The Secret Money Lessons You Are Giving Your Kids

Are you listening?

Mornings can be a bit of a challenge. M is a slow eater so breakfast takes him twice as long as his brother. He does cartwheels and handstands for a few minutes before heading off to dress. He chatters and acts out in front of the bathroom mirror rather than brushing his teeth. He’s immersed in a book instead of packing his school bag. It’s ridiculously hard to keep him on track.

A few months ago, after a particularly painful morning, I was hustling him out to the garage to get our bikes and wondered out loud “Why do I have to ask you three times to do everything?!”

“Oh,” said M. “You’re on background so I don’t hear you.”

He’s six years old and I’m “on background” already.

It got me thinking about parenting and how children learn from us. If we are on background and they are not hearing what we are telling them, how are they absorbing life’s lessons – and especially lessons about money – from us?

They’re watching what we do and they’re acutely aware of emotional undercurrents. And, in our household, they’re paying attention to Mom and Dad’s conversations.

My nine year old, T, is frequently buried in a book. That kid loves to read. You have to call him several times to get his attention. But I can’t tell you the number of times, Z and I have been having a conversation and his voice will pipe up from the sofa with a question or a suggestion.

The other morning, I was debating with Z which fee to set for a new consulting project and T looked up from his book and called out “How about you give them a range rather than one price?”

All this means that we need to think about teaching money skills not just by active direction, but also by what we allow our children to see, feel and overhear.

I think back to the key lesson I absorbed from my mom: that money and finance is equally a woman’s responsibility as much as it is a man’s. And that a woman could be equally good at it as a man. This wasn’t from what she said, but from what she did.

At the moment, I think we could do a better job on teaching our kids about money indirectly. With the increased invisibility of money, a lot of our decisions and actions (paying bills, moving money into savings, looking at budgets, etc) are taken on the computer at night after the kids have gone to bed.

Looking at the basic financial concepts, what are the missed opportunities?

  • Spending – how and when do you pay your bills? I’m thinking we should bring this out of the home office and onto the dining table. The kids could then see the number and size of the bills we pay. They could realize that water, gas, electricity and cable all need to be paid for. They could see how the credit card bills add up.
  • Savings – we have a month-long trip to Europe coming up. It sounds way more glamorous than it is. We’ll be sleeping in guest bedrooms and on sofa beds in the homes of our families (Z and I both grew up in Europe and our families are all there). The airfare alone was $6,000 (ouch) and we’ve told the kids this. We talk about making trade offs in our spending as we are saving for the vacation. What we could also have done is set up an account on our ING account specifically for savings for the trip. We could then talk about putting money in there and how close we are to the goal.
  • Giving – We’re good at showing the kids when we give to the food pantry as they see the bags of food or come with me to drop off the gift card at St Vincents de Paul.  But we miss out on family involvement in our financial donations to charities and we could be much more open about this. It would be fun to have them help decide on which charities to support.

Of course, this all presumes that you are already practicing good money habits and just need to better expose your children to them. What do you do if you feel guilty or unsure about your own financial habits? A great place to start is Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People. I read this book a few years ago when I was focused on getting our financial house in order and recommend it.

What money lessons are you unconsciously passing on to your kids? And do you ever feel like you’re “on background” too?

2 Responses to The Secret Money Lessons You Are Giving Your Kids

  1. I hadn’t thought about this before, but we pay our bills at night when the kids are in bed also. I love your thoughts about bringing that aspect out in the open. We do work on our budget during the day though. Our kids have often wandered through and have become involved in many excellent conversations because if it. It is very interesting to see their reaction when they realize how much band or baseball or chorus costs over the span of a year.

    Funny note…two of my kids had check ups with their doctor this week. They both passed the hearing test with flying colors. I told them that selective hearing was no longer an option when it is time to do chores!!

    • Suzanne says:

      Selective hearing is alive and kicking in our house! We never cease to be amazed at what they pick up on. That’s great that your kids are already so aware of your budgeting conversations. Will be interesting to see the conversations which will develop once we bring this kind of planning (and bill paying) out into the open.

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