Tonight, the group I’m chaperoning in DC had dinner in a Thai restaurant. It wasn’t the most popular option, but it was good. Review tomorrow, when I’m feeling up to it; likewise my impressions of SHEAR MADNESS after the eleventh time.

No, what I really wanted to talk about was crowdsourcing the budget of my annual Washington DC trip. I happened to have all the paperwork with me when a student asked about what I had to pay to go on this trip, and I told him “nothing.” That upset him a little, so I got out the papers and my budget, and I showed him how the numbers run. In due course, I had five kids genuinely interested in the mechanics of taking money from ten families and generating travel for twelve people.

They asked good questions — why this hotel (it’s close to a metro station?) Why eat dinner as a group the first night (the group helps build a reserve fund when they don’t order big-ticket items from the menu). Why did you buy 15 tickets for SHEAR MADNESS? (Because 12 tickets at full price are more expensive than 15 tickets at group-rate price). Is there tax on the cost of the rooms? (Yes.) Do we have to pay it, ’cause we’re a school group? (Yes, because it’s a DC tax not a CT tax and we’re a CT non-profit not a DC non-profit). Is that ten cent fare hike that took effect between when you budgeted and now really hammering us? (yes, actually, it is.) WIll we get anything back at the end of the trip (No, probably not… see note on taxes and unexpected fare hike). What’s this line item, “cushion” for? (That’s the money I hold in reserve if case I have a genuine emergency, like a hospital visit or a cab ride).

The five kids didn’t have questions about every line item, but it felt good to make their trip more transparent to them. They could see that our odd numbers of boys and girls had cost them a trip to the movies — because we needed an extra hotel room. They could see that buying our train tickets in October as opposed to November had saved us the cost of that hotel room. The list went on.

One kid caught a number that was doubled: $115 for an entry fee that was listed twice. He found me almost $40 I didn’t think I had. (Thanks, Stephen Downes, for reminding me to trust people with better math skills — even if they are 15. No, ESPECIALLY if they’re 15.)

I have about a dozen notes from questions they asked about things to do differently next time. It felt good to involve them in the money side of the process for the first time, and it flattened the relationship between us. In the Metro tonight, kids chipped in nickels and dimes to cover the $0.10 fare hike for the first time in all the years we’ve been coming to DC. Because for the first time, they were invested in where the money came from, and what it was spent on. And that transparency made the experience more valuable for them.

Next year… transparent budgeting, all the way.