“Mom, what if you paid me for setting the table?”
My young son casually asked the question as he carried a stack of plates to the dining room. Perhaps if you were in my place, you would have had a kinder, gentler response. I felt my eyebrows rise. I huffed and retorted, “Well, if we paid you for setting the table, then maybe you could pay me for cooking meals and doing dishes and washing your clothes and cleaning the house and…”
“Okay!” he replied—with the exact same level of eagerness.
Oh. Suddenly I realized that he was really asking for an opportunity to interact with money. This aspect of parenting was one I hadn’t really considered. How should parents work to instill helpful money habits in children? It made sense that the lessons should start while children were young. However, I didn’t really feel qualified. When my husband Edward and I got married, I didn’t even know how to balance a check book! In the many years since then, I learned how to balance accounts, then took over the family finances and figured out how to budget. My husband and I also found some specific ways to teach our children about money. Learning to manage money is one of the things I am most proud of doing as an adult! I hope that sharing some of what I have learned about kids and money will be helpful to parents with young children, even just to spark their thinking.
“Teaching my kids about money has meant confronting my own uncertainties and fears in this area.”
Convinced that my children needed an opportunity to experiment with money, I did what I typically do when I want to learn about a subject—I went to the library. I found and read several books about kids and money. People had very different (and very strong) views about how to teach children about money. Some argued that allowance should be tied to chores, stating that kids need to learn from an early age that their efforts (like chores at home and, later, a job) are linked to rewards (like allowance and, later, a paycheck). Others argued that tying allowance to chores could set up an unhelpful family dynamic, and that chores should be done simply by virtue of a child being part of the family; they should be expected to pitch in.
What to do? We initially tried a chore chart in which kids earned points for every chore they did, with points converted to money (allowance) at the end of the week. It took a while for me to realize that the system didn’t work for all of our kids. One child (the same son who initially brought up the subject of money) was eager and completed every chore throughout the week. But another of my children really couldn’t care less about earning money. In fact, the system gave him a perfect excuse not to do chores!
In our next iteration, allowance was a set amount of money, dependent on age and entirely separate from the chore chart. The child who blew off his chores with the first system was much more likely to complete his chores with the second, now that the tasks were no longer negotiable. This is the system we stuck with for the long term.
In the books I read, authors also differed in the amounts of money they recommended be given for allowance. The amounts seemed very high to me. Money was tight for us, as it often is for young families, and we could not have afforded the recommended amounts. Even apart from that, I wanted to avoid raising entitled children. We settled on an amount of money that seemed small even to me, but that ended up working well. Each month we gave each child as many dollars as their age in years. When they started high school, attending a brick-and-mortar school for the first time, that amount was bumped up to $30 per month. Having their own money to spend gave the kids some agency. It also radically reduced the number of times our children asked my husband and me to buy extra items for them while shopping. We could coolly ask, “Do you have enough money to buy it? Is that how you want to spend it?”1 To minimize purchasing regrets and to encourage delayed gratification, the kids had to wait at least 24 hours before making a large purchase2.
There was also the question of giving. When my husband and I had been married for a few years, we felt convicted to start tithing our income. Our income was laughably low, and the tithe definitely hurt—and yet we are both deeply thankful to have made tithing a regular financial habit. We wanted our children to learn generosity. Would they learn generosity if we mandated tithing? I didn’t know—but I did know that if financial giving is not planned, there will not likely be money available if or when a generous spirit finally descends. So for our kids, we expected that at least a tenth of allowance money would be tithed, at least a tenth would be saved, and the rest would be available for spending.
Money is a touchy subject. In an essay called “Exposing Our Incomes,”3 Charles Adams described how hesitant people generally are to reveal the amount of money they earn. He wrote, “Money is a funny thing. It can be a blessing or it can be a curse.” We all tell ourselves stories related to money (for example, a story of scarcity, believing there will never be enough), and we are all vulnerable to making an idol of money. It is daunting to teach children on this topic, knowing that our own hang-ups about money will likely also be communicated to them. Teaching my kids about money has meant confronting my own uncertainties and fears in this area. By God’s grace, I have grown a lot, but I still have a long way to go.
The lessons our children learn about money are often “caught” more than they are “taught.” If what we say does not match what we do, kids notice! I am reminded of Brené Brown’s words that “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting…the question isn’t so much ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is: ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’”4 With this in mind, my husband and I followed rules similar to those we gave to our children. We tithed, we followed the “24-hour rule” to avoid impulse purchases, and we even gave ourselves allowances so that every month we each had a bit of spending money that did not need to be accounted for in the monthly budget.
“’Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?'”Brené Brown
Today, two of our children are at an age where they largely manage their own finances. It is up to them to earn money, figure out how much to give, and decide how to navigate financial decisions.
In teaching my children about money, I have really wanted to teach them deeper things:
Contentment. Whether we have a lot of money or a little, we are all susceptible to dissatisfaction. My husband and I sometimes remind each other of a helpful phrase: “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
Trust. Our help is in the name of the Lord–not in the size of our bank accounts.
Responsibility. How we handle money reveals a lot about us. If we hope someday to hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” we will need to be faithful and responsible in how we handle money, among many other things.
Generosity. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than receive. I want my children to know the joy of giving.
Love. We all have many loves. Let’s make sure they are in the proper order, so that we love God most of all and so that we love people more than things.
“Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
These characteristics are often not easy to see, but sometimes I get a hopeful glimpse. A few months ago, one of my sons went thrift store shopping. He found a nice pair of shoes to replace his daily shoes that were beginning to develop holes. He paid for the shoes and exited the store–then promptly gave the shoes to a man who was inadequately dressed and waiting for the bus! That day the tables turned in a beautiful way, and we, as parents, learned a lesson from our son about love and money.
Do you have helpful ideas to add or a different perspective to share? Please do so in the comments. I would love to learn from you!
Thanks for sharing these wise words Dawn. I find such great encouragement and support in your writing.