I have a confession to make. I’m secretly rooting for the zombie apocalypse. I could do without all the moaning people in various stages of decay, but there is something about the economy of make-do, trade and barter, low expectations, that I could really get behind.
Unfortunately (fortunately?), that is not the world I find myself in. In my world you cannot rifle through strangers’ cabinets at will, looking for something for dinner. In my world you cannot walk into town and set up housekeeping in any suitable vacant property. I don’t know a soul who can create a rabbit snare from half of a discarded sweater or use cow dung to heat a house. In my world you need MONEY to trade for the things that keep body and soul together.
This puts me at something of a disadvantage since money is the one thing we’ve never had much of.
Still, I have five little people to shepherd into adulthood, and since all signs point towards the continuation of money as primary currency, I’ve got to teach them something about it. What’s a mama to do?
I’ve been parenting on a shoestring for over twelve years, and I still haven’t figured it all out. However, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and that means I’ve picked up a thing or two. This is what is working for us:
We don’t lie.
We don’t pretend that money is irrelevant when one look at the world shouts otherwise. When our children want to have or do something worthwhile that we simply cannot afford, we don’t try to convince them that they don’t want it. We don’t belittle the desire, or try to concoct an alternate reason that they can’t have it. If money is the reason, we tell them so. We try to teach and model gratitude hourly; we talk about service and social responsibility on a daily basis; if our kids still want something for themselves they aren’t being greedy, they are being…human. We don’t shame human.
An interesting result of this straight talk is that our children have become remarkably resourceful. Once they understand that money is the only thing standing between them and their heart’s desire they see it as a solvable problem. Our twelve year old got a babysitting job to pay for voice lessons. Our nine year old collects outgrown toys to sell on Craigslist.
We focus on choices, not lack.
We don’t say things like, We are too poor to go to Disneyworld, take karate, get Sonic for lunch… Instead we say, We choose owning a home over visiting Cinderella; We choose a car over karate; We choose Netflix over slushies. Okay, so we don’t say these things as a mantra every morning. Like that would work. It’s more organic, akin to what happens in the grocery store when you say, “Alright, we can buy one super fancy Olaf cupcake OR we can buy cake mix and ALSO buy ice cream to go with it.” Other people say that, right? Tell me we are not the only ones who foist such terrible choices on our children.
Focusing on choices is not only empowering, it’s also a more realistic preparation for adulthood. In this land of instant credit, the truth is that, even unemployed, we could go to Disneyworld; a kid on a college budget can go out drinking every night. We no longer live in a world where we are limited by the cash in our pocket. But everyone has to pay the piper sometime. If we choose not to sacrifice now, we are choosing to suffer later. That will be true for our children as well, no matter whether they become social workers or hedge fund managers.
We give our older children an allowance.
Our kids get $5/week, assuming they’ve done their very limited chores. Once they get the money, it’s theirs to do with as they wish. We don’t force them to give a certain amount away, or save a certain amount for someday. It’s heartwarming to watch them put their own dollars in the offering plate, or buy each other small gifts (once, our twelve-year-old even took me out for sushi) and encouraging to see that their generosity is born of joy, not obligation. On the other hand, it just plain sucks to watch a kid realize they could have bought a concert ticket if it weren’t for so many dang Frappuccinos.
We comment on character, not cost.
We don’t verbally appraise the value of houses, cars, clothes, or anything else. If we like something, a dress for example, or a song, we talk about the qualities that draw us in, the color, the lyrics, rather than how famous (or not) the designer or songwriter is.
When we visit someone’s home (and my children have been guests in some very large, very well appointed homes) we don’t discuss how expensive the property or furnishings are; instead we talk about how the people, and the surroundings made us feel. Did we feel warm and welcome or nervous and ill at ease? Either is possible in a mansion or a cottage.
This applies to people as well. We don’t talk about how much money people make, but we do talk about how people use the money they have. We bash Donald Trump, not for his wealth, but for his greed, his bravado, and of course, his hair. Let’s face it, The Donald was probably a jerk before he ever became a billionaire. Bill and Melinda Gates, on the other hand, are considerably wealthier, and probably the world’s leading philanthropists. We neither shame nor glorify the rich. We tell our children that money is a tool, and the better your tools, the more good work you are expected to do.
Like everything else I do as a parent, I know I’m leaving out important things and making some brilliant mistakes. (One time, in an effort to make my kids grateful for dinner, I showed them a photo of children searching through a garbage dump for food. They were distraught for weeks, but still wouldn’t touch the red beans and rice.) I’ll probably look back and wish I’d taught my children something about portfolio diversification. But, the truth is, I know nothing about that. I can only do the best I can with what I have. And whether we have cow dung and scrounged sweaters, or 79.2 billion dollars, making the best use of what we do have, might be the most important financial lesson we can teach.