We all want to teach our kids how to be smart with their money. As parents, we want them to enter the world armed with knowledge that will help them make good financial decisions, avoiding all the mistakes we once made while floundering into the adult world.
But if we want them to know how it’s done, we can’t just tell them what to do with money, we need to show them.
For lots of parents, that’s way easier said than done. Showing often involves revealing mistakes that make us feel insecure. Showing is vulnerable. Showing requires more than a one time effort. It’s a constant conversation that needs to grow and shift over time. It’s a learning experience that never fully reaches an end.
Still, many parents choose to keep the details of the family budget under wraps, even if they’re trying to teach their kids how to budget and be responsible with cash. After all, most of us are taught early that money is supposed to be a private matter, and giving up the exact details of what you earn and how you spend it to your kids is a huge taboo — even with your own flesh and blood.
But I think we often take that concept a bit too far. I also happen to think it’s exactly what they need to see. I want every nook and cranny of my budget to be transparent, so my kids can learn exactly how we choose to allocate our money as a family, and why it matters.
And so, I’ve made it that way: I currently share every detail of the family budget with my eldest children, who are now 6 and 4. And yes, that means the triumphs and mistakes, the minutia and the big picture, so that someday when it comes time for them to make a budget of their own, they’ll know exactly how to make one that reflects their priorities.
For years, my husband and I have maintained a practice of setting up our budget together the week before a new month starts. My 6-year-old has joined in the family meetings that once were just between my husband and I, and now my 4-year-old even tags along. My husband and I talk about the various needs and wants that we have (buying new running shoes, getting haircuts, going out with friends, etc.) as well as our long term planning for vacations and retirement.
Our kids hear all of it — whether they fully get it yet or not. They hear us discussing the way we cover our necessities, the way we plan to save, and the repetition of our college and retirement talks. I want it engrained in their memories.
They get to be a part of the equation too, adding in their wants and needs for the month at the end. Sometimes they get what they want, and sometimes they don’t, but either scenario gives us the opportunity to talk about our priorities for our money. That big trip to Disneyland this summer? It takes a lot of planning and saving. Wanting a new set of LEGOs? We can work that right into their monthly chore chart goals. Though they may disagree with how we choose to allocate funds, they’re learning to respect this intricate framework that reflects what’s important to us.
Because a budget isn’t just cut and dry numbers, it’s a reflection of our family values. We cannot buy everything; we must choose carefully where we want our money to go. Giving to others comes before buying a new toy. Saving for the future comes before the satisfying thrill of a grand new vacation.
We’ve made it this way for a reason — because generosity and security are important to us; so other fun stuff can be delayed.
If I ever feel uncomfortable divulging the budget with my kids, it means something isn’t aligning with my values, and that’s a big red flag that something needs to change. I need to feel comfortable revealing how we choose to spend money as a family, in the same way I need to feel good about how I spend my time and attention. It all boils down to the same thing: What do I truly value in my life?
That doesn’t mean I always get it right, though. Sometimes I fall into the black hole of the Internet instead of spending time reading an extra bedtime story. Sometimes I’m too stressed with work to enjoy our bike rides to the park. There are also times when the way I spend my money is less than admirable.
There have been times when I have overspent while out with friends, leaving our family entertainment budget without enough to go out for a Sunday family meal at the end of the month. Owning up to that doesn’t feel good, but it’s necessary to admit that sometimes I mess up with money; because someday they will, too. I want my kids to always feel comfortable coming to me with their money questions, knowing that I am an open book for them to learn from.
But I also hope through my long-standing example they will ultimately learn to do better than me, and not make so many mistakes. Hopefully, giving them a firm foundation and exposing my own flaws and successes will lead them in the right direction. I hope I can help them craft their own budget that works for them, one that they too will feel confident in sharing with their families one day. One they’ll never feel like they need to hide.