As a parent, I wish my kids could just absorb all of my hardest life lessons by osmosis. But the truth is that they’ll pick up a grab bag of my and my husband’s habits and tendencies, both the good and the less-than-stellar.
When it comes to money, studies show that our kids are quite likely to follow in our footsteps. A T. Rowe Price study indicates that parents with $5,000 or more in credit card debt are significantly more likely to have kids who aren't so good at knowing how to stop spending money.
“Our kids are sponges—they hear what we say and watch what we do,” says Laura Levine, president and CEO of Jump$tart Coalition, which supports financial literacy for kids.
Victor Ricciardi, a finance professor at Goucher College and co-editor of the book Financial Behavior: Players, Services, Products, and Markets, agrees. “As children, we emulate the environment around us. If we see our parents overspending, we’re more likely to repeat that behavior in adulthood,” Ricciardi says.
From my weird-looking toes to my relationship with money (which includes both a stingy streak and an embarrassing inability to budget), my kids are likely to inherit some traits from me that I wish I could just skip.
Money can be a really emotional topic for many of us. The good news is that we don’t have to have our own financial lives 100 percent tied up in a bow in order to help our kids establish good money habits.
Here’s how to get started:
If money is a tense subject in your household (and let’s face it, for many of us, it often is) one of the first steps is to stop fighting about money—especially while the kids are around. “One of the problems with arguing about money is it makes kids feel anxious about whether there’s enough money or not. This can give kids a feeling of insecurity around financial decisions,” says Levine.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
If you’re having terse financial conversations with your spouse on the regular, agree to shelve those talks until the kids are asleep or at a friend’s house.
One great way to do this is to establish a monthly money date when you and your spouse can get on the same page, to prevent any disagreements from bubbling over during that family car ride or when everyone’s sitting down together at dinner. This is your opportunity to ensure both partners feel heard and respected, which tends to help curb money disagreements in general.
If money continues to be a source of tension between you and your spouse, you might consider seeing a couples counselor or a financial coach to help you iron out your differences.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to grocery shop with a toddler can attest to the urgency of a child’s wants, so it’s important to talk with our kids about the difference between wants and needs, even though the concept can take time to sink in.
One great way to teach financial literacy for kids is to involve your children in your own financial situation and money goals.
If you’re struggling with overspending, you might try categorizing all your expenditures into wants and needs. John Lanza, founder of The Money Mammals, a series of financial education tools for young children, points out that our true needs are startlingly few.
We need shelter, food and water, a few toiletries and a basic wardrobe. Everything else, from that double-shot vanilla soy latte to your Amazon Prime subscription (which may feel like a need) is a want. And as time goes on, it’s easy for lifestyle creep to take hold, with our expenses inching up over the years.
Make a list of all your necessary expenses, and a second list of expenses that qualify as wants. Try cutting a few items from the “wants” category to make more room in your budget.
In addition to helping us curb our own overspending, paying closer attention to how often we’re indulging in our wants can positively impact our kids, too. “Many times people don’t think about their behavior, but our children are much brighter than we give them credit for,” says Ricciardi. “If they constantly see you going out to dinner, they’ll be more likely to replicate that behavior later.”
Many parents these days take a head-on approach when talking with our kids, whether that means discussing emotions or using anatomical names for body parts. When it comes to financial literacy for kids, our children can benefit from a similar approach.
Yet if money is an issue for us, it can be tempting to avoid the topic altogether. How can we teach our kids something that we haven’t yet mastered ourselves?
“When we say ‘teach,’ it freaks out parents because we don’t think of ourselves as experts,” acknowledges Levine. “So instead of thinking of it as teaching, just focus on talking to your kids about money.”
The opportunities to talk about money are endless. Trying to tamp down your overspending? Let your kids in on your plans for how to stop spending money. Got a larger-than-expected tax refund? Let the kids sit in while you and your spouse discuss how to use that money. Freaked out about saving for college? Hop online with your kids to find out about the different options for paying for education.
“We feel shame because we feel like we should understand the complexities around money, but really we need to understand the simplicity of money,” says Lanza. His grandfather taught him two basic rules of finance: harness the power of compound interest, and live beneath your means.
Lanza notes that it’s never too early to start talking with our kids about money. “Just as we read to our kids when they’re young without expecting they’re going to immediately learn to read, talking about money gives them building blocks for financial literacy,” he says.
As we have these conversations, it’s important to examine our own biases and beliefs around money. “Be careful of your own money assumptions and delivering that baggage to your kids,” says Lanza.
For instance, if we have negative stereotypes about wealthy people, or even what wealth looks like, we might want to dig into that. Lanza says, “I often tell my kids that the type of car somebody drives or the house they live in doesn’t actually tell you anything about them--they could be a millionaire or living hand to mouth.”
Ricciardi suggests incorporating tools like books, apps and money games for kids to help kids learn about money.
Lanza’s Money Mammals offers four different apps, several books and a TV series that help kids learn about saving, giving and smart spending. For tweens and teens, Lanza recommends the show BizKid$, which approaches financial topics from different angles.
Feeling nostalgic (or don’t feel like watching an online kids’ show about money)? Classic board games like Monopoly and The Game of Life offer plenty of opportunity to talk money with your kids, too.
Levine suggests families identify a savings goal together, like funding a vacation, and each member contribute what he or she is able to. Opening a savings account can help teach older kids about the beauty of compound interest, though younger kids might have more fun watching an old-fashioned piggy bank fill up.
You can even make a progress map to track your goal together, coloring in part of the picture every time you hit a milestone. “With a joint goal, everyone tends to try harder than they would individually, because they’re in it together,” Levine says.
Most of us are naturally inclined to favor either spending or saving, and our kids are no different. If we notice one of our kids is begging to run to the toy store the second he gets his allowance, we can’t magically turn him into a saver, but we can teach him to spend smarter.
“If you’ve got a spender, teach them to comparison shop, and teach them how to set a goal,” Levine says. “You can teach them to be a better money manager even if you can’t change their personal proclivity.”
Lanza, who acknowledges his own tendency as a spender, suggests a good way to learn how to stop spending money is to impose a waiting period as a way to curb impulse spending, both for your kids and for yourself. That’s what he does with his own family: “We all have to wait at least a week to make any purchase over $50, and two weeks for anything that costs more than $100.”
While spenders tend to get the worst rap, stinginess isn’t a quality we want to pass onto our kids, either. For those of us who are a little too loath to part with our money, getting in the habit of donating money--and teaching our kids to do the same—can help us loosen up our grip on our purse strings.
Lanza recommends kids designate a third of their allowance to helping others. Try to make the cause as tangible as possible; if your family wants to help feed needy families, for instance, take your kids to the grocery store to stock up on food to donate, and then bring your little ones with you to deliver the donation.
Just as the vast majority of us aren’t qualified to teach our kids the ins and outs of chemistry or advanced algebra, we can partner with schools when it comes to teaching financial literacy for kids.
Too many of us consider money a taboo topic, and don’t want to pass that reluctance down to our kids. So there’s a double benefit to formal money education: Simply spending time learning and talking about finances in a group setting can help make money a more matter-of-fact topic and neutralize any stigma.
“Make your voices heard in your kids’ schools and afterschool programs,” Levine says. “If there’s not already a financial education program, ask the school board to consider creating one.” Or check out your state’s Jump$tart chapter to see what financial literacy programs are being initiated in your area.
The more I examine and get comfortable talking about my own money quirks, the more likely my kids are to bypass my particular set of money baggage.
Unfortunately, they’re still stuck with my weird toes.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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