One Dollar Words

Players: 1 or more
Ages: 7 and up
Cost: Free!
Math Ideas: addition, friendly numbers
Questions to Ask
    What does your name add up to?
    What word have you found that is closest to a one dollar word?
    Can you come up with a silly word that adds to one dollar?

I distinctly remember the moment my wife truly saw me for the math nerd I am.

We were on a road trip, staring out the window between conversations, when I pointed and said "One dollar word."

"What?" she replied.


"We just passed a sign that had a 'one dollar word.' It's that thing where you turn all the letters into numbers based on their place in the alphabet and then add them up. If they add to 100, that's a one dollar word. When I'm driving and I'm bored, I like to look for them."

She looked at me in silent horror. 

"What do you think about when you're bored in the car?" I said.

"My life, my friends. People."

"Oh. Well, I do math puzzles."

The silence returned.

The thing is, until that moment, I didn't even know that I was weird. I honestly thought everyone occupied their minds with little math games. Look for one dollar words, add the numbers on a license plate, try to find another turn signal whose timing synchronizes with the clicking of your own. Anything to keep my mind occupied until the light changed.


I truly believe that one reason I was a strong math student is that, when my mind wandered, it wandered in a mathematical direction. I noticed patterns, I developed strategies and shortcuts, and I generally became fluent at basic calculations, all without drilling my times tables. 

My hope is that when you introduce your kids to little math games like One Dollar Words, their minds will start to wander mathematically as well.

How to Play

Essentially, all you have to do is pick a word and then convert each letter in that word into a number based on its order in the alphabet. So A=1, B=2, C=3...Z=26. 

Once you've done that, simply add the numbers together, trying to find a word that adds to 100. The word "math," for example, can be converted to the sequence 13-1-20-8, which adds to a total of 42. 

When I first learned the game in 3rd grade, my teacher said that each letter cost a different amount of cents, so adding to 100 meant that you had found a one dollar word.  I just think it's a catchy way to remember the game.

If you want to get creative, you can introduce the game to them as a "secret code." Write them a simple message using the numbers. The sentence "I love you" translates to "9   12-15-22-5   25-15-21"

Once they've learned how to crack the code, you can write each other little notes to familiarize yourselves with the conversion into numbers. Then, introduce the idea of these special words, the one dollar words that are so rare and elusive. 

Make sure your kid has pencil and paper, though! It's tough to keep track of more than a couple of letters at a time without a place to keep track of their thinking. It might even help to copy the conversion chart from above and put it on their paper, so they have an easy reference for their conversions.

Where's the Math?

If your kid really starts searching for one dollar words, she's going to be doing a great deal of addition, which means she'll probably start to look for ways to save herself some effort. She might start using a strategy based on making friendly numbers.

Let's look at the name Hilary, which converts to 8-9-12-1-18-25. How would you add these numbers, if you wanted to make it easy on yourself?


Personally, I'd start by adding the 9 and 1 to make 10. Then I'd add the 8 and 12 to make 20. These numbers are often called friendly numbers in elementary classrooms, since they are so easy to add.. Together those make 30, and I still have the 18 and 25 left. I'd probably take two from the 25 and add it to the 18, making 20 (another friendly number) and 23. So now 30+20+23 is 73. Not quite a dollar, but getting closer... 

I certainly wouldn't line all the numbers up vertically and then add all the ones, followed by the tens. That just seems like too much effort when I can make numbers that are so friendly!

In school, your children will learn the standard algorithm for addition, I promise. But hopefully they will learn to think flexibly about numbers, so that they build a toolkit of shortcuts and strategies that will help them for years to come.

Questions to Ask

While your child plays, you can suggest all sorts of paths for them to explore. For example:

  • Who in our family has a name that is closest to one dollar? 
  • Can you come up with a nonsense word that is a one dollar word? Once you do, let's come up with a definition for that word!
  • What other words have the same value as your name? Do those words describe you?
  • Here is a list of a bunch of one dollar words. Can you write a sentence using five of these words? How many can you fit in a sentence that still makes sense?

Notice that not all of these questions are entirely mathematical; that's intentional. You want to spark your child's interest, first and foremost, so that they keep coming back to this idea over time. Once their mind wanders back, the math will still be here, inherent in the game itself.

If you want to get truly adventurous, or you want to complete a big project with a class of kids, you could make a huge poster with blanks next to each number from 1-100. Then, as your kids find words with each value, they fill them in until the whole poster is full of words! There might be a space or two, though, that is impossible to fill. Which ones might those be?


Maybe, just maybe, your child will find themselves with a dead iPad and an hour to kill before they get to the beach or to Grandmama's house. And then they'll see a sign and start to wonder, are any of those words one dollar words...