At Fillmore High School last week, economics teacher Debbie Hoffman put her students through Christmas-shopping boot camp. The process also taught the teacher a thing or two about kids' gift preferences.
Holiday shopping was the topic for the semester's final written assignment in a required senior course that covered investing, personal and government financial issues--and the nitty-gritty of keeping a checking account in balance.
Hoffman reported that parents frequently asked her to include the checkbook lesson in her state-mandated economics class. So her students use fake checks to draw on an imaginary $300 weekly salary from an imaginary job chosen from newspaper employment ads.
This fall, after assigning students a series of life-skill problems such as juggling rent, grocery shopping and utilities, Hoffman told them: "Write a list of what you would actually buy for your families and other people--not yourselves. If you have the money in your account, total up the cost and write a check to Santa."
How much will teenagers spend on Christmas presents when the money involved is, theoretically, their own?
The students' checks to Santa--mostly in the $100 to $200 range--paid for items chosen from catalogs and newspaper advertisements.
Some students spent more than $200, having accumulated larger balances by being frugal with their imaginary salaries. Some had balances closer to $75 because they spent money on themselves or because of bad-luck expenses.
Hoffman added a big dose of reality to the exercise by dropping "fate cards"--representing the unexpected cost of a medical bill or speeding ticket--on some students' desks.
The fate cards, by the way, made a strong impression on the students. Hoffman said that while they were making out their shopping lists, "they prayed they wouldn't be dealt a fate card that would take away a lot of their Christmas gift money."
A spending pattern emerged among the 90 students in Hoffman's three classes. "They were more into the entertainment type of thing--videos, action figures, playing cards and quartz watches [many] based on 'Toy Story,' " she noted. "The kids always know what's in the video store, and they see the movie ads."
She posted ads on her classroom wall representing Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, Circuit City, Toy 'R' Us and Target. But conventional advertising wasn't nearly as effective as movie tie-ins.
Most purchases were "connected with entertainment such as Mickey Mouse or 'Mission Impossible' and 'The Nutty Professor' movies," she said. "A lot bought Barbie. A lot."
Hoffman put up the Pottery Barn catalogs--whose wares she personally fancies--in hopes of encouraging students to give relatives some home-decor items. "Pottery Barn sold nothing," she said. "And it also depressed me that books were not being bought. People don't read for entertainment."
After the movie tie-in gifts, the Fillmore students tended to choose cordless phones (which nowadays sell for as low as $25), portable audiocassette players, automatic cameras and jewelry. In last place were toys not connected with movies: humble Erector sets, trucks and in-line skates.
Adults might raise an eyebrow at such priorities. But there's a lesson here for adults, too. If you have to get a last-minute gift for a teenager, think "Toy Story," "Mission Impossible" and "The Nutty Professor."