Working with money and coins: Why some kids struggle with it

At a glance

  • Lots of kids struggle with money math, like adding or subtracting coins in their head.

  • Kids who struggle with math in general may have trouble working with money.

  • Stress can make it harder to use money in real-life situations.

Picture a busy store with a long line of customers. Your child is at the front holding a handful of change. But is it the right combination of coins? Your child has trouble counting money. And the longer it takes your child to count the change, the longer the other customers have to wait.

Why do some kids have so much difficulty counting money? Stress can be part of it. But there are other reasons why kids can have trouble understanding money and counting coins. Learn more.

What trouble counting money can look like

There are lots of times when kids may struggle with adding or subtracting coins. Here are some examples of what trouble counting money can look like.

Making change: At a school bake sale, a customer wants to buy three 25-cent cookies and hands your child two quarters and three dimes. How much change should they get back?

Counting bills: Your child is saving up for a new game and has two $5 bills and four $1 bills so far. How much has your child saved?

Estimating how much something will cost: Your child and a friend want to split a $10 pizza and $5 mozzarella sticks. Together they have $12 — do they have enough to get both?

Calculating sales tax or a tip: If the sales tax is 10%, what will the total cost be?

Splitting a check: If they’re each paying for half the pizza, what’s the total cost to your child?

Why working with money is hard

Counting change involves doing a lot of adding and subtracting in your head. This is called mental math, and it can be tough for kids to master.

But when kids are working with coins, there’s an extra step to these mental math problems: remembering how much each coin is worth. That’s a lot to keep in mind.

Some kids may struggle with the fact that dimes are smaller than pennies and nickels but are worth more than these bigger coins — especially if they’re very concrete thinkers. If a dime is worth 10 pennies, shouldn’t it be 10 times bigger than a penny?

Some kids have trouble working with money because they don’t yet have a solid understanding of addition and subtraction. A surprising number of kids struggle with foundational math skills. Learn more about why some kids have trouble with math in general.

How to help kids get better at money math

Here are a few strategies to help kids work with coins and count change.

Sort coins from a money jar at home. Start by guessing how much the coins are worth in total. Then sort by type of coin. For example, cluster each group of 10 dimes so that each cluster is worth a dollar. Then point to each cluster as you count the total number of dollars.

Role-play. Encourage kids to play cashier at home or in another low-stress setting. This lets them practice using the math skills they need at the check-out counter. Switch roles so sometimes they’re the cashier and sometimes they’re the customer.

Use practice coins that look real. Some kids have trouble taking what they learn and applying it in real-life situations. Using plastic coins that look real can help kids learn the color, size, and thickness of each coin.

If you’re concerned your child is struggling to learn how to count money, talk with your child’s teacher about trouble with math. Find out if what you’re seeing is typical for kids the same age. Brainstorm with the teacher about ways to help your child understand money and work with coins.

Key takeaways

  • Kids have to use money math a lot — from saving to buy something to splitting a check.

  • A surprising number of kids struggle with the basic math skills needed to work with money.

  • Role-play situations that involve money, and practice with real-looking coins.


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