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Money Math: Teaching How to
Make Change

by Shirlea Smith (shismith@gov.mb.ca)

In today’s electronic world, computerized cash registers often calculate and even return the exact change. People seldom have to make change; in fact they rarely even see ‘making change’ modeled as they pay for their own purchases. As a result, many people feel a lack of confidence in their ability to give back correct change and to know if they’ve been given correct change.

Making change uses Money Math skills, a component of the Essential Skill of Numeracy, which the HRSDC Reader’s Guide defines as “workers’ use of numbers and their being required to think in quantitative terms.” Making change is at complexity level 1, the least complex, because only one type of mathematical operation is used in the task, and all the information is provided.

Here’s a learning activity, after which the learner will be able to give back correct change by the ‘counting on’ method.

Start with the student as the customer and you as the cashier.

  • Learning styles: In this activity, we’ll use role-playing to interact with the information. Role-playing is an effective strategy for most people’s learning styles.


  • Moving from the known to the unknown: This is about the process of making change, not about mental addition and subtraction, so start with math that the learners can easily do in their heads. (Of course, if a learner is not yet comfortable counting money, that foundation will have to be laid first.)


  • What you will need:
    • Some money: a penny, a quarter, a loonie, a $10 bill and a $20 bill.
    • Three receipts (real, imaginary or calculator paper tape) for $10.00, $8.75 and $9.99.

Have the learner-as-customer role-play making a purchase totalling $10.00 but paying with a $20 bill. Ask them how much money they think they should get back as change.

As the instructor/cashier, give the learner/customer her receipt while you say $10, and then give her the $10 bill saying “And another ten makes twenty dollars” which is the amount she gave you to make her payment.

Now trade roles:

As the customer, you buy something that totals $9.99. Pay with a $10 bill.

The learner/cashier probably has no trouble giving you back a penny. After you acknowledge the correctness of that, ask her to try to say how she knew.

Then tell her you are going to teach her what to say while making change to minimize the chance of misunderstanding between customers and cashier. Tell her you are going to repeat the same transaction, but this time, before she gives back the change, she is going to say the value of the purchase, “Nine ninety-nine”, and then when she gives you the penny, she’s going to keep on counting the money from $9.99 and say $10.

Do it again with a purchase value that will require more than one coin in change i.e. $8.75. Make sure she says “Eight seventy-five” before giving you any change, “Nine dollars” as she gives you the quarter, and “Ten dollars” as she gives you the loonie.

Then try it with a purchase of $8.75 again, but you make your payment with the $20 bill.

You’re watching for an “aha” moment as she realizes she doesn’t need to add and subtract in her head; she only needs to keep counting money from where the purchase left off up to the amount she was given for payment.

If the ‘aha’ moment doesn’t happen on its own after a few role-played transactions, you may have to explain that the process of making change is to just keeping on counting out money till you’ve given back the full value of the money used to make the payment.

Visit http://www.funbrain.com/cashreg/index.html for an online virtual experience in making change.