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Monday, November 1, 2010

Teaching Children About Money with and without Jeff Opdyke

Given my love of reading about things financial, frugal, and family-oriented, you would think that I would love Jeff Opdyke, who has long written about families and money for The Wall Street Journal. In fact, though, I seldom read his column, and when I do, I get upset for one reason or another.

Perhaps this is a knee-jerk reaction to an essay he wrote many years ago: there he recounted spending $20.00 on spices for a recipe that called for a teaspoon of garam masala. I almost passed out! Not only can you make this spice blend with spices that are in your pantry, but you can buy the blend ready-made for very little.

Today, however, I succumbed to an essay. Here is the opening:

To a comment from his 14 year old son that a $30 field trip was kind of expensive, Dad replied "I guess $30 is kind of pricey for a 14-year-old without any income. But it isn't so meaningful to me."

OK. So Opdyke now realizes that his cavalier answer was dumb. (Was he showing off to his son? Who knows.)

The rest of the essay talks about how our kids see WHAT we buy, but not what we don't buy. In other words, children don't see the complex decisions about money that may underlie every purchase...or non-purchase.

I just don't believe it. Children notice EVERYTHING. Over the years, my kids asked why we didn't have cable, why we didn't have tostitos, why we didn't go to McDonalds more than twice a year, etc. I'm sure my students know how to gather evidence for comparative essays because they COMPARED and CONTRASTED all the similarities and differences they saw in family consumption patterns.

In fact, I remember asking my own parents why Karen got a princess phone for Christmas and Cheryl's mother made lasagne, which seemed more interesting than our family fare. Many years later, I remember the answers. I would guess that my children remember some of my answers too.

One parent in the Opdyke circle complained that his children didn't see that he bought a lower-priced car than he needed to so that the family might use the money saved for other things. Trust me, the kids noticed. I remember lying down in the backseat of a 1950 Buick (this was in 1965, no seat belts in that old car), so that my friends couldn't see us! And I knew why we had it too.

If it's true that the parents in the Opdyke circle never explained why they make certain financial decisions, then maybe the problem is that the kids didn't feel comfortable asking.

Did your families encourage questions about financial decisions--both visible and invisible? What kinds of explanations should parents give? Are you comfortable answering questions?


Anonymous said...

Well, I was a single parent so long that my girls were unavoidably aware of our financial struggles. This was very different than my upbringing. It grew harder when I remarried and had a blended family. To my step-children we seemed "magically" rich simply because the bills were paid.

Marcela said...

I agree with you. Kids notice. I noticed. My parents were honest about our financial situation and we were curious about the whys and the hows. We asked questions, they responded and we knew what to expect. They were also very direct in stressing the importance of not being shallow, and they encouraged us not to care about brands, etc. They would always talk about values and how the important things in life were the ones we had: love and health, not the ones we couldn't afford.

Shelley said...

I agree that kids are far more observant that this guy gives them credit for. Maybe he needs to spend more time with his son? The main thing I remember at home was knowing Mom and Daddy didn't agree about money - she worried and he didn't, or it didn't change his behaviour anyhow. I noticed that as a rule Daddy and I got what we needed first, Mom always put herself last. I didn't realise we were 'poor' until one year she didn't get my winter coat in time and the school sent bags of clothes home with me; that was when the penny dropped. It wasn't until I was earning my own money and learned the actual cost of things, though, that I realised how close to the financial edge we were when I was growing up.

Bill's (sort of adult) nephew nagged his dad to buy a new 'sexy' car but Chris persists in driving a second hand boring car just like always. Son says Dad can afford better. Dad agrees, but explains that he CAN afford it because all his life he HASN'T. Not sure son gets it, which is sad. I know that family has always been careful and frugal with money, so I'm not sure why the son is so clueless.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you - of course kids know. When I was a kid I understood that my parents didn't have any spare money, but we were just grateful for what we got - and yes, it was always my mum who came last when it came to getting new stuff. My two know I am a lot better off than that, but they still understand no, and that I don't have bottomless pockets.

Anonymous said...

Kids notice, but primarily when they have a basis for comparison: when they visit other kids who live differently, or when they have their own allowance that they have to budget, or when they see other kids wearing different clothes or hear them talking about experiences they haven't had.

And because kids will hide the ways they feel inadequate, a lot of the tradeoffs and class differences, etc., are hidden. Their classmates may include children of grocery checkers and doctors, people with debt and people without, people in big families with big houses, and so forth, but who is going around proclaiming that their family is at some disadvantage?

Funny about Money said...

Whoa! That guy's not paying any attention, is he?

My son certainly noticed what we didn't buy, especially since we were sending him to a tony private school and he could compare how his classmates lived with how he lived.

It made him very sad that we couldn't afford to send him on the annual ski trip to Telluride.

He remarked more than once that his friends had TVs in their bedrooms, and that their bedrooms were larger and nicer than his. (We lived in a house that today, in a depressed economy, is worth $625,000).

He knew that one of our preschool car-pool pals had a different pair of Vans for every day of the week, while he wore the same pair of Fedmart sneakers every day of the winter and the same pair of Tom McCan sandals every day of the summer.

And you know what? His first word was not "Mommy" or "Dada": it was "Say-Benz." Know what that means? "Mercedes Benz."

Duchesse said...

Opdyke sounds inconsistent.

I believe in is having children contribute to major purchases such as their bikes. They take far better care of something if they paid for part of it.

It's not only about buying, it's about notions of value. We refused to buy our boys cheap junk toys but would spend on beautiful books.

Another trap is "new". Kid is as happy with Buzzy Bee from a yard sale.

metscan said...

Money was a subject hushed in my childhood home. My mother always announced, that we were extremely poor, and that taxes swallowed our income. She was extremely stingy. So I grew up totally unaware of our financial situation. It came as a surprise later on, that she really was quite wealthy and that our family´s financial situation was good. She had professional help in investing her money, she inherited my grandparents. I was kept outside all of this information.
As we have always had horses ( that being the choice of everyone ), my own children have learned, that there was neither time nor money to spend on anything else. There has been no rebellion. The only one who showed continuous disapproval to our lifestyle, was my mother.

SLF said...

I think you guys handled it just about perfectly. You never just denied us without explanation (i.e. "if we don't buy stuff like this, we can go see Grandma and Grandpa" vs. "you can't have it because I said so") and if we really wanted something, you would let us get it. This way, things remained treats and it was always much more exciting to get one thing we really wanted than fifteen things we only sort of wanted. For example, when, in 7th grade, I wanted my monogrammed L.L. Bean backpack to fit in with everyone else, you let me get it and, if I recall correctly, I said "I have now achieved a level of normalcy I never thought possible!" Basically, financial wisdom doesn't come from thin air, so the more open you are with your kids, the more likely they are to learn responsible techniques. Of course, you didn't tell me everything (I remember asking you in 6th grade how much you and papa made) but gradually you let me in on more and more of your financial doings. You eased me into the complicated world of frugality and it is thanks to that that (I think) I have such a natural understanding of a lot of frugal concepts. Thanks mama!

--Frugal Son

Frugal Scholar said...

@Terri--The "magic" can be sa problem. Many of my students get into trouble when they get married and the magic doesn't happen.

@Marcela--It seems to me that your family handled forces far, far beyond their control in such an exemplary manner. I was so moved by your writing!

@Shelley--I have always wondered how much should be "hidden" from children. Especially when the children are not responsible for what's going on and can't do much about it.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Alienne--Nice to hear from you again. Must check out your blog too--I've drifted away. It seems that you have good communication w/ your girls, in spite of all the teenage angst.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Mxd--You raise some fascinating points. Perhaps families need to define "disadvantage"--there are many kinds????

@Funny--Wow! It makes me glad we stuck with the public schools!

@Duchesse--We have tried to promote a sense of value too. But it's hard sometimes...

@metscan--It is wonderful to hear of the openness in your family! and your shared interests...

@slf--Oh, how I love you!