Teaching kids about money

When it comes to talking to kids about money, most parents say thanks, but no thanks, according to numerous surveys. Many even admit they would rather broach the subjects of sex and drugs than discuss the almighty dollar.

Who can blame them? Biology and chemistry can be so much easier to comprehend and explain than the engine that drives our capitalist economy.

Lessons in budgeting, saving and using credit can give your child the future security he or she needs, yet as of 2009, only 15 states mandated classes on personal finance in public schools. So it is up to parents to empower their kids to fly solo on matters of money.

We recently spoke with Neale S. Godfrey, best-selling author of “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children” (Simon & Schuster, $13), about teaching your child how to pinch pennies and how to spend them wisely. Here are excerpts from that telephone conversation.

Mother piggy bank with little piggy banks (istock/ISTOCK)

Q. Why do parents find it so hard to talk to kids about money?

A. It goes back to our past and the idea that polite people don’t talk about money. Money is associated with evil, which is nuts. . . . Talk about it. Demystify it.

Conversely, you don’t want your kids running around talking about how much you earn. So you tell them it’s basically no one’s business, but it’s no big deal because it’s not how we define ourselves. We define ourselves by giving to charity or doing volunteer work or activities.

Q. Why is it important to not just teach a child to save, but to teach them how to spend their money?

A. All they ever see us do with money is spend it. . . . Tell them, “At the end of the month, a bill comes. I pay that bill.” If we don’t start having those conversations, we have set these children up for failure.

It’s okay to spend. You have to spend, but don’t feel guilty about it. It’s part of a healthy budget. It’s just like eating. You have to eat. We’re not trying to teach them not to eat, we’re trying to teach them healthy eating. Overindulging in food is just like overindulging in money.

Q. How can parents best model good spending and saving habits for their children?

A. Make a list with the kids. Call the list your budget and tell them you’re not going to buy anything that is not on that list. They don’t see you doing a ton of discretionary spending; they see you staying on a budget. Or if you’re buying a refrigerator, you say Mom and Dad budgeted for this. Or we planned for it. Or it was an emergency and I have an emergency fund. The more you can use language around what’s going on, the better.

Q. How do you explain to a kid that his or her allowance is contingent on work, but there are other things you do — picking up after yourself, getting good grades and behaving — just because they need to be done?

A. Getting good grades is your responsibility. School is a responsibility, not a job. It’s enrichment and a privilege. And I don’t pay for good behavior. You don’t want to bribe them to do stuff. Money is a result of work, not good behavior. Let them decide beforehand what you as a family can do to celebrate their success, like a picnic, going fishing or cooking a special meal together.

Every study has said it means more to a worker to be praised for their work than to get a monetary reward. Why would we think that’s any different with our kids?

Tips for money-savvy children:

Godfrey’s book “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees” offers many tips for teaching children of different ages how to handle their finances. Here are some of them:

—Give them an allowance based on age-appropriate chores. The money should be tied to work, not just an automatic handout. Start this as young as age 3 and increase both the chores and the amount of money as the children get older. A good rule of thumb is $1 per week for every year of age ($3 for a 3-year-old, etc.).

—Keep a list of extra chores that need to be done around the house, so they can choose tasks when they want to supplement their allowance.

—The child should divide his or her weekly allowance among four jars. Ten percent goes into a charity jar, to be donated to an organization or cause of their choosing. The remaining 90 percent should be divided equally among jars for spending money, short-term savings and long-term savings. This will teach them to budget for their weekly expenses, but also to save for things they want in the near future (toys or special activities), and for college or a car.

—As the children get older and their allowance increases, shift more of the day-to-day expenses over to them, so they have to learn to budget and be responsible for some of their needs. They can take over paying for lunch, or some clothes.

—Take them to the bank, talk to them about what you are doing there, and set up a savings account for them as a way to teach them about banking. Help teens open a checking account and teach them how to manage it.

—Talk to them about electronic transactions, and the differences between an ATM card and a credit card. They need to understand that there is real money involved, not magic when you don’t have cash on hand.

—For teenagers, co-sign an application for a department-store credit card with a very low limit, such as $500. Work with them to keep track of how they spend their money, and impress upon them the importance of paying off the balance each month to avoid interest charges. This will instill good habits and help them establish a credit history.

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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