To my 8-year-old son, it was the difference between a blue package and a red one. But to me, picking the latter made sense. And cents.
“No, not that one,” I said, grabbing the little hand reaching for the brand name macaroni and cheese cups on the grocery shelf that he’s seen advertised on TV and redirecting it to the less-fancy store brand. “We’re getting the red one today.”
“Um, because the red package that’s the store brand costs almost half what the other one does, and we’re undergoing something called inflation, and it’s really the same mac and cheese and it costs less?”
It occurred to me that I was attempting to explain economic concepts to a person whose understanding of money basically comes down to knowing that the Legos, fruit snacks and mac and cheese he wants require it. But because he is a jobless rising third grader with no credit, he doesn’t have any money that doesn’t come in a birthday card or from me. I want him to know and appreciate the work and responsibility required to buy those desired things without freaking him out, especially in troubling times like these.
So, how do you do that? Andrea Scott, of Baltimore-based Brownstone Tax and Financial Services, said the best approach is starting your kids off early with a basic understanding of money, saving and spending so they can approach situations like inflation or other setbacks with planning, not panic.
“I have a 9-year-old grandson, and right now he’s into Roblox and Minecraft, and those games where (eventually) they want money” within the game, Scott said. She offers a financial training class for people ages 9-21 called the Green Dollar Project, which focuses on money management, banking and credit and more. “I explain to him that when he borrows money from me for that, that means he has the responsibility to pay it back. He can grasp that. When you wait until they’re older and starting to work, it can be harder.”
Scott says that while parents might be reluctant to talk about money with their children for fear of overloading them with information they aren’t ready for, “these kids are so much smarter than we think. They see things, listen to things. In the supermarket they want to go shopping, too, which is why they sometimes have those little carts for them. It’s instilling these concepts in them early. It takes some fear away and becomes normal to them.”
Scott says she doesn’t advise focusing on potentially scary and unknown things like inflation, especially for younger kids. Instead, it’s better to emphasize the importance of responsibility from the beginning. “The younger they are, the easier it is for them to grasp the concept of savings, or understanding price adjustments.”
She said parents should put current economic situations into historical perspective. First of all, “with gas prices, we don’t know what it’s gonna be like when they get older. These prices may be normal for them, just like social media is normal for them and it wasn’t for us. Instead of scaring them now, and making them think ‘It’s terrible, and I’m going to be poor and it’s gonna get worse,’ talk to them about coupons. Have them involved in some activities like making the grocery list, so it’s natural and not a panic.”
Scott adds that money isn’t the only thing that children see their parents worried about right now. There’s COVID-19, monkeypox, war, racism and the fragility of our democracy. “They see everything we see, experience everything. We can’t have them panicking about this, too.”
Instead, Scott suggests “making it fun,” like coupon clipping, and taking them shopping with you. “You don’t want to make worrying about inflation their responsibility right now. Just incorporating the concept of understanding money and how it works at an early age is enough.”
She also likes having kids work for their own money in age-appropriate ways, such as how her grandson comes to her office to shred papers and runs his own snowball stand, of which Scott is sometimes an employee. “It gives him the understanding that you have to work for the things you want, and that everything is not given to you.”
So the next time we go food shopping, I’m going to pull up the store website and ask my kid to look at the specials and pick out things that he likes, so feels like he’s a part of the decisions and can make the connection when he gets to the macaroni and cheese aisle. And maybe if broccoli is on sale, he’ll be invested enough to get some of that, too?