I’ve always been conflicted about how I should approach teaching my children about money: sometimes it seems like there’s an awfully fine line between teaching them the value of a dollar and teaching them to be fearful of imminent financial doom. On the one hand I want them to know that we, as a family, are okay: the wolves are not at the door. But on the other I really want them to understand why it is vitally important for them not to swing that brand new violin around like it is a baton: that just because I might be able to afford to replace it doesn’t mean that I want to.

Some kids seem to get this instinctively: there are always a few kids in every grade who seem to be born savers. They carefully hoard their birthday and Christmas money, and sometimes even any incidental cash they get from things like doing chores or selling lemonade, and the next thing you know they have saved up enough money to buy that new computer. Or car. Or even a boat to sail around the world. (No, seriously: I read a story about a woman who sailed solo around the world, and it said that she had bought her first boat with the money she had saved by skipping school lunch since she was nine years old. I’m sure her parents didn’t know if they should feel smug or appalled.)

Other kids (most kids) seem to be the exact opposite: for every born saver in this world I would guess that there are at least another ten born spenders. These are the kids for whom money is something that cannot be spent quickly enough, so much so that they aren’t really even bothered about what they spend it on. The purchase isn’t important; the act of purchasing is.

And then there’s the third kind, the ones who neither save or spend their money—they just lose it. If money can be said to burn a hole through the pockets of the second group, then you could say that in this group it burns a hole through everything: nothing is secure enough to keep this group’s money from vanishing into the ether. I am convinced that these kids are the source of most of the money you find lying on the ground. (That and people coming out of topless bars trying to stuff fistfuls of dollar bills into their pockets.)

So how can you influence what kind of a money person your child will become? Truthfully, I have no idea. Some people believe that you can create savers by enforcing certain saving “rules.” Rules such as splitting any money received (whether through work or by gift) into three piles, one for spending, one for saving, and one for charity. While I think this is a great idea I’m not entirely convinced that it would be enough to turn a would-be spender into a saver; I am more of the belief that this only works with the kids that would have been savers anyway. After all, they obviously already come from a family of savers, and more than anything else I think that the way you yourself treat money is what determines how your kids treat it. Just like with bigotry, what you tell your kids doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do: if you are making your kids save half of everything they get, and yet you yourself are still living paycheck to paycheck, the only lesson they will believe is the one they see, not the one they hear.

Unless, of course, they happen to be born with the dream of sailing around the world—then you’re golden. But it’s probably not a good parenting strategy to count on something like that. At least not more than once.

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