The thought of talking about money to my kids is a little overwhelming. Now that I have twin babies, I need to start thinking about how I’m going to raise them to be smarter than I was when it comes to finances.
Frankly, I was never very good with money, so I shouldn’t be teaching my children about it, right?
The important thing isn’t to be perfect with your money; it’s to be open about it. At least that’s one of the lessons I learned from Holly Peterson, founder and president at Elite Retirement Strategies in Inkom, Idaho. She’s also a mother who is passionate about teaching kids how to handle money.
Peterson says far too many families keep their kids out of the money conversation entirely. “You don’t have to show your children your bank statements or paycheck, but families should be more open about budgeting, saving and spending.”
You don’t have to turn it into a college course. Just take everyday occurrences and use them as teachable moments.
1. While You Shop for Groceries
The grocery store can be a nightmare for parents. Kids want everything they can reach, but they don’t understand that it’s not all for the taking. This makes it a great place to talk about trade-offs and moderation.
You can use coupons as a way to get kids excited about saving money so they’ll learn how to stretch their money further.
“Put a positive spin on discount shopping,” says Peterson. “If you coupon, explain to your children that you save money on these things so you can have more fun money for activities together.”
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2. When It’s Time to Make a Wish List
My twins are only nine months old, but even now, they have a lot of toys and books. If your kids are a little older, think outside the toy box. Instead of giving them toys or gift cards on birthdays and holidays, use the opportunity to help them save toward big goals.
Through a site called Goalsetter, parents, relatives and friends can give kids digital “GoalCards” (with cute, animated e-cards) that put money toward their goals. Save for the big stuff, like college; or smaller stuff, like an iPad.
You can also help with ongoing saving. Weekly or monthly, you can automatically transfer a little cash out of your checking account to your kid’s Goalsetter account.
It’s free to set up an account that you can share with family and friends, and it only takes about five minutes. It costs $1 per kid per month for parents to start auto-saving, and gift-givers pay a fee per gift (based on the amount of the gift).
This is a great way to discuss delayed gratification and saving up for high-ticket items you really want. Credit card debt? Not for your kids.
3. When You Stop for Gas
Peterson believes budgeting is a great topic.
“You can demonstrate your monthly budget with small amounts of money, as well,” she says. “Break a dollar into various different coins. Split the coins into each section of your budget: bills, groceries, mortgage, entertainment. After everything is divided, you can show them how much money you have left over for savings.”
Discuss why it’s important for your budget to account for recurring expenses, such as mortgage or rent payments, insurance, groceries and — of course — gas.
Personally, I commute 35 miles each way for my job, so I spend plenty of time at the pump. Filling your tank is pretty universal, so it makes a great example for teaching kids to plan for regular expenses — and how to trim those costs when possible.
One way to save is to sign up for the Pay With GasBuddy card. The discount card connects to your checking account and grants you 5 cents off per gallon. Plus, it works at 95% of gas stations across the country.
It might not seem like a lot, but you can show your kids how those savings add up.
4. When the Toilet Overflows
Ugh. The worst. And if you have kids, it’s gonna happen. My kids are still in diapers, but I know my day is coming.
The upside? You can use these types of setbacks to teach your kids about the importance of emergency funds.
Explain that, even though your family has a budget, unexpected expenses are a part of life. So you need to prepare for them.
And if you don’t have an emergency fund, use it as an opportunity to start one.
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Now, teach the kids that toilet paper isn’t free — and that too much of it causes the clogged toilet.
5. On the Road With the Family
I can’t wait for the first big road trip with my wife and kids. However, kids do get bored. When the license plate game inevitably gets old, road trips are a good opportunity to talk about the costs associated with travel.
When you stop at the ATM on your way out of town, for example, explain to your little ones that you’re taking out the money you worked for all month. Make sure it’s clear the ATM isn’t a magical money machine that dispenses “free money.”
For (an adult version of) that, we found an app called Empower. It’s like having a personal financial assistant in your smartphone, and it has this cool “find free money” feature.
Once you link your bank account, Empower will help set up a budget and find opportunities for you to save money.
Phone bill too high? Empower will negotiate a better rate. It will also look for better insurance rates and returns for your savings accounts. It’s tech that’s trying to find you more moolah.
Let your kids see how this works and how saving in one part of the budget can help out the big picture.
6. When It’s Time to Unplug
Just imagine. It’s you and your family all together in the living room. The shades are open as the early evening sun casts a gentle light through your home.
What are you doing? You’re playing board games. Or reading together. Or, dare we say it, talking.
Taking a little time each day to unplug your house is a great way to spend some actual quality time together while saving money on your utility bills. According to Peterson, this can be a valuable lesson.
“I like to put an emphasis on quality time together, which can be done very inexpensively,” she says. “Quality time and experiences are better than monetary items.”
Do you live in California? Here’s a great way to do this.
California residents can earn extra money by syncing their utility accounts to an energy-saving program called OhmConnect and agreeing to help reduce energy usage a few hours each week.
Tanya Williams, a stay-at-home mom from Visalia, California, turned OhmHours into an opportunity to connect as a family while saving money on their bills.
Shutting down the lights and electronics in your house every so often is a simple way to save a few bucks on your utility bills and reconnect on a personal level. Your kids will enjoy it more than you think.
7. When They Ask for a Cell Phone
Oh, the cell phone conversation. It’s getting earlier and earlier, isn’t it? Pretty soon, kindergarteners are going to be begging for iPhones. So far, my babies haven’t gone there, but they sure do want to grab ours.
When your kid inevitably asks for one, give your due groan — then use the situation to teach them a simple lesson.
That lesson: Many purchases have two costs: the initial one, and the ongoing ones. So, if they want a cell phone, it means paying for both the device and the monthly service plan. Whether you’ll help them pay for it is up to you.
If you want to avoid paying your cell phone carrier hundreds of dollars each month when you add lines for the kids, look beyond the so-called Big Four and into the discount carrier Twigby.
That’s what Zak Wilson did. He’d been paying Verizon Wireless about $180 a month for two lines. So he tried Twigby. For both phones, he’s now paying $60 a month.
Plus, new customers get 25% off the first 6 months of service.
But don’t expect it to stop at a cell phone. That’s just the beginning.
“The conversation should absolutely grow as they grow,” says Peterson. “Once kids start doing more activities out of the house, like shopping or going to the movies, they will need more money from you. As they get older and possibly even get their own jobs, you can show them more of how budgeting and saving works.”
8. While You Plan for the Weekend
“It’s important for your child to be a great saver, which will carry them through life, but it’s also important that they know how to have fun and enjoy life,” says Peterson.
When your kids realllyyy want to go to the water park with their friends, instead of immediately saying it’s too expensive — or resisting for a while and then eventually giving in — spend a few minutes breaking down the costs.
Make a big list of activities they enjoy, then separate it into three sections: free, low-cost and expensive.
Explain they can do the free activities as often as your schedule allows, but the others must be reserved to once-a-month or only on special occasions for the expensive ones. By doing this, they’ll learn to view the costlier activities as treats — and appreciate them even more.
Also, put on a shamelessly bright swimsuit and go along. Water parks are fun and embarrassing your kids is free.
9. When Making a Big Purchase
Did you enjoy your nice, compact car? You have a family now. I couldn’t talk my wife into a minivan, but we did have to get a bigger family vehicle. When the kids get older, we may have to go bigger yet.
Making a bigger purchase that requires a loan, such as getting a new car or a new home, requires a good credit score. It’s kind of like needing good grades to get into the college you want.
When you’re ready to make a big purchase, it’s a perfect chance to teach your kids about the importance of maintaining good credit.
Show them how credit scores work and what makes a good and a bad credit score. Tell them their credit score is kind of like a financial report card; they’re sure to understand that!
You can even share your own “credit report card” from Credit Sesame.
Do you remember getting your report card in grade school? It was either a thrill… or not so much, depending on your grades. But, if your grades weren’t what you’d hoped for, you found out what you needed to work on, right?
That’s also how this report card works.
Do you have credit card debt? Is your name attached to any unpaid loans? Are you behind on medical or utility bills you didn’t know about?
You can see all the things affecting your credit — both good and bad — on Credit Sesame. It breaks down exactly what’s on your credit report in layman’s terms, how it affects your score and how you might address it.
10. When You Visit Grandma and Grandpa
“Your attitude is important,” says Peterson. “If your family is having money issues, your kids will be able to tell. To keep things positive, show them how your retirement accounts are (hopefully) growing each month through interest.
“Explain how compounding interest works and that by the time you retire, you’ll have a lot more money because you were patient and left the account to grow.”
When you visit Grandma and Grandpa, your kids get to see what life is like after retirement. That could be good or not-so-good, depending on the situation, but either one makes for a great opportunity to learn about retirement investing.
Chances are, you and/or your spouse have a 401(k) account.
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Just remember, when you’re teaching your kids about money and retirement, keep it hopeful.
11. When You Meet Other Cultures
When teaching your kids about the importance of money, it’s crucial that you also keep things in perspective. Even if they are struggling to save up for a new Xbox, there are kids out there making do with a lot less.
“Even young kids can learn giving by donating toys or clothes around the holidays,” says Peterson. “I think this is one of the most important things you can teach your children.”
In fact, she says she’s seen the results in her own children..
“My 16-year-old son went to Paraguay last summer to help build classrooms,” she says. “While there, he had so much compassion for the people that he ended up giving away his brand new pair of shoes, plus the majority of the clothes that he took for the trip, knowing that he would have to replace those items with his own money on his return.”
It’s Never Too Soon
OK, so my kids may not be ready to start talking dollars and cents just yet, but how long do I need to wait?
Peterson says you don’t have to wait until they have a checking account to start the money conversation.
“It’s never too early to start,” she says. “You can teach saving money by giving young children piggy banks and slowly start to work up in complexity.”
By instilling great saving (and giving) habits early on in life, you can be confident you’ll raise children with a healthy understanding of money. Don’t wait for them to learn it in school, because they probably won’t.
Take advantage of the everyday lessons that life offers, and teach your kids how to be smart, charitable Penny Hoarders that will make good decisions for life.
Tyler Omoth is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.
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