What Kids' Tough Money Questions Really Mean
by Bonnie Vengrow
If there's a job description for being a kid, asking parents personal, sensitive, or downright embarrassing questions has to be one of the requirements. But take heart: There's often a simpler, more concrete concern at play, explains Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behavior specialist and author of You're Not the Boss of Me. "Take the classic case of a kid asking his father, 'Where do I come from?' The father breaks out into a sweat and starts talking about the [birds and the bees]," she says with a laugh. "And then when he's done, the kid says, 'That's funny. Jimmy's dad said we're from Philadelphia.'"
When it comes to money, getting to the root concern requires a little digging on your part, a task that Braun suggests should commence with an upbeat, "I'm so glad you asked – I want to help you understand," and then asking what you think the question really is all about. Or, if you're stumped, go with something more general like, "What made you think about that?" Then follow up with an age–appropriate response that addresses only the issue at hand. Children younger than 7 typically don't yet understand money and value, so even a basic answer can go over their heads. But older kids may be ready for more detailed explanations.
Your child asks: Are we rich? Are we poor?
Now what? First, find out what it means to your child to be rich and poor, and then tailor your answer accordingly. "You could say, 'We have enough to live and buy the things we want, and I feel so fortunate that we can do that," Braun says. "I'd call us comfortable.'"
You could also use the question as a springboard into more complex topics, like debt. That's what Gina and Phil Ferrara of Gainesville, FL, did when their daughters broached the subject after a playdate at a friend's lavish home. "Over dinner that night, we talked to the kids about how some people could be very wealthy but not show it," says Gina, a mom of four. They also discussed how some people could have a lot of "things" but not be wealthy, which led to a conversation about saving to buy things versus buying things now and paying them off later.
Your child asks: Why do you work?
Now what? Hold off on explanations of budgets and household expenses for now and instead ask what made your child think to ask that. You may find that she doesn't like you going into the office every day, or that she has no idea what you do all day, or that she wonders whether you even like going to work. Once you know the issue, you can address it specifically and maybe even use it as a teachable moment.
That's what Dana McCranie of Huntsville, AL, did when her two children asked why she recently went back to work. "I tell my kids that I work to help Daddy and contribute to the household, but also because it's what's in my heart to do," she says.
Your child asks: Why do I have to get a job?
Now what? Whether your child is worried about getting a job or is just slow to embrace the daily grind, your response can be short and simple, Braun says. "I'd say, 'you don't have to get a job. But if you intend to eat food, you need money to buy that food, and money comes from work. And another word for work is a job."
Your child asks: Why can't you just get more money?
Now what? Your child is probably reacting to your refusal to buy them something they want. Instead of the standard "I don't have money for that" answer, try being totally candid. "You can say, 'I could go back to my bank account and get more money, but I don't want to do that because I don't choose to spend my money on that toy,'" says Braun. Walking into a store with a list in hand – and explaining to your children ahead of time that you're sticking to only those items on the list – may also help when teaching kids about money. Then, if they ask for something you didn't account for, you can explain that you'll consider it the next time you're in the store –if it fits into the family's spending plans.
Your child asks: Will we ever run out of money?
Now what? Do you have a hunch that fear or insecurity is at play? Address that head on by explaining that you and/or your partner have good jobs that allow you to provide, and that you're saving money so you'll have enough. It also helps to let your child in on bill paying, Braun says. You can explain what you're spending on expenses that month and what that covers, including any charities you support. Be sure to point out how much you're putting into savings and encourage your child to take a similar spending, saving, and sharing approach to their own money.
Your child asks: How much do you make?
Now what? When it comes to the salary question, "I don't give them numbers," says Michael Skibar, a father of three in Dallas, TX. "I tell them that we have enough to keep a house, buy cars, go on trips, and go out to eat. We have enough money to do all of that."
In fact, it's a good idea to translate income talk into terms your child can understand, says Sonya Britt, associate professor at the Institute of Personal Financial Planning at Kansas State University, CFP®. Older children may be curious, but "for kids younger than 10, the only reason they'd want to know how much you make is to tell their friends," she explains. "The dollar amounts don't mean anything to them."
For kids younger than 10, the only reason they'd want to know how much you make is to tell their friends.
You may want to preface your response with a request for discretion. "You can say to your child that you're happy to answer the question, but the salary information you're about to give is for your family only," Braun says.
Your child asks: How much did we pay for our house?
Now what? You don't have to disclose numbers if you're uncomfortable, though there are good reasons to do so – besides the fact that they can find out the information themselves online. "In order for children to understand the value of money and how much they're going to need in order to live when they get older, these are things they need to know," Braun says. "If your child is old enough to have a concept of money, you can take advantage of the opportunity and explain how you can pay for these things, like putting down a down payment and taking out a mortgage."
Your child asks: Why don't I get more money for my allowance?
Now what? For Braun, this question is often a sign that you may want to revisit your allowance system. Rather than giving children a set amount of money and expecting no work in return, she suggests thinking of allowance as a wage. "It's money you earn," she says. "If you want to earn more money, you'll need to work."
That's the approach the Ferraras recently adopted in their home. Instead of paying the kids to do things they should be doing anyway – such as brushing their teeth – Gina and Phil told the children they needed to find jobs around the house. "We told them we'd negotiate their pay based on what they think they should get paid versus what we think they should get paid," Gina says. The new approach is working so far: Their 5–year–old son routinely asks for more chores around the house so he can make more money.
Your child asks: Why can't you pay for this (fill-in-the-blank expensive thing)?
Now what? Requests for pricey things are a chance for you and your partner to model healthy financial behavior, or in this case, sticking to your budget. It also gives you an opportunity to talk about your spending plans in a constructive way, replacing phrases like "it's too expensive" and "we can't afford that" with "I don't choose to spend my money like that," Britt says.
Some parents also use the question as an opportunity to reframe how kids think about prices. For example, when Stefanie H. of Middletown, NY, and her 12–year–old son are shopping together, and she's weighing the importance and price of a purchase, she likes to break it down into relatable terms. "[I'll say], 'It takes Mommy two weeks to earn that money.'" she says.
Replacing phrases like 'it's too expensive' and 'we can't afford that' with 'I don't choose to spend my money like that.'
Your child asks: Do my friends' parents have more/less money than we do?
Now what? Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others, Britt says. "You don't have to talk about money specifically, but you can explain the idea that everyone has their own budget, or pie, and they have to divide that pie into different slices to pay for different parts," she says.
When Sarah S. of Enfield, NH, gets this question from her two children, she explains that there will always be people who have more – and less – than they do, and it's important to find happiness with what they have. "It's not about getting what you want," she adds. "It's about wanting what you have."
It's not about getting what you want... It's about wanting what you have.
Your child asks: Why is that person asking for money?
Now what? Whether it's a homeless person on the sidewalk or a volunteer ringing a bell in front of the grocery store, your child may wonder why someone is asking for spare change. If it's a charitable organization doing the asking, you can explain that some groups collect money to help people who are less fortunate. If you donate to a charity, you can explain that, too.
If it's a panhandler who needs money, you may explain that the person may not have enough money to live and then talk about why that might be, Braun suggests. "You could say, 'Maybe he doesn't have a job, or maybe he doesn't have a family to live with,'" she says. "You can help your child to think about the answers to that question."
You can also guide the conversation into ways you and your child can help others. Stefanie H., for example, says she makes paying it forward a top priority in her home. "When my son asks if I will buy him more Legos, I tell him he has plenty at home," she says. "But if he would like me to buy them and then donate them to his old preschool, I will do that."
As uncomfortable as money questions may be to answer, they're also an invitation to teach your child valuable lessons about healthy financial behavior, so don't avoid them. As Braun points out, responding by saying it's none of their business or that you'll tell them when they're older not only quashes their natural, healthy curiosity, it also leaves these important questions to be answered by someone else (read: not you) down the road.
Wondering what money messages you may be unconsciously sending to your children?
Read The Mixed Messages We Send Kids About Money.