Let the kids touch the money

Would you turn your family checkbook over to a twelve year-old kid? My mother did. It went better than you might expect.

I started writing checks when I was in seventh grade. This was no experiment in 1970s parenting; it was a medical necessity. My mother, Jackie, completely overdid it with some dull old pruning sheers in the back yard one weekend and ended up with tendon damage in her fingers and palm. She couldn’t operate a pen for weeks.

As a single mom, that left her looking for help with anything that required writing, including the checkbook. I guess I walked through the room at the wrong time, because I was unceremoniously drafted as the family’s budget secretary and CPA.

We made a routine of paying the household bills and the accounts payable for her decorating business. Every two weeks I’d plant myself next to Mom at the desk in the kitchen, a stack of bills on one side of the desk, envelopes and stamps on the other. In the middle sat the checkbook and our most prized new possession, one of the first mass market home calculators.

Younger readers are advised to sit down while I describe this marvel of computing technology. About the size of a ream of paper, our breakthrough Casio machine boasted a whopping four arithmetic functions. Needing too much juice to run on batteries, this baby plugged into the wall. We bought it via a special mail-in offer through the publishers of The World Book Encyclopedia. The price: $99 plus shipping.

At each check writing session we’d work carefully through the stack of bills for utilities, car payment, trash collection, business suppliers and so on. I remember the mortgage payment for our four bedroom fixer upper near Syracuse required a check for $101.27 every month.

In my labored little kid handwriting I scratched the letters and numbers for each check and addressed the envelopes. Mom checked my work and made a tortured scribble on the signature line. I wonder what the payees thought when they received these checks, obviously written by a child.

With the help of the Casio, I deducted each payment from our balance and recorded our new balance in the tiny rectangle in the checkbook. Most months, money was tight. We watched with concern as each paid bill brought us closer to zero. Sometimes we had to decide which payment could wait another couple weeks.

Mom appreciated my help, but I got a lot out of it too. I learned how to write checks and balance a checkbook. I learned about the costs of keeping an old house running. I learned that money is always finite and often scarce.

I never had any delusions about us having money to blow on needless items. I didn’t ask for a big allowance and didn’t complain about getting up in the dark to shovel snow for the neighbors to earn some spending money. (Yeah, I know we did spend way too much on that calculator!)

With my young finger on the sometimes faint financial pulse of our household, it’s little wonder I grew up into one of those people who friends call “frugal” on good days and, in less flattering circumstances, “tragically cheap.”

Every family faces the dilemma of how to best teach kids about money. Experts offer conflicting ideas about how and when to use allowances, bank accounts and debit cards. What I’d suggest probably runs contrary to the conventional wisdom. I say let your teenagers in on your family budget. Let them see where the money goes, in good times and bad. Let them in on the decisions you have to make about saving, spending and investing.

My time as family CPA was probably the best financial learning experience of my life. I was reminded of these early spending lessons when my nephew went off to college last fall. His parents told him to keep his personal spending to $200 a month. He agreed, then promptly dropped $900 in the first two weeks. Without ever having had to budget or watch expenses before, he just didn’t know how.

If you’re not ready to turn over the accounts payable to your son or daughter, I know the Osbons have many other ideas for helping kids learn about money. Check the article archive or give them a call.



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