The Rules: It’s never too early to teach children to appreciate the value of a dollar
“The Rules” is a Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money or workplace topics like giving an allowance, who pays on a date, combining finances with your partner, and more.
Bank on raising financially savvy kids by educating them early on.
Most parents want to raise children who understand the value of money — but knowing the right way to convey these messages at every age can prove tricky.
But the longer you wait to have “the talk,” the harder it gets. Adrienne Penta, executive director of the Brown Brothers Harriman Center for Women & Wealth, told Moneyish that, “Sometimes we see families who don’t start having conversations about money until much later, and then it starts to feel more daunting. We counsel clients to start early.”
That’s because one in four Americans today has no emergency fund, and more than one in three hasn’t started saving for retirement. “Americans are woefully undersaved,” Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, told Moneyish. “Debt levels are rising, we have a trillion dollars in outstanding debt and a trillion dollars in student loans outstanding. It’s important to impart (financial) wisdom to kids so that they can really carry it forward for the next generation.”
The best way to instill healthy money habits is to lead by example, McBride said, such as by avoiding debt (or working hard to pay it off) and accumulating wealth to show kids the financial ropes needed to succeed in life. Teaching kids the basics of money — from a preschooler begging for a toy from the store, to a teen asking for an allowance — will pay dividends as they mature into adults. And that holds true whether a family is living paycheck to paycheck, or they’re in the top 1%.
Kathryn George from the Brown Brothers Harriman Center for Women & Wealth offers practical advice that helps children distinguish needs from wants; teaches them how to spend and save wisely; and coaches them on the importance of giving back. These are the important money lessons to teach at every age.
Introduce the concept of saving and tradeoffs to help empower them to make choices. Penta has used the marshmallow test, for example: The children get marshmallows, and they’re told that if they don’t eat the treats when the adults leave the room, they will get a second marshmallow if the first one remains untouched when the grownups return. “Giving kids the opportunity to make decisions early is a great way to teach value. About 80% of kids learn to distract themselves from eating the marshmallow,” said Penta, “but there are always one or two who eat it the minute the person leaves the room.”
Start paying an allowance to teach them what it means to have some money, and what kinds of things they can do with it. “When my son was 5, we gave him a $5 allowance, and he would decide what he wanted to spend it on. In the beginning, he had to spend it immediately on a pack of gum, or whatever. A few years later, he has $85 (saved up) in his allowance box because he realizes that $5 doesn’t get him very much,” says Penta.
McBride recommends helping your child open their first bank account by the time they’re headed to grade school. “It might even be sooner because of the advent of online banking. Kids know how to swipe on a phone before they have a vocabulary of 50 words, and technology comes so innately that you may be able to bring them into a world of online banking before they start elementary school,” McBride said.
Give examples of your own financial decision-making to teach them the difference between “needing” something and “wanting” something. “Say, ‘Here’s something that I wanted, but I had to wait for it,’” said Penta. Whether it’s a family vacation that can only happen once a year, or a large purchase that seldom happens, letting your kids know that you experience similar spending struggles can help them grasp that they’re not alone.
Now you should also start suggesting that your child pay for impulse purchases with their own allowance money, and let them use cash to make purchases so that they can see the exchange of money firsthand. You can also encourage them to volunteer, and help them create a chart to track their volunteer hours, to give them a sense of giving back and an appreciation for what they have.
Independence should breed more responsibility, and teenagers are better able to recognize the expenses their parents have long been responsible for. “Making their Uber account not link directly to your credit card, or having them write a check to reimburse you for their rides or their cell phone bill, can help give them a concept of money,” says George.
But McBride notes that before you can start sticking your kids with bills, “they have to have some money to work with,” such as a regular babysitting gig, mowing neighbors’ lawns, or taking on a first job at 15 or 16, depending on your state’s laws. “If they’ve got a meager allowance and they’re not old enough to work, it’s not fair to load them down with a cell phone bill,” said McBride. So pick and choose which expenses seem reasonable. They can start paying for their own slice of pizza and soda when going out with friends. Or you can go over the monthly cell phone bill with them to show that their smartphone usage has to be paid for.
And unless they can qualify on the basis of their own credit, they won’t be able to get their own credit card until they’re 21. As for parents who want to give their kid a card that’s attached to the parent’s account, McBride said, “As an authorized user, I’m not sure what that teaches them. From a practical standpoint, if they have an emergency and need a tow truck, that’s one thing. But in terms of teaching financial responsibility, that doesn’t do it.” Instead, he suggests giving them a debit card attached to their own bank account to teach them that money is deducted each time a purchase is made.
Additionally, at the high school age, children can understand more complex financial issues like compound interest, dividends and appreciation, so it makes sense to introduce the concept of investing. “Make it fun — play games, compete against each other in picking stocks and follow their performance weekly,” said Penta. “Ask your children about their favorite companies and why they think they will perform well.”
Although twenty-somethings might be able to understand complex financial issues like compound interest and philanthropic giving, this age can actually be the most complicated for parents to counsel their kids. “It’s hard for parents to sit back and let kids fail,” said Penta. If they use a credit card to charge something that costs more than they have in their bank account, they can ding their credit and incur debt. There’s no reason you can’t help your adult child financially, as long as there are clear guidelines in place — so be upfront about exactly how you plan to contribute, and in what capacity.
And having them contribute to their college tuition, room and board or other expenses is a good idea. Penta relays that the amount they contribute is dependent on each family’s situation. “Even if college is paid for through a scholarship or parent/grandparent contributions, having them pay a small amount can be meaningful and help them feel invested,” agreed McBride. “They need to have some skin in the game.” Penta added that, “There’s data that says if kids contribute in a minor way to college tuition, they have higher GPAs than kids who don’t. And kids who have jobs on campus are more engaged and productive in college communities.”
Again, resist the urge to swoop in and save them as they keep taking independent financial steps such as renting their own apartment, purchasing their own car and taking on their own insurance premiums. And once they want things that they realize you’re not going to buy for them, like spring break trips, clothing and meals out, having a job will become even more important to them. “If your kid is living in NYC and is a public school teacher, you’ll probably want to help them,” said Penta. “Just don’t jump in right away if there’s a financial hiccup. Allow them to see how things play out and what happens next.”
When they get their first adult job, it’s OK to lend a hand come tax time. “Completing a Form 1040 can be a great learning experience for your children, even if you or your accountant ultimately file the return,” said Penta. “Understanding the basics of income, deductions and credits is important. Consider having them use an online tax preparer on their own, and then review it with them.”
Talking to your kids about your salary is a very personal decision, but talking about budgeting and how you make decisions to spend, save, invest and give can start at a young age. “Budgeting decisions are driven by your family’s needs and means, but they are also related to values. Why do you choose to take family vacations? Why do you give to charitable causes? Sharing the meaning behind these decisions can be just as important as the financial know-how,” said Penta.
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