Talking To Your Kids About Family Finances? Give Them the Gift of Perspective

Originally posted Dec. 5, 2008

Our “First State Quarters of the United States” Collector’s Map may never recover from my looting of the colonies, which I raided for milk money one rainy day when my kids were still in diapers. The map serves as a reminder that the wolf is never far from the door, and that hasn’t been truer for some folks than in recent months. I haven’t resorted to pillaging the Wild West since the economy took its latest dive, but I have thought twice about unnecessary spending and about how to talk to my kids about what the latest belt-tightening means for them.

For example, Holly wasn’tcontent to wear last-year’s Halloween costume (she’s in a new school …no one would know) andbegged for a new one this year. She wanted to be a devil but nothing in the ‘magic box,’ our cache of costumes, would do. Cringing at the prospect of investing $24.99 plus tax on a new one, I offered to dust off the sewing machine and whip one up myself. Holly had her doubts, so we were both thrilled when her Daddy surprised us by snagging the same exact costume at the Goodwill for a mere $2.99.

For some, though, clever financial problem-solving isn’t always so satisfying. Does saying no, or does setting limits by saying yes instead to shabby-chic or gently-worn leave you with residual feelings that you just can’t name, that feel familiar but which you can’t quite explain? Perhaps emotional financial baggage is getting in your way. Revisiting, recognizing and managing old messages about money can help, especially at holiday time when expectations are often at their highest.

For example, perhaps it just doesn’t feel like Christmas to you if a ginormous mountain of loot isn’t piled up around the tree. Maybe it’s been important to your family to always wear the latest styles and be the first family on the block with the hottest gadget and newest patio furniture at the lake house. Have you grown weary of keeping up with the Jones’ or even with your own family’s expectations?

Maybe your cash flow is far greater than your parents’ ever was and belt-tightening feels too much like the old days so you reject the notion, fend off your dread and keep up appearances.

Or maybe you grew up watching your Mom lick her wounds by shopping ’til she dropped, and acquired a taste for acquiring things as a method of self-soothing when times get tough. What if, though, you’ve recentlylost your job or worry you might? Take away weekly binges at the mall or otherwise living beyond your means and what do you do to tame those unconscious feelings of negative self worth or that quest for the latest and greatest? Now that we’re mired in an economic mess just how will you model another way to deal, for your kids’ sake?

During times of crisis I remind folks that the written Chinese word for “crisis” is actually comprised of two characters: one represents “danger” and the other, “opportunity.” There is no doubt that an economic crisis can be frightening and invoke uncertainty. But opportunity? Yes, I think so.

Begin by finding and expressing gratitude, a powerful antidote to your legitimate panic about the rising costs of bread and milk and your badly bruised 401K. Do your kids have any idea how fortunate we Americans still are compared to the rest of the world’s inhabitants? Illustrate it for them: if we took into account the various ratios that exist today and shrank the earth’s human population to 100 people, 40 would have substandard housing, 40 would suffer from malnutrition and 20 would be illiterate. Only five would be American but they would possess more than half of the entire world’s wealth. Can you imagine a community where 5% of the people have most of the food and wealthwhile half the people are impoverished? Let’s take this example home. Suppose your family consisted of five people: two of you would go hungry and one of you would be illiterate. Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to share with them?

Not everyone can be like the complete stranger who recently bought a Texas woman’s foreclosed home at auction and gave it back to her, but how ’bout getting your kids to clean out their closetsso they candonate their old toys and clothes to the Goodwill, for other kids to use?Lifting others up can lift you out of your own worry and energize you to problem-solve your own solutions. Give your kids the gift of this perspective this holiday season.


Reassure children that your family will survive economic challenges, one way or another.

Give kids a reality check: allow tweens and teens to peek at the basics of the family budget.

Curb unnecessary spending on your kids and dole out allowances, instead. This inspires children to be discerning, set goals and sacrifice to meet them.

Adopt a family needier than yours this Christmas. Empower your children with a ‘can-do’ attitude and the gift of perspective.

My favorite poem is “The work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman:

Christmas begins when the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks.

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost, to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild nations,

to bring peace among people,

to make music in the heart.

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