This is a special series as part of CentSai’s commitment to financial literacy at every level. We’re collaborating with financial education advocate Sam X Renick on a series of short interviews, videos, and tips. In this installment, Dr. Bridget Cooper tells Renick a money lesson she learned as a child and shares advice for teaching kids about money.

A Childhood Money Lesson

Sam X Renick: What is the most important money habit you learned as a child? Briefly share the story behind how you learned the habit and what impact it has had on you throughout your life.

Dr. Cooper: My mother had me open up a savings account when I was in elementary school. She wanted to ensure that I had money of my own. Mom also made responsible for what I put in and took out of it by the fifth grade. It fostered a sense of independence and made me accountable for my saving and spending habits, as well as making the bank an everyday place versus an intimidating institution. We struggled financially, for sure, but having that account gave me the feeling that I could change that when I grew up.


The Most Important Money Lesson to Teach Kids

Renick: If you could only teach a child one money habit, what would it be? Briefly explain why?

Dr. Cooper: Money, like calories, requires attention and balance. If you burn more than you take in, you’ll have a deficit. If you take in more than you burn, you’ll have an excess.

There’s nothing magical about having (or not having) money for the things in our lives.

I think respecting that balance is the key to making sound financial decisions and fostering a sense of delayed gratification, hard work, and attention to detail. Now if only we could burn through calories as effortlessly as we burn through money!

Why Do Parents Struggle With Teaching Kids About Money?

Renick: A variety of surveys indicate that it’s a challenge for parents to talk to kids about money. What would you say are one or two of the primary reasons that parents find it difficult to talk about personal finance with their children? And if you have a suggestion on how they can overcome the obstacle, please share that as well.

Dr. Cooper: For many of us, money was like sex and politics: You knew it existed, but you never talked about it because it might make other people uncomfortable, judgmental, or jealous. For me, my mother shared the details of our precarious financial situation in excruciating detail. That fostered a great deal of money anxiety in me.

I’ve slowly introduced money discussions with my children so as to allow them to be relaxed in that relationship. I have, however, been really clear all along about “needs” versus “wants.” I always make sure that they know that their needs will be taken care of, but that their wants may not be. Being self-employed, my income varies over time, so our spending habits around “wants” fluctuate, as well.


Teaching Personal Finance in Schools

Renick: Why do you believe there isn’t more personal finance being taught in schools?

Dr. Cooper: I volunteer with Junior Achievement, so we have been filling that gap. I suspect some of it is a matter of resources, testing demands on the curriculum, and perhaps a discomfort in deciding the framework and whether or not it’s the “right” way to teach personal finance.

A Final Thought: What If the Research Is Wrong?

Renick: Cambridge University research indicates that adult money habits are set by age seven. What if the research is wrong and adult money habits are formed earlier — perhaps around the age that the “give mes” set in? What does this mean for families, schools, and the financial education industry?

Dr. Cooper: The way we model behavior would become even more critical in forming healthy ideas about money. Toddler and preschool games around money management (understanding currency, bartering as a stepping stone) would become more prevalent. And instead of just managing the money of the household, parents might be encouraged to explain their behavior in a “life lessons” sort of way even earlier.

Take Action

Open a savings account with your child!

Discover more about Dr. Cooper at her website.