer want. Post a picture of the item, ship it to the buyer (for free), and earn Yerdle dollars that you can use to acquire new items. This could come in handy when looking for unique items to give as gifts.

All in all, there is a lot you can learn from entering the mobile world of your teen, so let them teach you a thing or two for a change, and it might pay off with some extra spending money for holiday gifts.

Learning financial literacy is fun with the H&R Block Budget Challenge. Encourage your teen’s teacher to find out more about how students can learn real-world money management skills without the real-world consequence by registering here for the next H&R Block Budget Challenge simulation.