Teach Your Kids to Budget
Spending habits are like other behaviors, children learn from their parents’ example.
Apparently, our teenage son actually does have the ability to learn. Or perhaps my husband’s and my decision to be better parents has begun to pay off. Either way, the progress is encouraging.
For most of his life, our 19 year old had access to an unlimited checkbook. No expensive cars or Rodeo Drive clothing, but the funds were always available to join friends for a meal, go to the movies or head off to a Braves game. Christmas and birthday presents abounded, and we enjoyed three family vacations each year in conjunction with our son’s school breaks.
All that changed a few months ago. The Little Prince started college, so most of our discretionary dollars have been diverted to his living and educational expenses, fraternity dues and related activities. Then my husband was diagnosed with late stage cancer and is no longer able to work. No amount of advanced planning can prepare a family for that level of income loss at such a critical time.
So the belt tightened. We downsized, simplified, prioritized. And while we never wished for the cancer monster to enter our lives, our circumstances have brought us closer as a family. We know what is truly important each day and our budget is no longer a function of whims.
The transition has not been easy for our son. He was never taught how to live within a budget. And he often acts as though he is in denial about the severity of his father’s condition and the resulting changes to every facet of our lives. So his denial causes him to fall back on familiar behavior, former patterns of our family life when we knew fewer boundaries.
For months, I’ve nagged the Little Prince about his spending habits. Why eat at Wendy’s when you have a meal plan on campus? Don’t use an ATM that charges a service fee. Quit overdrawing your bank account. Combine trips and save gasoline. I sound like my mother-who-grew-up-during-the Great Depression.
But I realize that our son was merely mimicking his parents’ previous spendthrift behavior. My husband and I worked hard, made good money and spent capriciously for many years. Yes, we saved and made some wise financial decisions that now keep us afloat during this difficult time. But we did not model for our son the fiscal discipline and careful spending habits he would need as a young adult starting a career with an earning level substantially lower than that of his established parents.
It’s never too late, though. And as the Little Prince watches Mom and Dad live within boundaries, he seems to be catching on.
Our son now has a job. He has learned that bank accounts contain earnings, not just deposits. He understands the relationship between one hour of work and two hours at the movie theater. He has developed a desire to earn more, knowing that earnings pave the path to doing the things he wants to do. And, like his parents, acquiring more possessions is now very low on the priority list.
We do have one problem, in that the Little Prince is at risk of becoming a money hoarder. This afternoon he gathered all the DVDs in the house with the intent to sell them at Movie Stop in Marietta, the proceeds of which he would use to rent a tuxedo for an upcoming fraternity function. I reminded him that I had purchased those DVDs over the years and expected a cut. He offered 20 percent, and I countered with 25. We settled at 22.5 percent but I get to keep my Buffy the Vampire Slayer series.
Oh well, the money management skills scale will tilt in both directions for a while, I suppose. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad will do all we can to model moderation.