Your author: an extremely dorky kid with some weird ideas about how the world works.
Last week someone asked me for advice about how to talk to her kid about money. “It’s not like I can just show her what’s in my bank account”, she said, laughing nervously.
I told her, actually, that’s exactly what I think she should do.
We never spoke about money when I was growing up. In my house you could make jokes about sex at the dinner table, you could have a robust and respectful discussion about politics or religion, but I do not remember a single conversation we ever had as a family about how money works, or our family’s financial situation. Ever.
Money was the final taboo.
But the thing is, when you’re not talking to your kids about something, that doesn’t mean they’re not still developing an alarmingly sophisticated understanding of what’s going on. Kids are sponges sucking up information about the world. They hear the anxious fights you have through closed doors. They sense when you’re stressed about covering the bills this month. They’re learning some fundamental beliefs about money, beliefs that it might take them a lifetime to unlearn.
There’s a researcher named Brad Klontz who studies money beliefs and how they correlate with life outcomes. He groups the ideas we hold about money into four basic groups:
- Money avoidance. “Rich people are greedy.” “People get rich by taking advantage of others.” “It’s not okay to have more than you need.” “I don’t deserve a lot of money when other people have less than me.”
- Money worship. “More money will make you happier.” “There will never be enough money.” “Money is power.” “Things would get better if I had more money.” “I will never be able to afford the things I really want in life.”
- Money status. “Your self-worth equals your net-worth.” “I won’t buy something unless it’s new.” “If you live a good life, you’ll always have enough money.” “Most poor people don’t deserve to have money.”
- Money vigilance. “It’s important to save for a rainy day.” “If you can’t pay cash for something, you shouldn’t buy it.” “Money should be saved, not spent.” “You shouldn’t tell people how much you have or make.”
There are other money stories I’ve encountered in my chats with people. “Climate change is going to throw us all into a Mad Max-style wasteland so the only sensible investment is potable water” has come up a few times. Also, “my retirement plan is to kill myself when I’m too old to work,” (geez, fellow 30-somethings, you’re a morbid bunch).
Which of these money stories are true? All of them, probably, even the ones that contradict each other. All of them capture part of the truth. But none of them are the whole truth. And some of them are more helpful to you, at particular times in your life, than others.
My mum, who grew up about as poor as it was possible for a white South African to be in the 60s, carries a lot of the “money worship” beliefs. I think many people who grow up poor end up with the words NOT ENOUGH MONEY banging around their brains like a jackhammer. It’s fear-motivated, this conviction that money will fix all your problems, so if you have problems, it’s because you don’t have enough money.
The thing is, this belief was definitely true during some parts of her life when she objectively did not have enough money. But it still felt true to her during times when she had plenty; times when the things that were wrong in her life had nothing to do with money at all. Even when she was pretty financially stable, my mum was constantly talking about what she was going to do when she won the lotto. She always had an acute sense of the things she can’t afford, the life she could be living but wasn’t.
For my dad, money was about status, and it was how he demonstrated his love. If my dad had five rand left in his bank account, he would spend that last five rand buying you ice cream. Money moved through his life like water. If he had it, he’d spend it without thinking, and mostly, he’d spend it on other people. If you mentioned that you kinda half-liked a bizarre overpriced hat you saw in a store window, he would march out immediately and buy you that hat, whether you actually had any use for it or not. If he didn’t have the cash, he’d buy it on credit.
Money was always like a happy surprise, to my dad. Like, “oh look, money! What a strange and remarkable thing to find in my bank account! Let’s go spend it, quick, before it vanishes as mysteriously as it arrived!”
Both of them were amazing parents who loved their kids. And both of their money philosophies kind of made sense. But also were kind of insane.
You can imagine how hilarious the interplay was between my parents. My mom would literally hide money from my dad. And thank god, too, because my mom was the only one thinking about how we were going to pay for less exciting magical goodies like school fees (and my dad’s significant credit card bills). But she’d also take us one side tearfully every single year and warn us that they couldn’t afford to buy us proper Christmas presents that year (which was nuts: we always had way over-the-top Christmas presents, but she never felt like it was enough, and was always convinced that we were on the brink of financial disaster). It was a confusing time.
I, a dumb kid, thereby concluded two irrefutable facts about my family’s financial situation:
- We did not have enough money!
- We had plenty of money!
And because my parents never actually had a conversation with me about any of this, I never had a chance to reflect on questions like what it would actually mean to have enough money, how does one go about getting money in the first place, and how to make decisions about how to spend the money you do have. In this information vacuum, I started forming some money beliefs of my own:
- You have no control over how much money you have.
- Money is mysterious and it’s impossible to know whether you have enough or not.
- It’s weird and wrong to ever talk about money (I’m making up for this now by talking about money ALL THE TIME AT VERY INAPPROPRIATE MOMENTS).
It took me a long, long time to unpick these ideas from my brain, and replace them with more helpful beliefs that don’t leave me feeling so passive and bewildered.
My dear, sweet parents who wanted nothing but the best for us, did all they could to protect us from difficult, adult money conversations. But the thing is, when you think you’re not teaching your kids about something, you might be accidentally teaching them the wrong things.
Instead, what if you tried being radically honest with your kids? What if you brought them into family financial decisions? What if you gave them the gift of better money scripts than the ones you grew up with?
Why am I talking about any of this? Because I’m working on a book about money for teens (aged 11-14ish). And I need your help.
My only qualifications for writing this book are that 1. I have been a teenager and 2. that I have the sense of humour of a 9 year old (it’s all fart jokes). I am missing one pretty important qualification: I don’t actually have kids. I don’t have a good grasp of what questions kids are asking about money.
Are they worried about what kinds of subjects to choose and how to think about jobs? Are they budgeting their pocket money? Do they still have lemonade stands and sell silkworms, or all they all trading Bitcoin now? Are they trying to invest the millions they’ve earned being Twitch streamers?
If you know some kids, please tell me what questions they’re asking about money, so I can write them some profanity-free, joke-filled answers in an easy-to-read book. And if you’ve had conversations with your kids about money that went well, or if you’ve tried exercises with them that made a difference, I’d like to hear about those too, so that we can grow a generation of kids that are smarter and better-adjusted than we are.
Mega smooches, friends!