April's most panic-inducing deadline for adults can be the perfect way to teach kids about financial responsibility. Start off with an explanation of taxes and why we have them; then assign games and activities to instill responsible financial habits.
What Are Taxes? What Is Tax Day?
A tax is a mandatory fee imposed by the government or other similar organization. If you've ever noticed that the price of something you buy at a store upon checkout is higher than the listed price, then you've just witnessed a sales tax that your state charges. In the same way, the federal government charges an income tax. When people work, they earn an income that helps pay for things like their homes, food, and clothes. Most employees are paid with paper or electronic paychecks; sometimes, the income tax is automatically deducted out of each paycheck.
However, there are so many different tax laws that a person may have too much or too little money taken out from each paycheck (or even none at all depending on their employers). So every year, working people must file their taxes by a deadline we call Tax Day, which is almost always on April 15. They find out if they must make a payment to the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS, the government agency that collects taxes and enforces tax laws) or if they qualify for a tax return, which refunds some of the money collected from paychecks throughout the year.
Why do we need income taxes? Income taxes help pay for the services that the government provides and supports, such as education, healthcare, and the military. People disagree on how much money goes to each department of the government. For this reason, taxes are one of the most controversial topics in politics today.
Americans didn't always have to pay an income tax. For more than 130 years, the United States government was not allowed to levy an income tax on its citizens. Then, in 1913, under President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed the sixteenth amendment:
"The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."
Visit the Tax History Project website for timelines, political cartoons, and even the tax returns of presidents and vice-presidents of the United States.
Bonus: Why does Tax Day fall on April 15? Read this article from Fortune magazine to find the answer.
Activities and Lesson Plans
Teach students the importance of money management as well as the government's role in taxes.
- Look up tax vocabulary with a word search (PDF).
- Fill out a challenging crossword puzzle (PDF).
- Test math skills and learn to shop wisely with the Bargain Hunter (PDF).
If You Were President Online Activity
It's not easy to decide how much to tax American citizens and where that money goes. In this student activity, students will choose advisers and submit a balanced budget plan. Then they must explain to the press their decisions to support specific programs.
For Grades 3-5
Creating a Classroom Economy is a unit plan about economics that can last the entire year if you want it to. Introduce real-world economic concepts with play money, banks, credit, and entrepreneurship.
For Grades 6-8
In Hello Working World, students learn how to budget an income in consideration of taxes, housing, transportation, food, utilities, entertainment, and savings.
For Grades 9-12
Get high school students off to a financially responsible start by share a pocket monthly budget (PDF) to help students keep track of their expenses and save for their future.
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