How Learning and Thinking Differences Can Make It Hard to Manage Money

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • Different learning and thinking differences create different challenges for handling money.

  • Dyscalculia, ADHD and executive functioning issues are the main issues that can make it hard to manage and use money.

  • There are strategies your teen can use to make handling money easier.

Being able to manage money is an important life skill that all teens and young adults need to have. And ideally, they’ll start learning and practicing when they’re young. But certain learning and thinking differences can make managing money more challenging.

It can also be stressful. Imagine having to figure out what something costs or work a cash register when you have trouble with math. Or keep track of your cash or paycheck if you have problems with executive function. Some teens will avoid applying for certain jobs or going shopping with friends to avoid looking “stupid” if they have trouble handling the money.

A number of learning and thinking differences can impact the ability to manage money. These include dyscalculia, executive functioning issues and ADHD. The reasons are different, however, and so are the strategies for helping.

Learn how various learning and thinking differences can affect the ability to manage money. And discover ways to help your teen develop the money skills needed for independent living.

How Dyscalculia Can Affect Money Management

What it is: A learning difference that makes it hard to perform math-related tasks. Some kids may have trouble understanding basic concepts like more and less or smaller and larger. They may also not understand quantities. (These basic skills are sometimes called number sense.)

If they also have problems with working memory, that can pose added challenges. It can make it hard to recall math facts or hold a number in mind to use in a task.

The money management connection: Teens with dyscalculia can find it hard to count money, make exact change or understand quantities.

Specific difficulties: Teens might have trouble estimating the total cost of an item. When shopping, they might not understand how to figure out a discount or sales tax. At a restaurant they may struggle to calculate the percentages for a tip.

Strategies that can help:

  • Open a bank account for your child and bring her with you to talk with the bank representative. (Banks often have staff members who do community outreach. That person can be a resource for your child when questions come up.) Having an account allows your teen to keep track of both income—from babysitting or a part-time job—and spending, and get a sense of how much is there. 

  • Encourage the use of a calculator (most cellphones have them) to figure out costs of things or tips, right on the spot. This will also help if your child struggles with writing down numbers.

  • Help your child create a spreadsheet for all expenses. (You may need to set it up so your teen simply has to put in the amounts.) Expenses include costs for clothes, transportation, movies and apps. It also includes weekly and monthly costs, like gas money.

  • To encourage saving, ask your teen to record monthly income on a spreadsheet or an app. Demonstrate how to subtract the amount of expenses from total income. If there’s money left over—great. Otherwise, your teen will need to decide where to cut back in the next month. Also, explain to your teen the importance of saving, and decide on an amount to set aside each month and not touch.

How ADHD and Trouble with Executive Function Can Affect Money Management

What is it: ADHD is a common disorder that impacts focus, self-control and executive function (EF). Kids with executive functioning issues have displayed a weakness in a set of mental skills, including working memory, self-control and flexible thinking. 

The money management connection: Trouble with EF often means problems with other skills that are key to managing money (and many other tasks). These skills include attention, organization and time management. In addition, kids with ADHD can be impulsive with money and not think about consequences. 

Specific difficulties: Teens with these issues might lose parking tickets or paychecks in their room or backpack—or forget they even got them. They might not remember to pay tickets on time to avoid a late fee. They may also lose receipts or leave a coupon at home and overpay at the store. They may go on shopping sprees when they need the money to pay a bill. Or they may make poor decisions about what to spend their money on.

Strategies that can help:

  • Develop a system for your teen to keep track of weekly spending. This might include money spent on gas, entertainment, food, etc. That way, your teen can get a sense of how much money is going out the door. For any regular expenses, have your child put reminders on a wall or on her phone.

  • If your child is a young adult, help set up a system for organizing money-related paperwork. One way to do that is with color-coded folders. For instance, your child might keep pay stubs in a green folder, receipts in a red one, and tax forms in a blue one.

  • Every month, help your teen figure out what her expenses will be, and fill different envelopes with cash for each one. Have your child identify which envelopes must have money in them—like the one for transportation to school, for instance. And help your teen figure out which she can take money out of if she runs low elsewhere.

  • There are also apps that can help teens and young adults budget and keep track of spending and savings. Examples include SpendeeWally, and Mint.

  • Have your child pick a special purchase and figure out how much money to set aside each month to pay for it. Also set a goal for saving money in general and set up a bank account for your teen for just that purpose.

Teens can struggle with money management for a number of reasons. But it doesn’t have to a lifelong problem. Strategies and practice can help your teen become comfortable with and successful at handling money.

There are other ways you can help your teen or young adult child feel prepared for independent living. Practice job interview questions with your child. Learn about what predicts success for kids with learning and thinking differences. And read how IEP transition planning helped one teen start college with confidence.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with impulsivity may not consider the consequences of overspending.

  • Using spreadsheets can help teens keep track of money coming in and going out.

  • It can take lots of practice for teens to learn strategies that can help with money management.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Jim Rein, MA 

has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.

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