When's the last time you talked to your kids about money? Never? I hate to break the news to you, but the little sponges have probably already picked up a lot more dirt than you know.
With a little thought, though, you can come up with hands-on financial lessons that will leave your children with fond money memories and practical skills, instead of scars from mom and dad's money fights during the Great Recession.
Four ways to expose Junior to the real world of money
Make a mini-CPA: In these days of enlightened allowances, many families have children divide their weekly stipend into three piggy banks: one for spending money, one for savings, and one for charity. (There are even piggy banks designed for this purpose.) If that's too complicated, consider encouraging savings by offering a parental "match" for those dollars put in the bank, just like your employer does for your 401(k) contributions. When they are old enough, send them this link to encourage the entrepreneur in them.
Teach in "real time:" Every trip to the store or time spent paying bills is a "teaching moment." Yeah, I bristle at that phrase, too. On the other hand, all the lecturing in the world can be pointless. Abstract financial concepts are just that -- abstract -- when described in third person, after the fact. Particularly when Idol is on in three minutes. Engage your kid in "real time" during your daily money chores so they'll see how the theoretical issues of savings, bill paying, and cursing out the MasterCard people actually work.
Teach them to value every dollar. Tired of playing shopping-cart bad cop? Give your child spending power by turning the yes/no verdict over to Junior. Children who are free to spend their money on whatever they want (provided it doesn't require gunpowder, gasoline, or a parental signature on a safety waiver) are more thoughtful and less impulsive -- after a while, at least.
Get them excited about stocks, not stuff. The stock market (and the passage of time) can also reward the little ones in a big way. Engaging kids in investing pursuits is easy: Just explain that when they buy a share of stock, they become part owners of the company, not just a customer. (A seat on the board, however, may have to wait until after they're old enough to drive.) Every moment of every day, they're presented with investment opportunities, from the breakfast cereal they eat to the entertainment they watch and their weekend strolls at the mall. If saving money to buy more stock replaces saving money to buy more stuff, even better.
Instituting, and sticking to, a concrete money plan can get complicated in households where there is shared custody. Heck, getting on the same page about money matters may have sent you and your child's other parent to divorce court in the first place. Still, you can encourage consistent money rules in your household. Just let your child's other parent know how you are handling allowance and other money-related tasks. Maybe he or she will get a few good ideas.
For more on kids and cash:
This article originally ran in February 2006. It has been updated and is maturing gracefully, just like its author, Dayana Yochim. Dayana owns none of the companies in this article, and the Fool's disclosure policy is a kid at heart.