Money Lessons for Kids (and Parents)

Kids today have a pretty challenging money legacy. From different kinds of student loans to exotic mortgages and default interest rates, the answer to the question “Can I afford this?” has taken a trip down the rabbit hole.

Parents are scrambling to prepare their children for this brave new reality. In an article for the WSJ (subscription required), Jonathan Clements lists four “financial tricks” to try with your children so that they’ll grow up to be money-smart adults:

  • Favoring Today

Offer your child his regular allowance, or a greater amount if he's willing to wait a week before getting it.

  • Slowing Spending

Give your child his money in the largest denomination rather than a combination of smaller denominations (a $5 bill instead of five $1 bills, for example).

  • Making a Wish List

When your child expresses desire for a particular toy or other expenditure, have her write it down on a list. Go back to the list later and ask which items she would like to use her own money to buy or would like to receive as a birthday or holiday gift.

  • Keeping the Change

See how your child makes purchasing decisions when he is given an amount of money and allowed to keep the change compared to when you ask for the change back.

As a clinician, I appreciate how these four activities really do open up the cognitive and emotional processes we use to make decisions about money.

Favoring Today
The “favoring today” experiment demonstrates your child’s time preference for delayed gratification. All of us have a time preference for delayed gratification**, which is basically the point at which it becomes worth it for us to trade the opportunity of the present for some potential future gain.

Many things influence a person’s particular time preference, age first and foremost. For a very young child the future is still a murky concept, and it’s unreasonable to expect a four-year-old to choose $7 next week over $5 this week even though it’s 40% more. A perfect time to start playing with the favoring today exercise is around age nine or 10, when the child develops the ability to conceptualize the future and to compare present gratification against future gain.

Besides age, the level of perceived deprivation in the child’s environment plays a key role in shaping time preference. Five dollars means more to a person who feels he has very little than it does to a person who feels he has much.

A person’s early experiences with trust also factor in. Children who are exposed to instability in their caregivers or environment are basically taught to devalue the potential over the concrete present. If a child has learned that a promise for $7 next week might go unfulfilled, he will always opt for the $5 today.

Slowing Spending
The “slowing spending” trick employs a person’s “bias for the whole.” In children and adults, bias for the whole refers to the tendency to hold a larger bill in higher regard than the equal amount in smaller bills. It’s easier for us to comprehend the value of $100 when we see a $100 bill. When we see ten $10 bills, we perceive a number of potential values based on combinations of the bills -- $20 here, $50 there – and it’s easier to part with the smaller amounts.

Using a debit or credit card totally circumvents this bias by taking away the perception that we are breaking any “whole” at all. Maybe we adults should play with this exercise a little more often, too!

Making a Wish List
Learning to modify impulses is a cornerstone of maturity. Making a wish list helps children to review their choices outside of the impulse of the moment. When children practice identifying, examining, and re-evaluating their wants it plants the seeds for self-aware purchasing in later life.

What this also does is start to organize wants for comparison with other wants. When working with clients around budgeting, I have found that this can be a revolutionary concept. Consider the difference between these two questions: “Do you want to go out to dinner?” vs. “Do you want to go out to dinner more than you want cable television?” Wants cannot be considered in the abstract, they must always be evaluated in comparison with the other available choices.

Keeping the Change
Some people have an innate preference for saving vs. spending even as children. Giving your child the opportunity to spend or keep the money given to her will show you where your child’s preference is – for that particular moment in time.

It is totally appropriate for children to experiment with decision-making behavior and for their choices to range all over the place. One week your son may blow every last cent you give him and have to borrow a dollar from his friend besides, another week he may be more penny-pinching than Ebenezer Scrooge.

Keeping the change is a great mini-lesson on budgeting. For what is a budget after all but a system of allocating amounts for expenses? Five dollars for souvenirs on a field trip is basically a $5 single-item budget. When sonny decides that he prefers some alternative use for the money, be it savings or a future spending opportunity, you are giving him a safe experience in financial autonomy.

The author of this article expressed it best when he suggested that parents “try these tricks on your kids, talk to them about the lessons to be learned – and then quietly muse about whether you, too, fall prey to these financial traps.” These activities are not lessons in and of themselves. They are a jumping off point for parents to engage their children in developing how money works for them.

** See Shlomo Maital's Money, Minds, and Markets. Ch. 3: From Pleasure to Reality, Learning to Wait Begins in Childhood. Basic Books 1981.

Amanda Clayman