5 Real-Life Finance Lessons for Kids

Think money matters are just for grown-ups? Not so. It’s never too soon to teach your kid real-life finance lessons. Start now, and your child will be a wallet whiz before you know it.
Alexandra Grablewski

“Mom, can we go to the dollar store?” The day my 6-year-old son, Darren, asked that, we learned an important lesson. Since he had been saving money he’d received for his birthday, I took him. To my surprise, he had a fit and refused to get out of the car. Why? We weren’t at the real dollar store, he claimed. I asked, “What’s the real dollar store?” His response: “the place where you go and they give you dollars.” He meant the bank!

The confusion isn’t surprising. Many kids think money is free, or have zany notions about how you get it, explains Jayne Pearl, coauthor of Kids, Wealth, and Consequences: Ensuring a Responsible Financial Future for the Next Generation. Getting a grip on finance is crucial, especially for Latino kids: Nearly 60 percent of college-educated Latinos struggle with financial literacy—more than other ethnic groups—according to a study by the TIAA-CREF Institute and the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center. Give your child a financial head start in life by cashing in on these tips.

1. Job Hunting

Ask a 5-year-old where money comes from, and his answer will probably be “the bank,” “Mom and Dad,” “the president,” or “rich people.” He might not fully understand that your family affords things by working. To help him learn about earning, talk about jobs and how people are paid to do them. Then, make a big deal about his having a job of his own. You can “hire” him to do extra chores, he can sell hot chocolate or old toys, or he could collect and recycle cans to earn cash.  

2. Super Shopper

Turn your kid’s bedroom or playroom into a store. Put price tags on household items, give her spending money, and pretend to have a supermarket, a toy store, or a clothing boutique. Your child can come up with a list of things she wants to buy, work with the amount of money she has, find items on sale, and count out (with your help) the correct amount for her purchases. To practice those math skills, give her a chance to be the cashier. As she gets savvier about spending, give her some money and a short list of items that she’ll be in charge of buying the next time you go shopping in the real world.

3. Allowance Bank

Making cash available to your child is a must. “If she never has access to money, she’ll never learn to handle it,” says Lori Mackey, who founded a website, Prosperity 4 Kids, that teaches fiscal responsibility. Determine the amount of the allowance (experts suggest $1 per year of age per week). Then make it interesting by playing “bank.” When the time comes for an allowance, issue your child a pretend check. Tell her that she’ll need to play “bank” with you to cash the check. Follow the same steps you would take at a real bank, asking her if she wants to have all the money now or keep some in her account to take out in the future. “Discuss the reasons she might want to save some,” suggests Mackey. “For instance, say, ‘I know you’ve been wanting new gel pens. If you save up for three weeks, you’ll have more than enough to buy the set you want.’”

4. Compound Savings

What does a kid do with money? Splurge! “A good way to encourage saving is to do a child version of a 401(k) plan,” says Ken Damato, CEO of DoughMain, a family financial-education website. “Tell your son that for every dollar he saves, you’ll add 50 cents of your own,” Damato explains. He probably won’t have any problem socking away a dollar here and there, which will help him develop smart saving habits for the future. “Kids think very short-term, so you have to engage them along the way,” says Damato. A piggy bank that lights up or makes a ka-ching sound when he adds money, a big, colorful chart to see his goal and his progress, or even a clear jar so he can watch his dollars and cents grow can all make saving more exciting.

5. Reality Check

Your daughter is trying to convince you that she needs those night-vision spy goggles. Just like she needs a new bike, a remote-control car, and a puppy! Playing the “Gotcha!” game can help her better understand wants and needs. First, give her a simple refresher on the difference between the two. “You can tell her that a need is something she must have in order to survive, such as air, food, water, and shelter,” says Pearl. “Explain that a want is something she’d like to have.” Then, set up a family “Gotcha!” jar. Any time a family member says “I need” when it’s really a want, someone else shouts “Gotcha!” The person who made the mistake has to put a quarter in the jar, Pearl explains. Your child will be on alert and will love it when you slip up (you will). Periodically, as the “Gotcha!” jar fills, your family can donate the funds to a charity for people who really do need things.

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