Teaching Kids Money Survival Skills

Parents need to have the “money talk” with their children early—and Beth Kobliner’s new book shows how.

by Sue Tomchin

(c) Ben Baker

(c) Ben Baker

Expectant parents would never be caught without a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. And parents of young children often keep the book, Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five, within easy reach.

There’s a new book that deserves to be added to the shelf of parenting essentials: Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not)—A Parent’s Guide for Kids from 3 to 23 by Beth Kobliner. A leading authority on personal finance for young people, Kobliner gives parents a crash course in how to teach children the principles of smart money management. The developmentally appropriate lessons that she provides for children from preschool to young adulthood are superb. Her insightful discussion, relatable examples and lucidly presented information may even inspire parents to get their own financial houses in order—in other words, to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. 

JWI: An Advocate for Women’s Financial Literacy

JWI shares Beth Kobliner’s passion for spreading the message of financial literacy. 

“Economic security is a cornerstone of women’s wellbeing,” says Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI’s vice president of programs, “yet when we initially spoke to young women in focus groups they told us that their parents didn’t talk to them about money management. That was a big impetus for our work.” 

JWI’s portfolio of financial literacy programs help women across their lifespan to develop essential skills in budgeting, avoiding debt, negotiating for better salaries and building assets for retirement. JWI’s Life $avings programs, for example, have reached hundreds of young women on college campuses. 

"When I talk to women my message is to be good to your future self," Rosenbloom says. "Spend less than you earn. A budget isn’t about being deprived. It’s about control. Put aside money for savings and investments first and then you can buy that great pair of black slacks without feeling guilty."

When I read Kobliner’s book, out February 7 from Simon and Schuster, I was reminded of the Talmud’s requirement that parents must teach their children how to swim. This dictum can be taken literally but I think that the rabbis of yore probably were thinking more broadly, that parents need to teach children the skills to survive. And in today’s world, knowing how to take care of yourself financially is a must.  

As Kobliner writes in the introduction of her book, “The stakes have never been higher. The country’s increasingly ‘you’re on your own’ approach to managing our personal finances—everything from health care coverage to planning for retirement—makes giving your kids money skills now more important than ever before.”

Many parents are reluctant and even afraid to talk to their children about the “financial facts of life.” Putting off this talk, however, is a mistake, Kobliner writes, citing the findings of a study at Cambridge University showing that by age seven, “many of the habits that will help kids manage their money are already set.” 

“Teachable moments” abound and even toddlers reaching out for candy in the grocery checkout line can grasp in a rudimentary way the concept of “wants” vs “needs.” An age-appropriate discussion of this concept can lay the foundation for wise spending choices and prevent misuse of credit cards as an adult, she explains. By teaching children early about delaying gratification, parents help them avoid frittering away money so they can save for something they really want. This skill is invaluable later in life when the ability to stick to long-term goals can make all the difference in buying a home and building a retirement nest egg. 

Here are some of Kobliner’s other good-sense suggestions: 

Don’t tie chores to your children’s allowance. Chores are a part of family life and teach kids responsibility and the importance of contributing. You can, however, pay a child to take on a task that you would have to pay someone else to do such as cleaning a garage, raking the lawn, or organizing photos online.

Show your children that hard work pays. Stick-to-itiveness (aka grit) helps kids do better in school and in life. “Our job as parents is to make sure our kids know how to persevere when doing their work—whether it’s household chores, schoolwork, extracurricular activities, or paying jobs,” Kobliner writes. 

Don’t hand your credit card to your tween daughter for a trip to the mall. If your daughter plans to go shopping with girlfriends, give her cash instead. Credit cards “can feel like Monopoly money” to kids. With cash, she’ll see her dollars diminish and be forced to make choices and become a smart spender.

Show your high school child how to read a paycheck. By learning the basics early, a child will understand the meaning of gross vs net pay and what to expect in terms of deductions for taxes, insurance and a 401(k). Kobliner tells parents to encourage their teenage children to put even a small amount of money from a summer job into a Roth IRA noting that $500 put away at 16 and left alone at 7 percent interest grows to $14,000 by age 65!

Talk to both your daughter and your son about money. Numerous studies show that parents talk more to sons than daughters about money, especially investing, and in the process create a confidence gap. “Women still earn less than men and have less money socked away in retirement accounts,” Kobliner notes, so “they really need to hear the facts early and often.” And, if you’re a mom, don’t refer your children’s money questions to dad. Instead, if you aren’t sure about something, say so, find the answer and then talk to your child. 

Have the money talk about college when your child is in the ninth grade. No, this isn’t too early. It gives you and your child a wake-up call and time to plan. This will force you to get a rough sense of what colleges might expect you to pay and to consider how much you’re willing and able to spend on college costs. Kobliner offers a rundown of the financial steps families should take in the years leading up to college and gives invaluable tips about applying for financial aid and borrowing for college costs.

Raising a generous child requires an active commitment to “nudge your kid toward generosity.” While many parents say they want to raise caring kids, the reality is that they often focus on “personal success and achievement above all else.” Among the ways parents can help their kids develop empathy for the needs of others is to take part with elementary age children in hands-on local activities, so they have “a window on issues affecting your community that you might not otherwise be aware of, such as hunger and homelessness.” Parents can model charitable behavior by giving themselves to people in need or to causes, involving their kids in the decision, and by talking with your children about why you donate. This isn’t bragging, she points out, but has been shown to encourage charitable behavior in children.

Kobliner has worked as a personal finance journalist for more than 30 years and her depth of understanding of the field is apparent in her new book. She has written columns for Money, Glamour and Redbook, contributed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and O, The Oprah Magazine, and been a guest on NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, and other shows. Her bestselling previous book, Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, has been completely updated for a new edition to be released March 21, 2017. 

In recent years, Kobliner has been deeply involved with the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, spearheading moneyasyougrow.org, a website that offers 20 essential age-appropriate money lessons for kids. The site has had 1.45 million unique visitors and has now been adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

When JW spoke to Kobliner in 2011, she told us that she can trace her career success to childhood when she absorbed her parents’ Depression-era spending habits. They conveyed to her such fundamental lessons as “living beneath your means, avoiding debt and saving,” she said. Through her new book and her other endeavors she is helping to “pay it forward” to new generations of parents and children.