What’s it Worth To You? Teaching Kids About Money

The big payoff? When kids get it about money.

The big payoff? When kids get it about money.

Tell me something: When you hear your child say things like, “Gosh, that’s so expensive,” or “Mom, when we run out of the other cookies, and you have a coupon, can we get the [fill in the blank]?”, would you pat yourself on the back for getting an important money lesson across to him–or would you feel you’ve perhaps burdened him with too much knowledge of your own and the world’s financial realities?

Is a seven-year-old too young to know that you can’t afford to go to Hershey Park (where we’ve never been, but which has been stuck in the kiddo’s head ever since he heard of a magical place that combines rides and chocolate consumption) this year, but maybe next?

Is a five-year-old too young to understand that if Grandma gave him $5, he can get the Mater car, but not the Mater car and another Chick Hicks car to replace the one that went missing somewhere in the house (which itself replaced the one that went missing on show-and-tell day last year in pre-K)?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think that overall it’s gotten so easy to get what we want, when we want it (even when we can’t totally afford it), and so seductive and so easy to shroud our kids from economic pain we may be feeling, that most kids have no cotton-pickin’ idea what things cost, or that things have a cost (or that cotton is something that needs pickin’). Now, I don’t sit my boys down to tutor them on mortgage rates, and my husband and I save our angst-y discussions about money and the future for after they’re in bed. But I’m starting now, right now, to teach them that things have value, that there’s value in waiting for them, and that no, my sweet child, you can’t have the [fill in the blank] cookies today.

I was thinking of this in a serious way lately because of a tip I added to a story I wrote for the excellent website Daily Worth. You can see it here. The piece was about how I stretch my grocery dollars, but it got me pondering how open I am with my boys about the reality of prices, or of our finances.

I don’t think too hard about what I’ll tell them and what I won’t; I figure that when it comes to talking to kids about money — as with talking to them about sex — they’ll take in what they’re currently capable of understanding, and the rest becomes background noise. But if I keep talking–telling them that the reason we shut lights is because the electric company sends us a bill every month for our use of them; or that that we borrowed a very, very big amount of money from a bank to buy our house, and have to pay them back a little bit at a time; or that “on sale” are two of mommy’s favorite words–eventually a lot of it will be absorbed.

The best lesson my father ever imparted was taught slowly and unconsciously over time. He taught me how to handle money, that work brings it in, that things have value, that having things you can’t really afford is ultimately unsatisfying, not to mention dangerous. Not once did he sit me down to explain these things. I just kind of absorbed it, watching him sit at the blue desk (which he still has and which I still covet) and pay the bills, slowly and patiently and carefully, or watching my mother organize coupons and write her shopping list, slowly and carefully.

Tell me what you think. I have a feeling this isn’t going to be my last post about money!