How Eating Girl Scout Cookies Helps Kids Learn About Money

The venerable Girl Scout cookie drive has morphed from simple fund raiser into a personal finance tutorial for kids, lending the organization heightened relevance as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

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Matt Slocum / AP

I’ll never look at a Girl Scout cookie the same way.

For years I bought a dozen or so boxes each selling season, figuring I was helping fund a good organization that introduces young girls to outdoor activities and cultural events. Well, okay, I enjoy bingeing on Samoas too. But I always overlooked the financial education aspect of the girls’ cookie experience, which now strikes me as the most important part of being a Girl Scout.

Learning how to canoe or make a campfire is great stuff. But learning how to set goals and manage money is a far more important life skill, and in recent years the annual cookie drive has emerged primarily as a vehicle for teaching girls about business and finance. What started in 1933 as a bake sale to raise operating funds has turned into a personal finance tutorial.

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Last year, in the first overhaul of its merit badge system since 1987, the Girl Scouts introduced a new set of badges for financial literacy. Scouts can earn recognition for:

  • Money management
  • Budgeting
  • Financing their future
  • Good credit
  • Philanthropy

The organization turns 100 this year and has latched onto something important. “The last couple years with the economic situation in this country we realized that girls sometimes get a little scared about talking and learning about money,” Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of America, said this week on CNBC. “So we wanted to provide a platform where girls can learn it in a fun way.”

This shift—from simple fundraising to financial education tool—has been under way for some time. But the recession and resulting awareness of how important it is for youth, especially girls, to learn about money put a charge into the new approach.

Students receive little financial education at school and have repeatedly failed broad tests measuring their mastery of basic personal finance and economic concepts. Just 14 states require high schools to offer a course in personal finance, according to the Council for Economic Education. Even fewer require students to take such a course in order to graduate.

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Programs like Girl Scout cookies, which bring in $760 million annually and are the largest girl-led business in the nation, can help fill this void. The girls set goals, meet deadlines, work with others, handle money and make decisions on where and how to reinvest the proceeds. This is the kind of stuff that will help them make smart money decisions as adults.

That’s a lot bigger than raising funds for a field trip—and it makes every Thin Mint seem a little less fattening.