This special series is 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, FINRA Foundation President Gerri Walsh tells Renick the most important money lesson she learned as a child and shares a tip 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 of how you learned the habit and what impact it has had on you throughout your life.

Gerri Walsh: The daughter of Irish immigrants, I grew up in a working-class family and learned from an early age that money does not grow on trees and that wants differ dramatically from needs. In part because I never had a regular allowance, I started socking away spare change as a toddler and began looking for ways to earn my own money at age nine.

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My first job involved covering a portion of a sibling’s paper route for a cut of her collections. That’s when I developed a habit of accompanying my parents to our local bank on Saturdays, where I would deposit a portion of each week’s pay into a passbook savings account. I enjoyed watching the interest compound.

As much as I might have preferred to spend that hard-earned cash to keep up with some of my friends, I took pride in seeing my meager assets grow.

I eventually took out loans to pay for college and law school, but I continued to work and to save while pursuing my degrees. That little green passbook had instilled in me a lifelong habit — and love — of saving, a healthy respect for opportunity costs, and a fear of unfettered debt.

Having become keenly aware that the power of compound interest can be both positive (with saving and investing) and negative (with debt), I felt empowered to pay off my loans as soon as I could and to contribute to a retirement account while still in my twenties.

The Most Important Money Lesson to Teach Kids

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

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Walsh: Pay yourself first. When a child receives a gift or earns an allowance, encourage him or her to take a portion of that money and set it aside for the future. Doing so can help cultivate an ability to accept and even embrace delayed gratification, especially if the child can spend some portion immediately. In a world where so many messages encourage us all to spend, finding the strength to short-circuit our impulses can pay massive dividends in the long run.

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 the “give mes” set in? What does this mean for families, schools, and the financial education industry?

Walsh: It is never too early to teach children the consequences of spending and the benefits of saving. Exposing young people to financial institutions could have a powerful impact on financial inclusion, financial capability, and financial wellness over their life spans.

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Discover more about Gerri Walsh at the FINRA Foundation.