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Teaching Kids the Financial Facts of Life

— Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

We try to teach our kids to be street-smart, musical, athletic and even computer-literate. But teaching them the value of money can be more difficult than getting them to clean their rooms.

Consider this: 1,509 high school seniors from around the country recently took a 40-minute exam to test their knowledge of basic money management. They answered only 57 percent of the questions correctly — “a failing grade,” says the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, the Washington-based partnership of federal agencies, universities and non-profit associations that sponsored the exam. More than half of the students, for example, incorrectly said that a bank certificate of deposit is not protected by the federal government against loss. (You, and they, should know that bank CDs are protected by the FDIC up to the $100,000 limit.)

Given that adult Americans are saving too little of their paychecks and declaring bankruptcy in record numbers, it’s essential that the next generation of consumers be better prepared to face their financial future. You know the importance of teaching kids “the three Rs” — reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. But experts who specialize in money matters for children generally agree on the need to teach them “the three Ss:”

  • Saving. Putting some of their money aside so it’s there to protect them in the future.
  • Spending wisely. Living within their means and being educated consumers.
  • Sharing. Being generous and charitable.

To help parents, guardians and even grandparents raise financially responsible people, FDIC Consumer News offers the following suggestions:

1. Give an allowance. If used as a teaching tool and not a giveaway, an allowance can be one of the best ways to teach kids, even as young as five or six, about money, taking pride in their management skills, and becoming more charitable. There are many different ways to structure an allowance and, of course, each family has to decide what’s right for them (in terms of how much allowance to give, what kinds of things the child should start paying for, and so on). Here’s one possibility, based on the advice of experts:

First, consider basing the amount of the allowance on the child’s age — perhaps $1 per week for every year. Give the allowance money each week in small bills or coins that can be apportioned into three clearly marked envelopes or containers — one for each of the three Ss. Decide in advance that a set amount, perhaps 50 percent, should go into savings for almost any reasonable purpose. This reinforces the concept of “paying yourself first,” which means automatically saving some money before being tempted to spend it. Maybe another 25 percent of the allowance would go in the spending pile, for use as “pocket money” throughout the week. The remaining 25 percent would be for sharing — for charity and other forms of generosity, including birthday or holiday gifts for loved ones. The parent still is responsible for the basic necessities, such as food and clothing, but the child now starts paying for various “luxury” items, whether they’re $1 candy bars or $100 sneakers.

This kind of arrangement encourages children to become educated savers and consumers and to learn from their mistakes. “If kids have to come up with $50 or more for a pair of shoes that will be out-grown or out of style in six months, they’ll think twice about buying the next pair,” says author and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine senior editor Janet Bodnar, who advises parents about kids and money.

2. Help your child start a savings or investment account. The old piggy bank still can be a fun way to introduce little ones to the concepts of saving and managing money. But at around age eight, your child may want to open a small savings account and begin learning what banking’s all about, from filling out deposit slips to reviewing statements. At this age or a little older, a kid may even be ready to buy a few shares in a mutual fund or individual stock (although remember that these are investments that carry risks, including the possible loss of principal). You may also want to consider rewarding your child for sticking to a savings plan by matching or adding to the child’s contributions. The idea here isn’t for your child to make an immediate fortune (although that’d be nice). Instead, you’re trying to provide a hands-on education in making financial decisions and monitoring the results (especially the mailings that bring news of interest payments and dividends). If this works, pretty soon your child may be reading the business section of the paper and not just the comics and sports.

How to get started? Consider one of the many savings programs for kids offered by banks and other financial institutions, although almost any no-frills, low-dollar deposit account will do. Think about helping your child invest a small amount in the stockof a company he or she knows and likes — perhaps a fast-food chain, a clothing manufacturer or an entertainment firm. Also check out mutual funds that cater to young investors by permitting small investments and focusing on kid-friendly companies. And if you’re uncomfortable having your child make investment decisions with real money, consider picking stocks you can track using play-money and then working up to the real thing.

3. Encourage the right kinds of “child labor.” Jobs can teach kids to be responsible and to enjoy earning and saving money. One way is to pay a child for extra work around the house — the kind you might hire someone else to do. This could mean cleaning the garage or babysitting a sibling on a Saturday night. Author and family finance expert Neale S. Godfrey encourages parents to maintain a list of non-urgent jobs a child can do. “Then when your offspring asks you for a second pair of designer sneakers or money to go ice skating with friends,” she says, “refer to the list.” Godfrey says this “overtime pay” helps everyone — it’s extra income for the child and a time-saver for busy moms and dads.

One topic of debate is whether it’s OK to pay for basic chores around the house, such as cleaning up the bedroom or taking care of the dog. “Some experts believe that paying for chores is a way to help children understand that if you want money you need to work for it,” says Judith Cohart, director of education for the non-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling in Silver Spring, MD. “But many others believe it’s only reasonable to expect children to help out as members of the family. They also say an allowance is for teaching money management, not for bribes or punishment.”

When it comes to jobs outside of the home, parents need to be especially careful. Example: An older teenager who has an after-school job for less than 10 hours a week may learn good business skills, earn some extra money and still have enough time for studies and socializing. But a teen working more than 20 hours a week could have problems keeping up in school and could be losing out when it comes to family and friends.

4. Play “show and tell” while you manage your own money. If you expect your kids to become responsible with their money, and yours, you have to practice what you preach. Serve as a good example of what it means to save, spend wisely and share with others. You’ll make more of an impression on your children if they can see and hear what you’re doing to manage your money. Here are a few suggestions.

Around town: Take your child to the bank, visit different departments (be sure to include a stop by the big, shiny vault), and even explain a bit about how money deposited in insured accounts is protected by the government against loss. Take your child along as you shop for the best values in everything from clothes to cars. Volunteer together on behalf of a local charity and show that helping others is important and meaningful. Dianne Dodson, a Los Angeles-based bank examiner for the FDIC’s Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs, also suggests that when you use your credit card you also use it as a teaching tool. “Credit and charge cards are probably the most recognized forms of credit to young people,” says Dodson, who recently won a local volunteerism award for teaching inner city youth about financial responsibility. “Parents can explain that credit provides a way to buy now and pay later. But they should also explain that it’s important to pay your credit card bill — and all your bills — on time, or you can face interest charges or even be denied credit in the future.”

Around the house: Let your child perform simple tasks associated with preparing deposits or investments, paying bills or balancing the checkbook. He or she also can help you clip coupons or check the sales advertised in the newspaper. Have family discussions about where to go on the next family vacation, how much it might cost, and what needs to be done to afford it. If you have a problem with a product or service, your child can help you send off a complaint letter to a company or consumer protection agency. Discuss your charitable contributions and ask your child to help you prepare them, even if just by stuffing checks into envelopes.

5. Make learning about money fun and interesting. We’ve already mentioned a few ways to stimulate a child’s interests in saving, spending wisely and sharing money with others. Here are some more possibilities:

  • Visit creative Internet sites (including the FDIC’s “Learning Bank”) that teach kids about money and advise parents on how to raise financially responsible kids. Also, several computer and Internet games let kids play and learn at the same time, such as by investing a hypothetical sum of money and monitoring the performance, even in competition with other children.
  • Support programs in your community that help kids learn about money and business, either in school, on field trips to local banks and businesses, or through organizations that encourage kids to develop and market their own business ideas. Some schools and financial institutions even have special savings programs just for kids.
  • Bring home fun and informative books, brochures and other materials available from local libraries, financial institutions and organizations such as those listed below. Consider buying or borrowing magazines for kids that feature stories about managing money.

Final Thoughts

One of the best things we can do for our children is to prepare them for life “on their own.” Whether your kids are tots or teens, instill in them a sense of responsibility when it comes to managing money, working hard and being charitable. The time you devote to teaching the financial facts of life could be one of the most rewarding investments you ever make. 

Further Resources:

Ages and Stages of Money Management

Parental Advice: Readers’ Tips for Teaching Kids the Value of a Dollar

Sources of Smart Money Ideas for Kids

A Look at the FDIC’s New Internet Site for Kids, Teachers and Parents

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