Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Teaching Children Fiscal Responsibility

My husband and I have not always been responsible with money. In our early twenties, despite an obvious lack of money, we’d determined it grew on trees. Booted from our respective nests we lived as if mom and pop were still footing the bills. Essentially we ate our way out of an early retirement by putting each and every mediocre meal on credit. Then we had a baby and I simultaneously started veterinary school. We couldn’t pay our bills - not even the minimum payments. And there were diapers and childcare and that pesky government who insisted we pay 1099 taxes. We were not okay.

We contacted Consumer Credit Counseling Services and made drastic changes to our lifestyle. We became a one car family; which I used to commute to school leaving the boys high and dry. My husband biked our son to daycare and anywhere else he needed to go. We did not have cell phones. We canceled our cable service. We bought pre-paid calling cards. We did not eat out. We did not go on vacation and we generally did not spend money on anything but the bills. Bit-by-bit we climbed out of that deep dark cavern of debt and vowed to never go spelunking again.

Now the economy is slowing. And regular readers know we are once again taking steps to cut back our lifestyle; not because we are financially down trodden but because we don’t want to be. And truth-be-told we could stand to have a larger emergency cushion--just in case I go and say switch careers or do something equally risky.

Christmas will be financed by selling stuff on Ebay. We are eating solely at home (last night I had a can of tuna and a can of garbanzo beans - yum!). Most household items are garage sale or thrift store finds. I rely on the Goodwill to outfit my children (read not trendy).

And other than my obvious lack of fashion acumen what does this have to do with the children? Everything. We have been using this economic slowdown as a springboard to teach our kids fiscal responsibility. When we go shopping we compare prices. We discuss which items are a better deal (the large container for x price or two smaller containers for y price). At garage sales we give the kids a budget (typically a dollar or two). The kids are free to spend this money at their will so long as they do the math themselves (though we do offer the four-year-old some mathematical assistance). We talk about budgeting, saving, investing and financial responsibility. And we thought things were going well ...

Then my daughter came home from school with a brilliant plan. It seems her friend, who is essentially homeless and whose family bounces from hotel to hotel, has a Family Access Network Advocate. This is a cool thing. Advocates bring clothes and notebooks and colored pencils - for free! Middle Sis got to experience this spirit of getting first hand because the advocate allowed to her tag along to her friend's session. Middle sis even got a free notebook. And she formulated a plan ...

You see, if she had an advocate of her very own then I wouldn't have to complain about her growing out of her clothes and we’d have access to all the pens we could ever write with. Clearly this is an excellent deal.

Aaaack! We sat Sis down. We attempted to explain “... We are thrilled there are advocates. Your friend, by no fault of her own, does not have an ideal family life. They are struggling. And she benefits greatly from these free items. Hopefully, with this assistance, she can make a better life for herself. But you, Sister, do not live the kind of life requiring an advocate. You don’t want the kind of life that would make an advocate necessary. Yes, free is good. The right kind of free. The if you aren’t going to use that and were just going to throw it out kind of free is excellent. It’s fiscally and environmentally responsible. However a family advocate not the kind of free you want. That kind of free is reserved for people who really truly need it.”

She looked thoughtful. We thought she understood. I WANT AN ADVOCATE!

Her father tried a different approach, “I can beat the living daylights out of you and then you could call the police. I’ll bet they’ll give you an advocate then!”

Sis looked at her father with a smirk, “No,” she said in a silly Daddy Trix are for kids tone, “that’s not how you get an advocate. I’ll just tell them you only buy me clothes from the Goodwill.”

Clearly there is still much work to do, “...and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”


Abigail said...

Oh, boy. You handled the discussion very well, and even if she doesn't get it yet, at least you are on the right path. She'll get it eventually. My kids are also wearing a lot of thrifted clothes these days, and I point out to friends and family that it's not just cutting back, in case we endure future hardships, but it's very eco-friendly to "reuse" material whenever possible.

Amy said...

Thank you for sharing that story. I'm a pretty new reader here and maybe you've talked of it before but it's new to me. I'm comforted by knowing that there are others who have made mistakes and fixed them. I'm in the beginning of figuring out how to fix this stage. We're talking about selling our house and all of the other things you discussed. It's hard to face but hearing you discuss it so 'matter-of-factly' has calmed me for a moment. As for your little one wanting an advocate - it seems logical to me that she would. I would just keep pointing out the things she is lucky to have that keep her from needing one. Good luck - and thanks.

Tammie said...

I love this post and could totally relate to it. while we aren't doing bad financially, we are closer to doing bad than we would like. i guess a lot of people are right now.

also....i thought i was the only one who ate garbanzo beans for dinner. on nights when my husband works late, i usually make the kids what they want and then i eat either beans, tuna, or cereal. sometimes i eat the beans hobo style, right outta the can.

Bridge said...

oh boy! we are struggling with 12-year -old whose friends do not want ot stay overnight because 1) we have no cable TV and 2) I will not let them use the computer without my supervision.
I do think he has no clue at all that his boots and women's Marmot snowboarding pants are from goodwill. I have a feeling that the girl will see through this when she is 12, however!

Joy! said...

It's an ongoing learning process, isn't it? Growing up, it was not really a fun process to learn about how sometimes one can't afford what you want, although I appreciate those lessons now. Not sure I'm really believing at times, though. More work to do!

I just thought of another angle to work with... If someone like Sister got an advocate, they'd be taking services away from another child who really had nothing. And we wouldn't want that, right? :)