Money is still a rather taboo subject, even in families. But it’s another area of life skills that everyone can learn more about by digging in instead. I spent time doing my own work—asking myself “why” and “what if” questions, exploring my fear and reluctance, understanding my own goals—so that I could feel comfortable being open about money with my children. I still do as I discover new pockets of old thoughts.
So how might we explore money with them?
When the kids are young, play games together that involve money. Many video games have a currency component, and there are classic board games, like Monopoly and Life, and their digital counterparts. When they’re interested, help them open up a bank account. Log into it online with them, regularly. After they use their bank card, log in again. As they get older, balance your bank account and pay your bills when they’re around. Chat about the family budget. Ask for their input on what the next home improvement project might be. Over the years so many money-related topics nudge our lives.
Beyond understanding how money flows through our lives, understanding our personal spending habits is also a great life skill to develop. To help my children explore the area of money management, it made a lot of sense to me to give them some money to manage. For us, that was usually through an allowance.
Some parents are tempted to tie their children’s allowance to chores, likening it to work and salary, and using it as a tool of coercion, “If you don’t finish your chores by Sunday night you won’t be getting your allowance this week.” But in our case the main purpose wasn’t to coerce our children to do work around the house (I talked about chores a couple weeks ago), it was to help them learn about the world of money and spending. Be careful if you do choose to link the two. You may end up withholding their allowance so often they don’t get much of a chance to explore. In that case, the odd time they do get it, there’s a good chance they’ll be so annoyed about the chores that they spend their money in reaction to that feeling, specifically purchasing things they know you won’t like, looking to annoy you in return—there’s no real learning about money in that situation. What they’re learning in that power struggle is something else entirely.
That’s not say don’t offer to pay them to do some tasks around the house that need doing, say, those you don’t have the time to do at the moment so you’re happy to pay someone to do them, from a cleaning service to a handyman to an eager child. Just don’t hold the money hostage: make the offer, and if they choose to do the job, pay them. A simple transaction. “Thanks!” It’s a great way for them to earn extra money, especially if they’re saving for something in particular, and for you to get some additional stuff done around the house.
So, I wanted my children to have a basic amount of money to play with. Remember, the best learning feels like play. What next? Interestingly, having their own money helps remove you from the equation when they want to purchase something. That means they aren’t always asking you if they can have something—casting you in the role of judge, pronouncing verdicts of “yes” or “no”. They have the control and the choice—they do the real thinking. And the real learning.
If you’re going to the grocery store or the mall or the bookstore, remind them to bring their money (or their debit card). If they find something they’d like, help them figure out if they have enough money to pay for it. If they don’t, chat about the options. Help them figure out how long it would take to save up for it. If they’re close, you can talk about lending them the money now to cover the rest of the cost and then taking that amount out of their next allowance. If you have some leeway in your general budget, you could choose to say that and offer to pay the rest. There aren’t hard and fast rules—it’s about exploring money and possibilities together. You’re trying to help them reach their goals.
Sometimes parents have a hard time with their children making what they deem to be frivolous purchases. But what a great way for the kids to be able to play with the concept of cost versus satisfaction versus quality—before the cost of “toys” gets significantly higher! And when they choose to make impulse buys they are also getting the chance to see how they play out. Do they play with the toy when they get home? Are they still playing with it a couple days later? A couple weeks later? How does it feel when they spend money on one thing today, and find they don’t have enough for something they’d really like to purchase the next day? Is there a relationship between cost and quality? Which kinds of toys often break soon after they get home?
There are a wide range of stores to explore too, from commercial malls, to chain stores, to locally-owned stores, to dollar stores, to thrift stores; online stores and ebay and craigslist. There are so many opportunities for learning when they have the time and some money to make choices. The overall amount doesn’t matter much either—that’s dependent on family circumstances. What does matter is the freedom to explore. That’s where the learning is.
But don’t get caught up worrying that they need to learn everything as children. With the connected and trusting relationships developed through unschooling our children are comfortable asking questions at any age, and the most effective learning happens when the topic arises in their lives. Over the last year I’ve walked Lissy (19) through the ins and outs of Paypal, opening a bank account in another country, and tax-related forms. Together we’ve figured out how to transfer money online and we’ve chatted more in-depth about bills and savings and budgets and credit cards and credit ratings.
Money topics weave through our lives just like food and sleep do—they are an integral part of living. When topics come up, unschooling children are poised and ready to learn—just be careful not to avoid conversations. Fears about money can lead us to give vague answers and quickly change the topic. If you’re uncomfortable, examine that. If you don’t know the answer, learn alongside them! That’s the beauty of unschooling. Be open and share and explore and learn.