How are you teaching your kids to be dollar-wise? How will you know if it works? I'm the son of a fruit peddler (Max's Mobile Market), and I grew up impoverished. I didn't know I was poor, though, because my mom managed to make do on dad's meager earnings and provide us with everything we needed. My own income as a pediatrician and professor is heartier than my dad's was, but so are our expenses. So as a family, we are very careful. Our kids grew up respecting the value of money and knowing how many different priorities need to be met in the life of a family. My wife and I made sure they were part of important buying decisions as they were growing up, and we would remind them how many boxes of apples Grandpa Max had to sell to pay for school clothes when I was little.
A phone call a couple years ago told us we must have done something right. Our daughter, then a college senior, called to tell us she was stuck at Stella's—a quaint, Euro-style cafe just off campus where students hang out, study, and Facebook. On a day when she needed to get away from distractions and work on her senior thesis, our little girl took her laptop to Stella's where, for one dollar a day, patrons can get unlimited Internet access and nurse a chai for hours. Accidentally, my otherwise tech-savvy child clicked the "5 days for $5"³ button on Stella's WiFi prompt instead of the "1 day for $1"³ button. She freaked. Well, semi-freaked. "Five dollars is a lot of money! I would never have paid that much on purpose!" she told us from Stella's, where she was now encamped until "17:54:38, 2/11/12," as her digital receipt read.
"Go home, sweetie—you don't have t stay there the whole time. Work at home; you have Internet at your house. Make dinner. Take a shower."
"That's not the point, Dad. I paid for it; I should use it. Otherwise, it's a complete waste!"
Stella's wasn't really going to let her sleep there till Saturday, but if they would have, she might have. Actually, she probably wouldn't have slept for fear of wasting paid Internet minutes. In the big scheme of things, five dollars is a just a drop in the college expenses bucket. Not so much a bucket, really, as a sinkhole. But it's a good thing when your kids worry about all the little drops that fill the bucket. It means they were listening. Listening to us compare prices, debate priorities, and make tough choices as they were growing up.
Kids will inevitably resent some of the "no's" we must tell them. The "no" to the must-have toy they saw on TV, the cool clothes all the other kids are wearing, the video game the neighbors got for Christmas. Without our coaching and explaining, the "no's" can seem arbitrary and unfair. But, ideally, making your kids part of the budgeting process from an early age, teaching them about charity and those who are less fortunate, and working with them to make compromises everyone can live with will help your kids become financially responsible by the time they're old enough to get stuck at a place like Stella's.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Image: Piggy bank on paper money dollar pile via Shutterstock.