This article is a guest post by Maggie O’Neill.

Thanks to my big brother — and by that I mean my oldest brother — I’ve always had an interest in savings and retirement planning, although I haven’t been able to do much more than think about it until lately. That oldest brother, Pete, is the person responsible for opening my eyes to investing and, in fact, made the first financial stake for me when I was in my 20s by literally opening a Berger account in my name and depositing the first $50.

From an early age, he seemed primed for entrepreneurial and financial success. Always cheerful, motivated and outgoing, he launched his own grass-mowing business while still in college. I’m not sure how great his grades were because he was always mowing grass, but his business grew. Over the next couple of years, he bought more lawnmowers and equipment, eventually attaching a trailer to the back of his orange Buick Skylark to haul all his gear around. He painted the trailer orange, too, making it hard not to see him wherever he went. He eventually employed my next oldest brother in the business and soon had a third fellow helping out on weekends. As the third child in line, I even went out on a job or two for him, but I quickly discovered that grass-mowing was not for me. We lived in the very humid climate of Maryland, so in addition to being sticky all the time, mowing lawns made you very dirty as well! (Pete was constantly covered in sweat and grass clippings.)

I did help Pete out a few other times, however, it was mostly walking around the neighborhood and posting fliers about his business on the doors of homes. I was a shy kid, after all, and found it tough and even embarrassing just to go door to door. (Come to think of it, I felt much the same way about selling Girl Scout cookies. It was also difficult for me!) After many years, my brother eventually sold his lawn-mowing business at a profit to a guy in the neighborhood. He went on to obtain his CPA license, and, by his late 40s, retired. He now helps care for my mom back in Maryland while buying stuff at storage units and yard sales and then reselling them for a profit on eBay. Sounds like a lot of work; but here I am, a married 42-year-old mother of two, running my own freelance writing business, and now just starting to think about retirement and savings again.

Oh boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do.

Financial ability: Intrinsic or learned?

It all makes me wonder whether the ability to create a strong financial domain is intrinsic or learned. Does it align with a certain personality type or world outlook? You see, my oldest daughter, now eight, reminds me quite a bit of my brother. Unlike me, she does not fall into that slightly-reserved category. Not at all!

She confidently walks around the neighborhood selling Girl Scout cookies, has sold cupcakes for sale in the front yard, and even draws dragons, horses and other creatures in her room putting them on display in her “art studio.” She then, rather unknowingly, talks them up, explaining the work that went into them and asks for a fair-to-middling price of a dollar or two or sometimes more. She even randomly puts things up for sale in her room, tagging various items with Post-it notes and adding marketing comments to assist with their sale. Just two days ago, I found a Post-it note on the floor that said “Want Out, Must Go – $20.” I’m hoping that tag just fell to the floor and she wasn’t trying to sell off the new carpet that we just had put in.

It’s true — like my brother, my eight-year-old can talk to just about anyone on just about any subject. So I wonder whether she’s an example of someone with an innate ability to handle finances. Will she naturally excel in her finances like my brother has with his? I’ve already overheard adults — and not just one, but several — inform her that she would make a great spokesperson later on in life. Of course, it’s her choice as to what she becomes, but I secretly hope she follows her interest into the natural sciences. Although it’s probably not the best-paying field, she seems to really love learning about animals and their habitats. However, my observation at this point in life has come to be that our financial rewards are in large part related to our career choices, how we feel about money, how we feel about ourselves and our level of motivation.

Breaking down motivation

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provides more insight on the concept of motivation, noting that a child who has more intrinsic motivation will naturally look for less supervision from adults and insist on doing more things for themselves independently. Children who are extrinsically motivated, on the other hand, or who have less personal motivation, are less likely to function well independently, may appear quiet or bored at times or begin to lose pleasure in their activities. “That cranky, whiny voice is usually a good indicator that a child doesn’t feel very good about herself and needs a new adventure of some sort,” NASP reports.

So how do you go about building up motivation in children? The NASP notes that the following activities can be useful. And although these are geared toward particularly young kids, these ideas can also be extrapolated for use in older children:

  • Allow them to play independently, not providing too much guidance as to what they do.
  • Give them enough time to finish up their projects instead of rushing them through to completion.
  • Provide them with slightly challenging opportunities, scaffolding their learning while also providing support.

Motivation was not high on my list when I was a child. Despite my brother’s example, as I became older, I was mostly a people pleaser and did not think much about the importance of building wealth or strong financial habits. Yes, I was interested enough to take an investment course in college, but I never had any extra to invest. In the late 1990s, when the Roth IRA became available, my parents began to hound me about savings.

And it certainly seemed like hounding because, as a graduate with an English degree, there were very few high-paying jobs available. Although I eventually spent an extremely satisfying, challenging and meaningful 10 years in journalism, I found that the career pays little and does not come with much of a retirement package to boot. If fact, Gannett froze the pension plan while I was there. My husband and I later had two kids in the years leading up to the Great Recession, and now, with three lay-offs between us, I feel like we might be living from that scarcity outlook that Kristin Wong talks about in her post on the subject. While we haven’t been out playing the lottery, we certainly haven’t been stocking away too much for retirement either.

However, with both of our children a few years out of daycare and my husband now working back in our town (instead of in another town where he was stationed as he started a new career), I often think about what I could have done to better prepare for the future and how I can help my children make strong choices from the start. I suppose that in addition to filling their rooms with art supplies, books and stuffed animals, I could sneak in some pictures of Warren Buffet or hang up a picture of my brother with his lawnmower on the wall. But I think it all starts much deeper than that — that while our life circumstances may help to color our particular picture, it’s what is naturally inside that leads us to our canvas.

What about you? Do you think that an interest in finances is intrinsic or learned? What kinds of financial modeling did you have as a kid and what do you do to model savings and sound spending around kids now?

Maggie O’Neill is a recovering hard-news journalist who now focuses her energies on a successful writing, editing and marketing business. From tragic car accidents and homicidal shootings to educational policy and U.S. Congressional news, Maggie’s daily news experience has broadened her viewpoint of the world, while solidifying her love of the writing craft. Married and a mother to two, she is slowly building financial accountability into her family lifestyle and socking away as much money as she can into her Roth IRA — just as her mother always told her to.

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