When it comes to family conversations, there are fewer taboo topics than talking about money. Parents can be terrified of saying something wrong. Discomfort rises when dollar figures are put to daily life. Kids’ eyes glaze over at the thought of added responsibilities. Ultimately, many decide to put it off until later because there’s plenty of time.
Until there’s not. Soon enough, kids become young adults bombarded with money choices they’re not prepared to handle. And then what?
The truth is, it’s not just ok to talk about money. It’s the right thing to do. Especially with your kids, and especially if you want them to start gaining the confidence to make good financial decisions. The question is: Where’s the best place to start?
Surprisingly, it usually has nothing to do with budgeting, saving or investing. More often, it comes down to passions and personalities, and getting at these underlying motivations can help define a healthy relationship with money. When kids have a strong sense of what they value, they’re much more likely to make smart money decisions.
One thing I often do with families is to lay out a stack of picture cards and ask everyone to choose the three they’re most drawn to. Using a variety of images can make the activity feel more like a game and less like an interrogation. These can be simple cards with images of different objects or people doing different things, and the choices can lead to interesting conversations about what made them special.
Another technique is to start with a short questionnaire about different scenarios involving money decisions, as long as you can make it interesting and fun. Many tendencies can actually be spotted in kids as early as age 5 or 6. One child, for example, will stash away all the cash from a lemonade stand while another spends it immediately. It can be particularly interesting if everyone in the family is involved, as money personalities can be very different within the same household.
The purpose for both of these efforts is to understand motivation. Teens and young adults might start looking for a job but stop short of applying or even turn down every offer because nothing seems exactly right. With so much going on in their lives, this isn’t that surprising, especially if they’re not making the connection between their earnings and their interests. Younger kids might get excited at the idea of money itself but aren’t quite sure why it feels important. When you help them get at their motivations, whether that’s a strong passion or simply something they recognize as valuable, they’re much more likely to see how money and their personal pursuits can be connected.
Once you better understand your child’s motivations – and even better if you can see how those traits match with others in the family – you’ll be more successful linking them with money. Doing so helps you get your kids engaged and involved in deciding what they value. It offers a practical way of assisting them in making smart choices and trade-offs aligned to their own interests. And it can help you and others in your family model behaviors that reinforce the connection between money and motivations.
Starting with simple steps can help put your kids on the right track. For the youngest, it may help them make choices about what to buy at the grocery store or what part of their allowance they should save and what they can spend. For teenagers, it may encourage them to start thinking about saving for something they really want to do or a special event. Once they reach early adulthood, the foundations you help them build can help them make smarter decisions about managing a budget as their responsibilities increase.
So, by all means, talk to your kids about money, and do so with intention. Too often we lean away from the money talk, leaving our kids in the dark about our decisions and clueless about what things cost. When we lean in and involve them in discussions on their terms and about their own motivations, we give them new skills that can last a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Seattle Magazine.