If you don’t teach your kids about money, who will? Maybe no one, or maybe a lender that wants them to take on debt. Only 58% of over 40,000 participants have passed the 30-question National Financial Capability Test from the independent National Financial Educators Council. The average score on questions about earning, saving, and growing one’s money was just 67.74%.
But what personal finance concepts should you be teaching your children, and when? It’s not just a matter of how smart or focused your child is. Learning about money is also about your child’s developmental stage and what their brain is capable of grasping, processing, and retaining.
And the specific concepts you choose to teach will have both practical aspects and moral ones: How do you want your child to approach debt, giving, spending, and saving?
Whether you plan for it or not, your kids are going to develop attitudes and habits about money. So why not be intentional about shaping them to set your children up for a lifetime of financial stability and success? Here are some key lessons, organized by age, to consider teaching your child about money.
A newborn obviously can’t learn about money. But soon enough, their days will stop being consumed by eating, pooping, and sleeping. They’ll be crawling, then walking, and their curiosity will take over. They won’t be able to talk yet, but they will be able to understand. They’ll become sponges for everything they experience and everything you say. Let the money lessons begin!
Your child might get a piggy bank for their first birthday, allowing you to show them how to put coins or dollar bills in it to save. They might enjoy the different shapes, colors, and weights of each type of money, the sounds of coins falling into the bank, and the sound of shaking the piggy.
You can also start teaching how exchange works and that money can get you stuff. When you buy donuts on Sunday morning, give your son cash to hand to the employee in exchange for the treats.
When you’re at the grocery store and your toddler is hungry, explain that she can’t eat that snack she wants until you help her pay for it. Delayed gratification is a good lesson to learn at a young age, too.
You can also start thinking out loud when considering purchases at the store and letting your child start absorbing lessons that way. “I really like this shirt, but I already have lots of shirts at home,” you might say. “I’m going to save my money and let someone else buy this shirt.”
Ages 3 – 4
In the preschool years, you can start teaching your child to sort and count paper money and coins. Adding 25 cents plus 37 cents may not be on the table yet, but counting pennies and dollar bills can be.
At this stage, help your kids keep contributing to their piggy banks and help them understand how their contributions are increasing their savings over time. You can do this by occasionally opening the bank and counting the cash with them. Lessons can be as simple as, “Last month, you had 20 quarters, and this month, you have 24! If you want, we can exchange those four quarters for a dollar. It’s the same amount of money either way: it just looks different. Which do you prefer?”
Continue letting your child pay for small purchases with cash when you’re out running errands together, but now, let them choose certain purchases. At the same time, you’ll want to start teaching your child that they can’t always buy everything they want and that you aren’t an endless source of funds for their every request. You might read them a children’s book such as The Berenstain Bears’ Trouble with Money, in which the bear cubs learn that money doesn’t grow on trees. You should also continue helping your child understand the financial choices you make when you’re at a store together.
Some parents start a system of giving, spend, and save jars with their young children. You might start paying a small weekly allowance in exchange for an age-appropriate chore, such as placing the family dog’s food bowl on the floor at mealtimes. The payment of three quarters means one quarter can go in each jar. When meaningful sums accumulate, help your child use the funds for their intended purpose.
Ages 5 – 7
During the early elementary years, you might give your child the chance to earn a larger allowance in exchange for completing more tasks and chores. At the same time, you’ll want to instill that certain chores have to be done, and you don’t get paid for them. That’s life!
Your child might be old enough now to start developing an entrepreneurial mindset. Do they have any business ideas that could help them earn their own money? The lemonade stand idea is played out and rarely successful; help your child think outside the box instead. Could they sell ice-cold water and salty snacks during a sibling’s weekend soccer games? Help you bake brownies for a school fundraiser? Sell unwanted toys in a garage sale?
Saving toward a goal is another good lesson for this age group. Teach your child that you won’t agree to impulse purchases at the store. If they still want that toy next week or next month and they’ve saved up enough money to buy it, you’ll reconsider.
Take your child to the bank to open a savings account with money accumulated in their piggy bank or savings jar. Although your kids will grow up in a world where they can do all their banking online, the physical experience of going to a bank, interacting with a teller, and handing over a cash deposit may provide a more memorable lesson than visiting a website. Consider credit unions, which sometimes offer high rates on low balances to encourage kids to save. Some financial institutions also have special programs designed to make saving fun. Avoid accounts that charge fees for low balances.
Having a savings account will help your child learn how to read bank statements, how to make deposits and withdrawals, and how interest works: all with your help, of course. To spur their efforts, consider matching any savings they deposit in their bank account, perhaps with a stipulation that they can’t withdraw any funds you match. The idea is for their money to grow.
Budgeting for gifts can also be a practical lesson for mid-to-late elementary school kids. So many adults go into debt for special-but-predictable occasions, such as birthdays and holidays. But you can teach your child to think ahead.
Does a sibling or school friend have a birthday coming up in three months? Now is the time to brainstorm possible presents and how much they will cost. Then, develop a plan to build up short-term savings to fund the gift. Gift-giving also presents the opportunity to teach your kids about being thrifty. How can they get a good present without spending too much?
Another time to learn about thrift is the back-to-school season. You could teach your child that school supplies are cheapest in August and September, so it’s a good time to buy extra pencils, notebooks, and other items they’ll need throughout the year. That way, they won’t need to make another trip to the store and pay higher prices later.
Your kids need you to teach them about money and personal finance, starting at a young age and continuing throughout their lives. They also need you to model financially sound behavior for them to emulate.
By doing these things, your children will learn essential life skills that will set them up for seeing money as a tool for good, not a source of endless stress.
- Make Your Kid A Money Genius (Even If You’re Not): A Parents’ Guide for Kids 3 to 23
by Beth Kobliner
- The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber
- The Moneysmart Family System: Teaching Financial Independence to Children of Every Age
by Steve Economides and Annette Economides