It's hard to say no to a pint-sized cookie peddler, sweetly asking: "Would you like to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies?" But in an age where you're watching every penny, it can be equally hard to cough up between $3.50 and $4 for a box of 15 cookies -- even if those Samoas are perhaps the best thing that will ever cross your lips.

Despite their undeniable tastiness, there's no denying that, at $3.50 to $4 per box, Girl Scout cookies can be costly. But it might soften the blow to know where your cookie money really goes.Donna Ceravolo, CEO of Girl Scouts of Nassau County, New York, says a majority of the sales price of each box stays in the community. Using the Nassau County price of $3.50 per box as our example, here's a breakdown of how she says the money is spent.

For each box sold, 85 cents per box goes to the baker to cover production, packaging, shipping of the cookies to the troop, and other incidental costs. Out of the remaining $2.65, 50 to 57 cents goes to the selling troop, which will use the funds to cover the cost of programming, community service projects and scholarships, and to offset the cost of participating in Girl Scouts.

Of course, then there are the prizes that some troops dole out to their top-selling scouts. Prizes can cost anywhere from 5 to 7 cents per box, says Ceravolo. So if a troop opts to award prizes, they'll get about 50 to 52 cents per box. "But if a troop votes to eliminate prizes, they get about 57 cents per box," she says.

Of the remaining funds, about 1 penny per box goes to the neighborhood "service unit" -- another level of scouting -- and stays within the community. The rest goes to the regional council, which is usually comprised of numerous troops that are located near each other, Ceravolo explains. The regional council of Nassau County, for instance, focuses solely on the troops in Nassau County, New York. "The remaining $2.14 to $2.07 is used to fund local programming, support summer camps, train adult volunteers, and so on," says Ceravolo.

Contrary to urban legends, the proceeds from Girl Scout cookie sales are not funneled to the national scouting organization. "Girl Scouts of the USA has a deal in place in which they receive royalties directly from the two national bakers of the cookies," Ceravolo says. "The regional councils do not send cookie money to the national organization."

The scoop on troops
Ceravolo says troops are allowed to individually decide how they want to allocate the money they receive from the sale of the cookies. "Most use it to fund community service and action projects," she says. "The girls decide what they want to do, then set cookie sales goals in order to pay for those projects."

But perhaps the biggest payoff from the annual cookie program isn't the money that changes hands, but what the girls learn about finances. "The cookie program is one of the most effective financial literacy programs in the country," Ceravolo says.

"I learned how to balance a checkbook, set budget goals, pay bills and even practice fiscal restraint as a Girl Scout," says Juanita Vasquez, 27, of Chicago. "I didn't have the opportunity to learn those lessons at home, so I'm grateful I was able to learn them as a scout."

Ceravolo says education is one of the cookie program's main objectives. "All the girls who participate learn goal setting and decision-making skills while they're learning about giving to their community," she says.

One might argue the girls also learn just how much power a box of cookies can wield in neighborhoods all across the U.S.

Gina Roberts-Grey is freelance journalist and frequent contributor to WalletPop.

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