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Teaching Children About Money

If you’ve spent much time on social media, you’re likely aware of the tendency for social media feeds to showcase users at their high points. For example, carefully constructed vacation selfies or clever captions highlighting expensive purchases (Ugh, I just want to bluetooth my iphone7 but I’m not techy enough to figure out BMW’s touchscreen!). Although some adults may be getting better at seeing through others’ (or curtailing their own) humblebrags, regular brags and all of their derivatives, children may still be socialized into thinking mindless consumerism is the norm, especially if their parents involve them in these behaviors.

What children might not realize is that parents are working long hours, or that they are stressed out paying for that consumerism. While the ability to buy on credit has made initial purchases easier, it doesn’t give children the whole picture. They may see big houses full of luxury items, but what they don’t understand is whether or not there’s money in retirement accounts.

The topic of money (other than showing that we have it) is often taboo and something many don’t talk about. But it can be framed as a fairly simple, logical concept, even for younger children. Although parents and children will make financial mistakes, it’s important to take advantage of intentional, teachable moments while children are young. Here’s three basic topics to be aware of.

Wants vs. Needs, Modified

Helping young children understand what is a need and what is a want by discussing the differences. Needs include food, shelter, utilities and clothing. You don’t want to buy your wants at the expense of your needs or of the future. Though easy to use, credit cards shift spending into the future, which can sometimes be a bad financial move.

To make money more concrete than swiping a credit card through a machine or waving a smartphone over a reader, make it a point to use cash once in awhile to demonstrate the value of the dollar.

For example, if a child has been given a dollar or two, let them physically hold it while shopping and talking about prices. Let him or her decide to use the money for a store’s product or opt to keep the cash for a later purchase. If you’re doing a monthly budget at home, involve children enough to understand that the work you’re doing on the computer now is connected to later swiping a card or uses a phone to purchase something.

Just make sure to keep the discussion developmentally appropriate- children shouldn’t be given too much information or worry about their family’s finances, just enough to understand that there’s intentionality behind spending money.

Opportunity Costs

Opportunity costs are the value of something that is lost because you have chosen an alternative course of action. Youngsters can begin to pick up on this as they age. In the cereal aisle of the grocery store (often designed to be extra eye-catching to young children), a parent or caregiver may say, “You can have one thing on the shelf. Pick one but give up the rest.” In a good way, this forces children to weigh their options.

As a child ages, parents can say, “Here’s $2 or here’s $5, but there’s no more.” On the other hand, if a parent gives in to a tantrum at the store, this can reinforce an immediate gratification mindset as well as teach that tantrums or pleading works. The reality, however, is that things cost money and there are tradeoffs.

Pick Your Battles

Taking children shopping can set up difficult situations, but can also get children used to the idea that “you don’t get something every time we go to the store.”

Conversely, times with children in stores become teachable moments. If they bring up the topic, it’s more effective than if the parent does. Rather than saying no, present a choice: You can have this or that, a tradeoff. Take your child’s questions and turn them into something more.

Overall, giving your children “a sense of agency,” a sense they have power and control in making financial decisions, is a positive.