Money and Kids. Lessons from our family.

written by Bari Tessler April 9, 2015

There’s something I say on a regular basis — that I truly, truly believe is true — that is both helpful and deeply challenging for many of my readers with children:

Most of us were never taught about money, let alone how to navigate our emotions around it. We didn’t have age-appropriate lessons about money, in incremental steps, from grade school on up. Our parents (and broader community) did the best they could, but many of us feel they either didn’t talk to us at all about money or passed along to us some deeply shameful, wacky, or unhealthy beliefs and patterns about money.

Now, I’ve given some version of that sermon a number of times in the last 15 years. Firstly because it’s true. And secondly because I’ve seen it soften the hard look of shame on people’s faces. Hey, I reassure them. Of course you don’t know how to handle this “money stuff.” You weren’t taught how. It’s really OK. We’re going to learn this now — and forgive your parents for what they said or never said about money.

But here’s the double-edge to that sword: what if you’re a parent, grappling with your own “money stuff,” and wondering how on earth to instill positive, healthy, smart attitudes about money in your own children? How do we even DO this??

It’s a bit task. But here’s why I believe it’s so important:

If all of us, as conscious, loving parents with conscious, loving relationships with money, help our children grow up with a healthier, more honest and loving relationship with money, from childhood on up … we will create a totally new world.

So. No pressure, folks. We’re just saving the world, here.

But seriously: any little thing we can do to support our kids in developing healthier, happier relationships with money will ripple out and have huge, positive effects. In their lives and in the world around them.

Breaking my silence on kids and money

For many years, I was hesitant to talk about kids and money. I wanted to wait until I had more direct experience talking about money with my dear son, Noah, before I claimed any authority on this. But now that Noah is 7 years old, I finally feel ready to share some of the beautiful process we’re going through around money with him. It’s been incredible to watch Noah soak up these money teachings … and start developing his own relationship with money.

First and foremost …

The most important thing you can do to support your child/ren’s relationship with money is to work on your own relationship with money.

Kids pick up on everything — even things you don’t speak aloud. So the biggest, most important thing you can do to help your children develop a healthy relationship with money is to do some deep work on your own relationship with money.

You don’t need to heal everything or strive for perfection — that’s not even possible, honestly. But by actively working on this area of your own life — educating yourself, unravelling old patterns, developing ease talking about money, allowing yourself to dream and take action — you will model a good relationship with money for your children. And this will have more of an impact than anything you say to them about money.

On to some specifics!

Age-Appropriate Money Lessons for Kiddos

Ages 2-3

Teaching: You can honor your desires … without always spending money on them.

“Like a kid in a candy store!” What does this mean? Want, want, want!

Kids have so many desires — and they can be overwhelming. I remember how SHHHHTRONG my own desires were, as a child: I wanted to buy that ring at the fair for my Mom, that purple shirt, that chocolate bar … Oh, I wantedwantedwanted those things!

When Noah was 2-3, I noticed big, strong desires in him, too. I knew we couldn’t afford to buy everything he wanted — and I wanted to teach him that we don’t always give in to our desires, right away. So I found my own way to honor his desires without spending on them, immediately: we made wish lists.

Here’s how it worked: let’s say we were at Target, and his eyes were big as moons, looking at all the toys and candy and knick knacks. At this age, Noah and I would spend 15-30 minutes slowly going through the aisles, and I’d let him point out all the things he liked and wanted. We’d talk about what he liked about those items and why he wanted them. And as we walked, I wrote everything down on his wish list. Noah learned that it’s OK to want things, but we can’t buy everything we want, all at once. This was a beautiful way for us to validate his big emotions and desires and instill restraint around spending.

Age 4

Teaching: Make the best spending decision you can.

One day, Noah and I were at Nordstrom Rack, trying to pick out a new pair of sneakers. He wanted four pairs, but I pulled out his wish list and reminded him of our earlier money lesson: we can want things strongly and we can’t always buy everything we want, in the moment.

It was time to take this lesson a little farther, right there in the shoe aisle. “Noah, since we’re only going to buy one of these pairs of shoes, let’s decide which ones you want the most and need the most, right now, OK? Imagine that you bought one of these pairs of shoes, and now it’s tomorrow — in your imagination, which pair of shoes will make you feel really good?”

There was a long, dramatic pause. Noah really thought about this! Then, a great big smile lit up his face. “Okay, so, Mama. I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it, and I really, really want and need the Spider Man shoes. When I imagine myself with them on after you buy them, I feel really, really happy.”

Did I mention? These Spider Man shoes were atrocious. They blinked like a 70’s disco floor with every step he took! I was really hoping Noah would choose a different pair of shoes, but I was also so proud of him for slowing down and feeling into the decision. ”That’s a wonderful thought process you did there, Noah. Really. That was amazing!”

Age 5’ish

Teaching: Saving is cool!

It was round, shiny red, and about the size of a cantaloupe. A pig painted like a race car: Noah’s first piggy bank. For many months, he simply dropped extra coins we gave him into it. Tink. Tink. Tinkety clank. He didn’t really understanding what money was about yet, or how much all the coins were really worth, but he was starting to get the idea.

Then one day we removed the plug from the plump piggy’s belly and let the coins dump onto the dining room table. Me, my husband, and Noah all counted it up together. Stacks of four quarters, stacks of dimes and nickels. We decided we were pirates counting our booty. He was rapt with attention and focus.

The grand total: $19.27. Just enough to buy a medium sized Star Wars Lego set. It took 3 months for him to save that much, and suddenly, the value of money was starting to land in his consciousness. A piggy bank of coins equals one medium Lego set.

Noah’s currency isn’t the US Dollar. It’s Lego sets.

Age: 6

Teaching: We can talk honestly about money coming in and out.

I try to be as honest and open with Noah as I possibly can — about everything. Including money. Obviously, there are limits to this! And it’s up to each parent to “feel into” what feels appropriate to share, at what age, with their wee ones.

So … what about telling your child how much money you earn? Is that appropriate? And if so, when? Here’s a wonderful article with some great reasons why you should tell your children how much you make.

Not a week after I read that article, Noah asked me how much money we have. I took a breath and decided to tell him what we had in our business account at that moment.

His face lit up in a giant WOW! Remember: his currency system is Lego sets … and that was a LOT of big Lego sets!

Over the next few weeks, Noah brought this up a number of times, and Forest and I shared with a little more detail each time, really checking in at every step of the way to make sure it felt appropriate.

One day, Noah asked us for a $129 Lego set. Apparently, his life just wouldn’t be the same without the Ultimate Chima City Lego set. And he had decided that he had waited long enough for this Big Desire.

I said gently, “Well, honey, that’s quite a bit of money for a toy.”

“But, you guys have, like, THOUSANDS of dollars,” he replied. This is sound logic for a 6-year-old.

“Yes, we do have ‘thousands’ in our business account, but we spend that money on some really important things. Mama and Papa have to spend that money on: rent for our home, food to eat, clothes to wear, we pay our team members to work for us, we pay for a lot of software and computer equipment for business, we pay for your Montessori school. All of that costs many thousands of dollars, each and every month. So, a $129 Lego set would be a great birthday present … or maybe Santa would bring you one for Christmas.”

“Ooooohhhhh, okay! Thank you, Mama! Oh! I’m just SO EXCITED!!! Chima City Lego set for my birthday! How many days until my birthday, Mama?”

Age: 6 ½ – 7

Teaching: Money is something you can earn, save, multiply, and spend.

As entrepreneurial parents, Forest and I both want to instill Noah with a strong work ethic and the idea that money is something you can earn … doing things you love. We want to introduce him to the ideas of earning, saving, spending, and multiplying money more and more, in small, age-appropriate increments, as he gets older. For now, we’re starting small.

When Noah was 6, we decided to introduce him to the concept of earning money: we sat him down and announced we would start giving him an allowance of $5 per week. Along with this money came some responsibility: we would start asking him to contribute to the household. We didn’t want to assign strict, planned chores to Noah, so for the most part, we’ve kept our requests spontaneous and small: we ask for his help cleaning up here and there, putting away toys and clothes, helping to cook our favorite Paleo brownies, or even bringing his Mama water from the other room. His one regular “job” is emptying his lunch box every day after school. This seems simple, but it’s actually a huge help. And, as he gets older, we plan on giving him more regular, planned responsibilities.

For a few months, Noah spent his allowance almost as soon as he got it. He would buy himself figurines and gadgets in Target’s $1 aisle, and seemed pleased as punch with this. But we also noticed him eyeing some bigger purchases: he was terribly excited about a great, big (expensive) Lego set. (See? Legos aren’t just an obsession for Noah. I think they’re a way of life!)

Forest and I took this opportunity to teach Noah a little more about the power of saving money. We told him that if he committed to saving his allowance until his birthday, six months away, we would match his savings. This would double his money, allowing him to buy himself that big Lego set.  Soon, both sets of grandparents also jumped on board, all agreeing to match Noah’s savings.

We knew this was asking quite a lot of discipline and long-term thinking for a small child. At that age, six months is an eternity — heck, it’s hard enough for most adults to delay gratification that long!

But Noah understood the stakes. And through discipline and the power of Legos, he made it all the way to his next birthday. The big-as-the-moon smile on his face when we all matched his funds did my heart such good … but that couldn’t compare to the day he bought not one but two Lego sets for himself! We were all so proud of him. And he even had some money left over — which we used to help him open his first account, at our local credit union.

Not only did Noah learn some discipline through this experience, he taught me and Forest a thing or two. Perhaps our biggest lesson, here? Don’t underestimate your kids. They just might blow you away!

Live the money relationship you want your kids to have.

Children listen to everything. They are sponges. You may think they’re focused on drawing at the kitchen table, or watching a cartoon…but they seem to hear everything, including your conversations around money.

This is a vital place to bring some of your awareness to: continue to working on improving your own relationship to money, because the way you relate to it in front of your children is going to be passed on, whether you want it to be or not.

Again, you don’t have to be perfect or have it all together. Just keep working on your relationship to money, one step at a time, and you’ll have a much better chance to change your money lineage by teaching your children a new way to relate with it all.

Don’t believe me that your kids will soak up and integrate your money habits into their own being? Listen to this:

After we finished our once-a-year registration for our year-long Art of Money program, we decided that each of us would get to celebrate in some way by buying something that we’ve been wanting for a long time. Something that was really valuable and special to each of us.

Forest finally got the espresso machine he’d been waiting to buy for 11 months. I wanted to get some extra healing and bodywork to help me recover from our challenging 3 week Art of Money RV Roadshow trip. And, you guessed it, Noah got to go to the big Lego store in Denver.

As Noah was getting ready to go to the lego store, he started jumping up and down in the hallway with great excitement. He started shouting (which is what he does when he gets excited about anything.)

“MAMA. PAPA! I have a great idea! Here are my guidelines for going Lego shopping!!!!”

Forest and I looked at each other with huge smiles on our faces. He had never declared shopping guidelines, or any guidelines for that matter. This was new. We did our best to hold in our giddy, proud, joyous laughter.

With his hands wildly gesturing to emphasize his shouted declarations, he said, “Okay, here’s my guidelines:

One: Find a Lego set within your parent’s price range!
Two: Find a Lego set that is cool!!
Three: HAVE FUN!!!!!!! WHOOOHOOOO!!!! Let’s go SHOPPING!!!”

You’ve gotta admit: that’s some sound financial advice. For any age.

C’mon … let’s change the world!

I truly believe I’m part of a global, conscious money movement. It’s not just me — and it’s not just the people who read these blog posts. I see it and feel it, every day, far and wide, and deep as the marrow in my bones: the conscious money movement is growing.

We parents have a huge potential to help create a worldwide shift in how we all relate to money. With less shame and more compassion. Less fear and more honesty. Less confusion and more empowerment.

They key to creating this new, more peaceful and joyful reality is helping our kids create more honest and healthy relationships to money. We can all do this by having loving, conscious money conversations with our kids. One baby step — one kid step — at a time.

Ten Golden Rules for Talking to Kids about Money … at Any Age

  1. Help your children by helping yourself: heal your own relationship with money. This is key.
  2. You don’t have to be the perfect money teacher. (There’s actually no such thing as perfect, here.) Forgive yourself for your mistakes.
  3. Let lessons build, brick by brick. Kids learn by repetition and steps.
  4. Be as honest as you can about your own feelings, strengths, and challenges around money.
  5. De-taboo-ify money by talking about it as openly and easefully as you can. Weave it into everyday life and conversations.
  6. Talk about money in you child’s currency: Lego sets and movie tickets, not just dollars and cents.
  7. Encourage thoughtful money decisions: talk about how to spend, not just what to buy.
  8. Introduce the concepts of spending, saving, and giving, and how to tie them into what you care about (your values).
  9. Remind your children: there’s always more to learn about money. How cool!!
  10. Celebrate! Every thoughtful money decision, every honest conversation, every generous gift — look for any opportunity to celebrate your child’s growth, sensitivity, and smarts around money.

Further Reading

I am by no means done sharing about this rich topic of money and children. There is much more to come!

If you’d like to dive further into this topic right now though, here are some of the best blog posts, books, and videos that discuss various aspects of this rich area of life. Enjoy!

Fostering an Entrepreneurial Spirit in Kids.

How to practice and teach gratitude: 6 things our family does

It’s not what you got: Lessons for kids on money and abundance.

Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs

Mom, Can I have that? 

Raising Financially Confident Kids by Mary Hunt

The Full Parent Guide for Children Financial Education – Teach Your Kids About Money & Investing

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Smart & Generous

The Table Where Rich People Sit

Three Jars

Ultimate Resources for Teaching Kids About Money

You might also like: