Why Parents Don't Talk Money, And Why it Hurts Their Kids

Teens may be discussing the economy and personal finance more since the Great Recession, but that doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about.

A new report from the Department of Education shows no improvement in high school seniors’ economic knowledge from six years ago, despite living through the Great Recession and feeling its lingering effects. What's more, less than half of the students have a solid understanding of economics.

“People don’t understand the basics about money,” says Vince Shorb, CEO of National Financial Educators Council. “In the U.S. it has to do with parents not talking about money, not bringing them into activities that involve money. At grocery stores you see children begging and throwing tantrums over wanting something and parents just cave instead of making it a teachable moment.”

The Education Department report, which tests around 11,000 12th-grade students at public and private schools, did have some good news: Students are increasingly getting some sort of economics teaching, and they are talking about the topic more.

While it’s clear financial literacy needs to be improved, there’s debate on who should be making the lessons: teachers, parents, or a combination of both.

“What we have lived through over the past several years with the economic meltdown and all of its ramifications is that we as a nation are woefully financially illiterate,” says Adam Levin, co-founder of Credit.com. “The only problem is that many of our parents will admit they never received financial training.”

According to Robin Yang, creator of EnchantedCollar.com, money issues are often overlooked by parents because it’s an emotional issue that can be uncomfortable to talk about. “When parents are in financial troubles and aren’t good with managing their own finances, they are hesitant to talk about it with children so children aren’t taught how to manage money, and it becomes a vicious cycle.”

The school system and parents might be falling behind on their teach duties, but children are getting money lessons—just not from an ideal teacher: the media.

Easy Ways for Parents to Teach Children Money Skills

Get Three Piggy Banks: Designate a spend, save, donate bank to teach children how to form a budget and create a savings plan

Visit the Bank as Family: Make sure kids watch you deposit money into a bank account in addition to making withdraws from the ATM

Reward Savings Goals: To encourage savings, pledge to match whatever savings they put aside for a new purchase

“They are exposed to consumption of money 24-7 on TV, magazines, mobile devices and billboards, they are constantly being engaged to spend money, but they don’t know that they have to earn it as well,” says Yang.

Yang holds workshops with schools in the New York City area that teach kids basic financial skills and she sees firsthand the delusions kids hold about money. “I use play money and when kids first get the $20, they aren’t impressed, but when they learn what they have to do to earn  it, like doing homework or paying attention in class, they start to treasure that $20.”

How to approach money discussions and lessons should depend on a child’s age and maturity level, but experts say the earlier the better.

“Every parent wants best for their kid, so teach them about money because it impacts their wellbeing, emotional health and overall health. It allows them to live out their dream and be successful, it’s the biggest important lesson parents can pass on to their kids,” says Shorb.

Here’s a look at what age parents and teachers should teach money topics to establish lifelong money skills:

Elementary-School-Aged Children

Shorb suggests teaching young kids about the role of advertising so they understand marketing and the difference between wanting something and needing something. “If a child wants a new toy, have them start saving and track their progress periodically to show how much is needed for the purchase.”

Earning an allowance at a young age can also be instrumental to teach the value of money. “While families will differ on how much to give a child, the idea is about having money become real to them and not something that just shoots out of a machine,” says  Jean Towell, assistant director of media and public relations at The Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company.

Yang suggests parents strive to make life events teachable moments. “If a kid wants a $50 toy, explain that a McDonald’s worker typically makes $10 an hour, which  means five hours of work to afford the toy—is it still worth it?”

Middle-School-Aged Children

Parents might be hesitant to share their paycheck with children, but Yang says pre-teen and teenage kids can accept the responsibility and learn how a paycheck is portioned out to cover the mortgage, utilities, groceries and other spending. “Make sure they know not to tell anyone the amount, but this will show them they need to start thinking seriously about budgeting expenses and will start getting thinking about career goals and desired lifestyle and how they can get there.”

Towell suggests showing this age group the value of compounding interest and what it can do to small amounts of money to encourage them to save more.

High-School-Aged Children

When children enter high school, experts suggest parents start cutting the purse strings and have kids pay for any discretionary expenses.

This age is also the time to start having real-life discussions. “Go over how to buy a car, what’s needed to rent a place, how to manage life and a job,” says Shorb. He also says now is the time for them to create a credit and budget plan that includes how much money they want to have in an account before opening a line, how much college savings they have and how much they plan to spend at school.

“Here’s the main problem: We have teenagers signing off on $20,000 student loans without being able to balance a checkbook,” says Shorb.