Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman has been researching the importance of teaching children about money, and she asked if she could share some things she’s learned. This is the first of two articles on the subject. Donna writes for Money Talks News and blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.

While researching a magazine article on “raising money-smart kids,” I felt sorry for parents and terribly worried about their children. (Also greatly relieved that I am not raising kids today.)

The article, for Consumers Digest, ran to a few thousand words. Short form: Our children face serious money temptations and pressures, and generally receive very little useful info either from parents or schools.

They also face consequences more serious than their parents ever did. We’re not talking about a few bounced checks or some other financial oopsie that you remember from your own early adulthood. An 18-year-old without sufficient financial savvy could within five years find himself:

  • Saddled with several decades’ worth of student debt
  • Paying double-digit interest on an auto loan
  • A victim of identity theft
  • Unable to get a mortgage
  • Looking at seriously underfunded retirement

Sound grim? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. You can help your kids avoid years of financial struggle by consistently modeling certain basic money principles.

Today’s tykes are affected by a consumerism-drenched culture, and keeping up with the junior Joneses is a battle that gets more fraught every year. Even if your child doesn’t know someone who gives out $150 birthday favors or rents a limo for the junior-high dance, he’ll see similar excesses on social media or shows like “The Rich Kids of Instagram.”

Prepaid debit cards are marketed to impressionable tweens who then develop a taste for plastic a decade earlier than the previous generation. (One is actually called “Bill My Parents.” So help me.) It doesn’t help that plenty of today’s kids grow up watching parents swipe cards to pay for everything from a gallon of milk to a new dining-room set.

Most troubling of all: Our children will have to think about credit scores and self-funded retirements almost before the ink is dry on their diplomas – and those degrees now come with an average of $29,400 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

That’s a lot to consider, and frankly some parents don’t feel up to the challenge. But if you want what’s best for your kids, it’s time to lean in. According to a 2013 study from Cambridge University, our money habits are formed by the age of 7. While it is possible to modify our behaviors later on, it’s easier to build a money-savvy kid than to fix a financially busted grownup.

‘Negligible effects’ on behavior

The youth financial literacy movement that began in the mid-1990s created a lot of sound and fury. Yet it signified virtually nothing, for two reasons:

  • There’s no guarantee your child will receive instruction. Currently only 17 states require some form of PF education during high school. It may not even be a stand-alone class, but rather a component of another subject (e.g., civics).
  • Recent research suggests these classes don’t work anyway. A 2014 study published in the journal Management Science analyzed 168 papers covering 201 previous financial literacy studies. It concluded that even “many hours” of high school PF classwork “have negligible effects on behavior 20 months or more from the time of intervention.” (Just ask J.D. Roth, founder of Get Rich Slowly. He did well on his high school PF class tests and wound up in major debt anyway.)

As youth financial literacy expert Dr. Lewis Mandell wryly notes, teaching PF is “the same as offering sex education and expecting there won’t be any teen pregnancies.”

At the first meeting of the new President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, council member Richard Cordray stated that he will “insist on financial education at all schools,” from K-12. (He is also director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.)

That was in late March 2014. It’s unclear when such a project might be implemented. After all, the much-discussed Common Core educational standards originated from a 2006-07 initiative, but the curricula were not available for adoption until 2010.

What’s also unclear: whether a new approach will make any difference. (See “negligible effects on behavior,” above.)

Money comes from work

Even if those classes do get implemented – and actually work – parents still wouldn’t be off the hook. Would you let one sixth-grade health class about the birds and the bees provide the only information your kids get about love and relationships? Then don’t rely on schools to reflect your own money values, either.

For example, a class might presume that a two-income household was the norm, whereas in your family it’s important to have an at-home parent. Emphasizing the day-to-day tactics that stretch a single salary could teach a lot about smart money management – and also why the sacrifice is worth it. And if the at-home parent is also starting his or her own part-time business, kids could certainly learn a lot about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Individual circumstances aside, all the financial experts with whom I spoke agreed that children should learn:

  • Money comes from work.
  • Money pays for needs first and then for “wants.”
  • Money also pays for emergencies and long-term goals, which means a portion of each paycheck must be saved.
  • Money is a limited resource, so you must make careful choices about how to use the cash you have.

Tips should be age-appropriate, of course. There’s no point in discussing mortgage points with a kid who can’t even stay dry at night. But even the weekly trip to the grocery store can yield lessons. Your 3-year-old can match coupons to products. An 8-year-old can search for the best deals on pasta or peanut butter. You can even bring up wants vs. needs: “We don’t get what we want every week, but this week we’re going to buy ice cream.”

Here’s a phrase to avoid: “We can’t afford that.” Don’t make your kids think you’re poor (even if you are). Instead, say, “That’s not in the budget right now.” This promotes the idea of spending as something that you plan and follow through on vs. giving in to temptation (or pleading).

“Every time you spend money you are making a choice,” says Gail Hillebrand, the CFPB’s head of consumer education and management. “It’s not, ‘I have some money in my pocket I can spend’ – it’s ‘I am making a choice about my family’s budget every time I spend’.”

Over time, children observe the results of those choices: “Those kids see their parents scrimping and saving – but they also see their parents making that down payment on a home or paying cash for a car.”

Pocket money: earned or given?

Thus the family budget should be a mostly open book. You don’t have to share everything, i.e., you don’t have to tell them exactly how much you earn. Simply explain that X percent of income covers the family’s essentials and the rest gets apportioned among other categories. Depending on your situation, these may include:

  • Savings/emergency fund
  • College accounts
  • Retirement
  • Future goals (e.g., pay cash for the next car)
  • Family fun (including saving up for electronics or vacations)

About that last: It’s vital that children learn the concept of saving up for non-essential items. Watching parents set aside $100 per month is a good example: By the time school lets out we’ll have enough to go to Six Flags! Experts suggest creating a visual representation of the goal; allowing kids to chart the family’s progress toward that summer trip gives a sense of pleasurable anticipation as well as cause and effect.

Children should be saving on their own, too, starting as early as age 2 or 3. Many PF experts suggest the “three jars” method: saving, spending and giving. Have your kids divide those coins or dollar bills among the jars, specifying at least 20 percent for saving. (gift money goes there, too – thanks, Grandma!). Emphasize the ways that saving gives us options: to handle emergencies, pay cash for an auto, buy a home, have a comfortable and happy life.

Let the kids determine where the giving-jar cash goes: a church collection plate, the food bank, an animal charity. When it’s time to go shopping, telling Junior to bring his spending jar is “a wonderful way to stop the whining,” notes Jean Chatzky, author of “Not Your Parents’ Money Book: Making, Saving and Spending Your Own Money.”

Where does this money come from? An allowance, probably: A 2012 study from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants indicates that 61 percent of U.S. parents give money to their kids on a schedule.

Most money experts believe that allowances should be earned, e.g., for doing household chores or feeding the pets. Some advocate a “blended” approach, in which children get a relatively small sum plus the chance to earn more via special chores. Rachel Ramsey Cruze, who co-authored “Smart Money, Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win With Money” with her financial-guru father Dave Ramsey, grew up with “commissions” vs. allowances. All money had to be earned, first through chores and later through babysitting and other jobs.

Kids who earn most of their spending cash are more likely to understand the connection between “work” and “money,” according to Cruze. They’re also more likely to “treat their things better when they pay for it vs. when it was just given to them.”

Parents should gradually cede control of their children’s expenses to the kids themselves. The emphasis is on “gradual.” You shouldn’t expect a 9-year-old to budget and shop for her own school wardrobe, but she could be given enough to cover iTunes downloads, treats away from home and birthday gifts for friends.

Explain that there will be absolutely no bailouts. (Chatzky liked to remind her kids that their future bosses wouldn’t advance them their salaries.) So if Junior spends half his school clothing money on a single pair of shoes, then it’s up to him to learn to stretch what’s left. When your daughter chooses to blow the budget the first week, the corollary choice is having to skip a birthday party at the end of the month – unless, of course, she wants to take on extra chores to earn the money for a present.

“The only way to raise kids to be financially responsible is to allow them to make their own decisions and then to live with the consequences of those decisions,” says Mary Hunt, author of more than two dozen books including “Raising Financially Confident Kids.”

She used a monthly vs. weekly allowance because it taught her two sons to plan ahead. Hunt says if she had to do it over again she’d impose a 15 percent tax to get them accustomed to the idea of take-home pay vs. salary. (Now that’s some tough financial love!)

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