When I was a kid, my mom would hand me and my sisters $1.25 for our school lunch each day. But things have changed in this digital world. Today many parents use school lunch debit cards which are linked to their bank account. There’s a convenience to setting this up, but also a drawback when it comes to helping your kids learn how to manage money.

While it is simple to automatically fund the account when it reaches a low amount, kids aren’t actually getting the concept that they’re spending money. They aren’t likely to pay attention to how much they are spending and are more likely to buy junk food. Moreover, parents aren’t able to budget for these extra small expenses because kid’s have free access to the money in their parent’s checking account.

Yes, the school lunch account is an expense.

It’s easy to let your child’s school lunch debit card get refunded automatically. You don’t ever have to worry about your kid not having enough money for lunch, but you’re also not teaching your child about managing their money.

Lunch used to cost $1.25, but now kids have options for snack lines that include soda, chips, candy bars, and other unhealthy choices. Those snacks can add up to $4 or more per day.

The Little Expenses Add Up

School lunch on average across the country costs $2.48 for elementary ages kids and $2.74 for high school kids. If your elementary school kid consistently buys school lunch throughout the year it will cost around $500 and closer to $550 for your high schooler. But if they’re adding in little splurges like soda, chips and candy bars on a daily basis, that cost can jump to more than $800 per year.

If you want to end the free reign on school time food purchases, your can curb your child’s spending with these tips:

  1. Give your child a spending limit. Tell them they can only spend $x a day or per week. This is a great way for them to learn to make better decisions and live on a budget each day.
  2. Review purchases. Call out when you see them starting to routinely spend on those small snacks. Not only is the expense adding up, but so can the calories. Encourage your child to make healthy food choices, like apples, and drink choices like water. Not only is it healthy, it’s free!
  3. Get them ready for the real world. Use this account as a practice checking account. Make sure your child can see money coming into and going out of the account. They can track their spending habits, but you’re still in control. It’s great practice for later in life when they’re having to budget for more than a school lunch.

Kids might think their parents are an endless source of money with all the purchasing power they need, but we know the reality of having a budget and sticking to it. By setting a spending limit, reviewing expenses, and teaching kids about money, you’re helping them avoid some of the pitfalls that we’ve all experienced — overspending and debt — and are helping them make good choices when it comes to money.

Want to help our kids learn more money lessons? Check out our Carmen’s Corner blog posts for more tips and inspiration on raising money-smart kids. We think one of the most important things you can do is pass on good money habits to your children. If you have an idea for a future Carmen’s corner post, let us know.