Many parents intend to teach their children to have a healthy relationship with money but end up falling short — even though a majority say personal finance lessons are best taught at home.
Some 83% of adults say parents should teach their kids about personal finances, according to a CNBC + Acorns Invest in You survey. Even though they think they should be the ones educating their children about the ins and outs of personal finance, most parents are not, in fact, talking about money with their children.
The same survey found that just15% of parents talk to their kids about money once a week. More than 30% said they never discuss it with their children.
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“It’s kind of similar to having the birds and the bees talk with your kids,” said Alex Melkumian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles. “Money and sex can be intense conversations but they’re really necessary and can be meaningful if done the right way.”
He said parents should understand that they may feel uncomfortable talking about money because it wasn’t something they did at home when they were growing up.
“This is something that they are going to reverse the cycle on, and the earlier they can start the better,” he said.
Parents can talk about money with their children at an early age — as soon as their kids are in elementary school.
“Children need to learn from a very early age that money is not a scary concept,” said Debra Kaplan, a licensed therapist, author and speaker based in Tucson, Arizona. “And the more they know about it, the more they can feel a kind of mastery over it.”
How parents should communicate about money will vary greatly depending on the age of the child, she said. With young children, parents can include their kids in activities where they budget and spend, such as going grocery shopping.
“We have to give [money] context for a child,” said Kaplan. That means explaining to them in terms they understand what money can be used for — it can be spent on things like food, or toys for kids, or saved for later.
These outings often bring up opportunities to discuss money with children, like if they ask for a certain toy or food item that isn’t in the budget or you weren’t planning on purchasing that week. That’s a time that parents can begin to model healthy behaviors, according to Kaplan.
Say, for example, you are grocery shopping, and your 5-year-old child asks for two different types of cookies.
You can say something like you can’t afford both, or that two types of cookies aren’t in your budget, which your child likely won’t understand.
Instead, Kaplan recommends acknowledging that the family likes buying cookies, but to choose one for this week and leave the other type for next week.
“That begins to model moderation and strategic thinking,” she said.
Have age-appropriate conversations
As your children get older, you can teach them more about what options they have around money.
Mac Gardner, a Tampa, Florida-based certified financial planner, wrote a book called “The Four Money Bears” to do just that. He noticed with his own children and during outreach he did with school-aged kids that most knew money was for spending, but very few said it should be saved. Almost no kids knew that they could invest money or donate it to help others in need.
In his book, Gardner introduces kids to the four options they have for money with bears: the spender bear, the saver bear, the investors bear and the giver bear.
“We wanted to make it as simple as possible,” said Gardner, founder and chief education officer at FinLit Tech. “If we can at least provide our kids with those four basic functions, they can go out into the world.”
He’s also developing a game, called Berryville, that will help kids put these financial ideas into practice in a fun way.
“If we can educate more kids in underserved and overlooked communities and educate them early as to what their options are and have stories about investing and giving and not just spending and saving, it would do some really amazing things in society,” he said.
Fix your relationship first
Parents who didn’t grow up with a lot of financial education or a solid relationship with money may have to spend some time educating themselves to make sure they’re passing along healthy habits to their children.
“The first step is that they have to see what’s missing in their own world for them to model or teach their children in a healthier way,” said Kaplan. “They have to be aware of their own behaviors and relationships and emotional life with money.”
If money makes you anxious, it’s important to address that so you aren’t teaching your children to also be afraid of finances.
“When you lack your own confidence in your financial decisions, it’s important to keep that contained,” said Melkumian, adding that children are intuitive and pick up on their parents’ stress around money even if they don’t understand it.
There are many resources out there for parents to learn more personal finances, said Gardner. He recommends parents do some research before choosing one to make sure it’s giving them quality information.
Melkumian also said learning about money can be something parents and children do together. And, if parents have made mistakes with money, it can be healthy to be honest with their kids about it and use it as a learning opportunity.
“Telling your kids the truth is extremely powerful,” said Melkumian.