“Can I get a Kinder Egg?”
“Why? It’s like a dollar. That’s not a lot of money,” my child whined at the grocery store recently.
I stopped the cart, looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you have a dollar?”
I knew full well she didn’t, as she’d spent all of her money on Orbeez a few days earlier. I then proceeded to explain that yes, one dollar isn’t a lot of money in comparison to the $100 of groceries we were buying that day. But also, every dollar we have is important. Every dollar we have is earned by Mom and Dad. Sometimes we might spend a lot of money on a fancy cake, and other times we might say no to a $1 treat at the store.
Because guess what, kids? It’s our money, and we get to decide when and how to spend it.
This lesson was an important one for several reasons. First of all, all kids need to hear NO now and then. If they get a treat or present or toy every time they enter any type of store, they could turn into spoiled brats. Secondly, my daughter learned about buyer’s remorse that day and wished she hadn’t spent all of her cash on one exciting Amazon purchase. And finally, this incident brought up the discussion about the value of her parents’ money. That one’s a little bit trickier.
My kids know that their dad goes to work every day and I work from home. They know that we are paid for what we do, and that sometimes when we can’t play outside with them or have to miss field trips it’s because we have to work in order to pay the bills. We’ve explained that if we don’t do our jobs, we won’t have a house, food, clothes, horseback riding lessons, science camp, baseball, or vacations.
But do they really know how it all works? Not really.
So when incidents like this happen—a discussion about a $1 treat—they can often spark important, valuable conversations that we need to have with our kids—even if they are uncomfortable.
For example, do your kids ever ask you exactly how much money you make? Do you tell them the truth? When they hear numbers in the “thousands,” they might think you are the richest of the rich. They might wonder why you only buy clothes on the sale rack at Kohl’s, or why you don’t go to Disney World every year or have a maid and a personal chef. Because that number sounds astronomical to them.
Kids don’t understand how much a mortgage payment is (or what a mortgage is), or that we have to pay for things like turning on the lights and running the water. They don’t understand why you’re so pissed off when they trash the car after you just stomached another car payment that week. They don’t understand why you yell at them to SHUT THE DOOR because they don’t pay for the heat and air conditioning—you do.
That’s why the number you might give them of how much money you make seems like a goldmine. Kids don’t know how quickly that number decreases, and how to adults, it’s like sand falling through an hour glass every day of every month.
So what info should our kids be privy to? In our house, we don’t want to berate our kids with endless “DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THIS COSTS?!” every time they accidentally break or lose a toy. I don’t want them to feel burdened with constant fear of messing up and having their mistake cost too much money. Kids break shit. It’s what they do.
On the other hand, we need to teach our children to respect their home, their belongings, and the homes and belongings of others as well. When my son played with a tool in the garage that he wasn’t supposed to recently and turned it into a sword (because of course he did), it snapped in half. Guess who had to do some chores around the house to “earn” the money to pay for a new one? He did. Thankfully it was a $15 tool, so paying for it was feasible for a 6-year-old.
But what about when it’s something bigger? What about when your teen crashes the car? Do you tell them “Sorry, you’re SOL” knowing that without transportation, they can’t get to work and school? Or do you dig into your pockets and help them fix it? When this happened in our family growing up, my parents helped—even if it meant buying us a beater that put-putted down the road. So yeah, my sister and I weren’t tooling around in a Corvette, but at least we could get ourselves to work where we could earn the money to get the oil changed and put gas in our jalopy.
So what is the answer to the money question with kids? I think it’s about balance. We can share enough info so they get the basics, but we don’t necessarily need to show them our pay stubs and tax returns.
In our house growing up, I didn’t feel poor, but I definitely knew many of my friends had more money than we did. I knew why my dad worked overtime, but I probably took it for granted when we took a special vacation because of his extra hours. On my 16th birthday, my father asked me if I had a job yet. It was expected that I’d be pitching in for my own back to school clothes, car maintenance, and that I’d have my own cash to go out with my friends from now on. Years later when I had my own apartment, I knew that if the electric bill was $75 and I only had $50 in my bank account, that I had best figure that shit out, and maybe work some extra hours myself, because I was a grownup now.
Looking back, I see that my parents instilled in me the desire and ability to manage my own money, while also providing the best safety net they could throughout my childhood.
And now, as parents ourselves, my husband and I haven’t laid out our financials on paper for our kids. They don’t actually know the real figures, but here’s what we do tell them. “Mom and Dad make enough money to pay for our house, food, clothes, whatever school supplies you need, your sports and activities, and some fun stuff like occasional vacations and baseball games. But we also need to save for things like college and a new roof or to put brakes on Daddy’s car. So sometimes there isn’t money for things you want. But we can help you come up with a plan to save your own money to buy them.”
So yes, we provide for our kids and occasionally treat them or even spoil them, but they also hear the word NO. We might say “Sure, you can get a bag of Skittles” or “Okay, you can pick out one stuffed animal” one day, and others respond with, “No, not today. You have enough ______ at home.”
It’s crucial that kids hear both (especially that second part) as they grow up.
We also make sure our kids know that they are very fortunate to live in a home with a stable income. We talk about families without places to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and toys to play with. And we make sure our children are involved when we help those in need. It’s important that our kids get at least a tiny dose of perspective on the bubble they live in where the fridge is never empty and they can order a movie on Amazon Prime in 10 seconds flat.
Talking about money with kids isn’t easy. Do we want them broadcasting to the entire 2nd grade that Daddy makes X amount of dollars per year? Probably not. But if we don’t ever talk about it, how will they know its value? How will they learn to appreciate what they have? And how will they develop a work ethic so that when they make their own money, they know how to manage it?
They won’t. So yeah, we definitely have to talk about money with our kids.
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