I can imagine how overwhelming the task of raising a child can be. And while you’re caught up trying to ensure you’ve got Maslow’s basic needs covered there’s a whole slew of things that may fall by the wayside. But teaching children about money management happens one way or another, explicitly or implicitly.

There are at least these three ways that I’ve seen people learning about money from their parents:

Learning the ABCs of the 123s
This happens in a very formal and structured manner. It’s the most direct way of learning about money, and probably the most rare.

One example is my friend’s dad who, every year, had – and still has – a conversation with her and her siblings around the dinner table. They speak about their financial goals, go over how much they’re earning and how much they’re spending on what, where they could be earning more or spending less. They put financial missteps and lessons learnt under the microscope, then draw up a plan for the next 12 months. Her dad won’t just give out cash but will offer a loan instead, with Ts and Cs. The one perk, besides the minimal paperwork, is that his loans are interest-free.

These lessons are pretty deliberate, and regular, even if it is only annually. I don’t know many people who learned about money in ways similar to this, but I’m sure my friend is better-equipped to manage her money than most.

Learning here and there, now and then
This is somewhat looser and less formal in style. And I am an example of someone who learned this way.

My parents didn’t know much about money when they got married. No-one had taught them. And when you grow up living hand-to-mouth it can be foreign to consider concepts like saving and investing. When they signed up to a life together they knew it was important to save for a rainy day but that was about it.

By the time my siblings and I came into the picture they had a better handle on things. So when I was a child I was given a piggy bank. It was sky blue, cellophane see-through. The principle was simple – the more you put in, the sooner you could afford the treat you wanted. We also quickly learnt that leaving the money in longer opened up the possibility of getting something even better, having had the patience to let the funds grow. Delayed gratification.

I graduated from this to receiving pocket money. Then, later, I worked behind the till at my parents’ butchery and supermarket ekasie and got to earn some real money. This all got me accustomed to receiving a constant amount on a set date, which prepped me well for the working world; to manage what I needed, what I wanted and what I could afford.

Other lessons were more fleeting but no less memorable. Once, we were helping my parents count the day’s tally from the butchery and supermarket. I asked Mother if I could have some money and she point blank told me there wasn’t any. Thing is, I had at least R1 000 in my hand at that moment, so you can understand my confusion. She walked me through their expenses – staff salaries, paying off the house and cars, school fees, groceries. And she was right; there really wasn’t all that much left over after all. Being frank and transparent gave us perspective and encouraged us to build responsible spending habits.

These learnings don’t happen at set times, but they are discussed openly and put into practise. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that most kids learn at least some money lessons in these kinds of ways.

Learning by mimicking
These kinds of lessons are of the unspoken variety. We learn them by watching our parents, mostly when they’re unaware.

Whenever we went grocery shopping mom was always comparing prices. She also knew which shop had cheaper toilet paper and which one to visit for milk. Now, as an adult having to do my own shopping, I’ve begun to behave similarly, checking the Rand-per-Kilogram value before settling on which packet makes it into the trolley.

My father used to keep all of his receipts. There was a designated shelf where folders were lined up, one for each month, each one neatly grouped according to various expenses. He knew where his money went – to the cent. And that’s something I’ve picked up from him. More often than not, I’m able to work it out so those last days before each month end don’t feel unbearably long.

Children learn good and bad things by seeing what their parents spend money on, how much they spend, and how they feel about spending. Even not talking about money sends a message. Learning by mimicking is probably the subtlest way children learn about money, but every parent teaches lessons this way, so they’re also most common.

Lessons parents can learn
Parents can teach their children money lessons consciously and unconsciously.

Meetings around the dinner table with spreadsheets completed, goals clearly spelled out and spending overtly reviewed, can encourage discipline, accountability and independence – all very valuable lessons especially when to comes to our relationship with money but, sadly, rarely taught. More children have lessons like I did – less didactic and less overt, slipped into conversations in the lounge or on the way to school. And then there are the kinds of lessons every child learns; the unintentional ones that parents aren’t even aware they are role-modelling.

It’s the lessons taught most consciously that are probably the most valuable but, ironically, they’re the ones least often taught. And maybe there’s a lesson in that: children don’t choose what they learn, but parents can choose what they teach.


Photo via Unsplash.com. CC by 1.0

Nobhongo Gxolo

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Nobhongo is a freelance writer and cook. Before being published, her imaginings remained pencil on the pages of a journal given to her while still in high school. She enjoys writing about people, especially artists; the things that intrigue and compel them to create. She hosts a monthly food club, Third Culture Experiment, where she offers Capetonians a chance to meet, eat, and connect over conversation and a three-course meal.
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