The year was 1980, and my mom told me to get ready to go to the bank. My first response was dread. Nothing was automated in 1980 and banks were not known to be fun places for kids, despite the tray of cookies that were usually out to placate customers as they waited. At any rate, I got ready and walked the three blocks down the street to our closest bank. After waiting in line, we finally got to the counter, and I heard my mom say that we were opening a savings account in my name. Huh? What? Come again? My mom smiled and reminded me that if I wanted to go to college, own a home, travel, or do anything else, I was going to need some money, so I better start learning how this all worked.
Before you think my family was financially savvy and had it together with money, let me assure you, that was not the case. We struggled financially, as did my parents’ parents before them, and their parents before them, etc. However, my mom was determined to break the cycle, and while she didn’t know much about money, she was committed to passing along what she did know so that we could feel the financial security that she never felt.
When I am working with participants on their finances, we talk a lot about generational wealth, which isn’t just the money we leave to our families and loved ones, but also the behaviors and values that we model and reinforce throughout our lives. The motivation to make a change is often to spare our children and loved ones the painful mistakes that we’ve made, and no matter what our starting point is, there is always a way to learn more and do better for the next generation.
So how can we strengthen our financial “muscles,” no matter our age or circumstance? Here are my top tips as a financial coach.
1. Learn the basics of personal finance.
Unless someone teaches you about personal finance, or you take an interest in it and teach yourself/take a class, you won’t know the basics of personal finance. How would you? There are no required courses in school; no exams to take to ensure you know these principles. These aren’t skills that we are born with, and in fact, research in neuropsychology suggests that planning for the future goes against our primitive brain (that prefers to live in the moment).
Clearly there is a gap that needs to be bridged, and lucky for us, there are many ways to do so (online programs and groups, apps for your phone, more structured in-person programs, and of course, financial coaching with Wellview). If none of these sound right for you, consider keeping it simple by just reading a book. A simple book, not one for investors. One of the best qualities of a book is that you have a beginning and an end (every chapter), so you won’t be led down rabbit holes or lose yourself in hours of extra research.
Resources for kids: There are plenty of resources online and in book format for teaching kids about money and personal finance. Please remember a free resource is always your local public library. Two resources that I’ve used are:
All About Money by The Thinking Tree
Online games through Northwest Youth Financial Education
Resources for adults: There are also many online resources and books regarding personal finance, however, a very readable and simple place to start is Why Didn't They Teach Me This in School? by Cary Siegel.
2. Get experiential.
There’s a saying, “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.” By bringing me to the bank when I was young, my mom was involving me in the process of saving. She was showing me where to go, what to do, and what was expected if I wanted to be a good steward of my money. The experience was much more memorable than if she had told me, “Saving is important” because actions truly do speak louder than words.
Experiential learning for kids: It doesn’t get any more experiential than making your kids work by introducing an allowance system to your family. Use a list like this one to determine reasonable chores for your kids. Decide on a daily or weekly set of chores, that both kids and adults agree upon, and how much each chore or getting all the chores done is worth. Like in the real world, if the work isn’t done, the money isn’t made. Your kids may be learning about trade and barter systems in school, but it’s about to get real!
Some parents include a stipulation that a certain percentage of allowance needs to be donated or invested, to a charity or investment of the child’s choosing. Both are great experiential ways to learn more about gratitude and investing.
Experiential learning for adults: Where are your gaps in personal finance? Do you know about one area (e.g. saving), while another area (e.g. investing) makes you nervous? If this is the case, identify the area that you want to learn about and slowly experience it. For instance, open an IRA and start interacting with the website, the investments, and the services that are offered through the provider. If your blind spot is insurance, print out your insurance declarations page and study it until you understand your coverage. If you don’t have a budget, start creating one.
If you don’t know your blind spots, think about the areas of finance that cause you the most stress, as they might be causing you stress because you don’t understand them. If you need help identifying these areas, reach out to a financial coach at my.wellviewhealth.com to get additional support.
3. Go old school.
I recently read Predictably Irrational by Dr. Dan Ariely, and one of my favorite chapters talked about currency. If you pull out a coin or bill, you will note it has "In God We Trust" written on it. Dr. Ariely argues that when we use actual currency, we are more tied to our morality and the intrinsic value of money, which makes that currency more meaningful than digital alternatives. (He went on to reference hackers who sometimes don’t feel badly for stealing money because it’s all digital, which makes them further removed from the crime. In their eyes, they didn’t rob anyone, they just clicked and entered a few times.)
While it may not be realistic, or convenient, to go all cash like we did 40 years ago, please know that the further we get away from cash, the less our brains are anchored to our spending, our values, and our financial goals.
Old school activity for kids: While we had video games in the 1980s, we were limited in how much we could play by the number of quarters (how much money) we had. Video games (aka screen time) were not endless, as they seem to be today. As a result, we had to diversify our interests and play outside, play board games, read books, etc.
Since screens are so prevalent today with kids, I’ve started to introduce the idea (to the horror of my boys) that screen time needs to be purchased with their money. That they’ve earned. By doing work. While this may seem unrelated to personal finance, it actually is because it’s tied to a barter system (#2), delayed gratification (#4), and with the extra non-screen time that’s opened up, our children can start learning about personal finance (#1).
Old school activity for adults: The type of expenses in our budget that (usually) get us in the most trouble are called variable expenses. These are the expenses that are harder to predict each month because they vary based on our behaviors and/or what is needed (groceries, dining out, entertainment, shopping, clothing, etc.). As a result, we often have no idea how much we are spending every time we order online, tap, or pay for something with an app. So, for one month, estimate how much you spend on variable expenses and take out the cash to pay for them. Notice if it feels any different when you give someone cash versus using plastic, an app, or a tap.
4. Don’t give everything to your kids. Or yourself.
One of the curses of growing up without money was that I had to wait and work hard for everything I got. And one of the biggest blessings of growing up without money was that I had to wait and work hard for everything I got. Funny how that works, right?
Delay of gratification refers to deferring what we want right now so that we can get something valuable and long-lasting in the future. As I mentioned earlier, we aren’t wired to delay our gratification, we are wired to live in the here and now. So this is a skill that requires practice. Much practice. And those who master it have been shown to have more self and impulse-control, and therefore be more successful, healthier, etc. I quit Amazon the day my youngest told me, matter of factly, that I could buy him what he wanted on Amazon and that it would be there the next day. Which is true, but in that moment I realized that I wasn’t training him to be patient if I never let him actually practice patience. (And by “him,” I actually mean everyone in my family, including myself!)
Waiting and “earning” is a beautiful life lesson that we all need to practice, especially in a world that is feeding us the idea that convenience and speed are more valuable than work and patience.
Delayed gratification activity for kids: When your kids ask for something, whether it’s a toy, a game, a download, more time on tech, extra clothing, etc., make them wait or earn it. If they save up the money to purchase it, great, they earned it. You can start small by making them wait one day, then slowly work up to longer amounts of time. You will hear complaints, perhaps a lot of complaints, but please remember this is an exercise in patience and impulse control, and while it hurts in the short-term, in the long-term it builds character and self-control.
Delayed gratification activity for adults: We are being trained by technology to gratify our needs immediately. Desire pops up and we can open an app and quench said desire in minutes. If the goal is self-control, we need to start uncoupling this habit. One helpful way to do so is to create space between the urge and the action. Create a running list of the things you want to buy as you desire them, and let that list grow and sit there without buying anything on the list. It’s like an Amazon wishlist without someone dropping the price and nudging you to purchase something on your list. (Trust me when I say marketers know exactly what they are doing.)
Hopefully there is an idea in here that you can implement and experiment with. Please let us know if you have any insights or successes as you and your family try one or more of these suggestions. As always, if you need support or more information, please reach out to one of our financial coaches. We are here if you need us!
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