I have clear childhood memories of standing in line at the bank with my mom. My siblings and I would pull pamphlets from the display racks, scribbling on them in imitation of my mom as she made weekly deposits and withdrawals, but mostly withdrawals. She'd carefully tuck crisp $20 bills into a brown envelope and from there we'd go to the grocery store. At the beginning of each season we'd head out of town to buy winter gear or rubber boots, and my mom's brown envelope of cash was always noticeably thicker at the start of the shopping trip than at the end.
Growing up, I was awkwardly aware that my clothes didn't have the same logos as my classmates, but I was just as aware that most of my classmates lived in homes with two parents, and therefore, two incomes. The one time I complained about not having the same kind of clothes as my friends, my mom got incredibly angry. As an adult, I realize her anger was likely sadness but, nevertheless, it was the last time I ever complained. I got a part-time job after that.
My mom never talked openly about money, mostly due to the fact that my brother, sister and I understood that there wasn't a lot of it.
At eight, my son is acutely aware of how some of his pals have more video games or family vacations than ours does. It's something we first encountered two years ago when my husband lost his job, in the middle of a terribly cold winter when it seemed that each week one of his classmates were off to sunny destinations, and my chief concern was paying the heating bills on time.
"Why can't we go away?" he demanded. While we never came outright and told our kids how we were struggling to make ends meet at the time, we were quite frank about the cost of running our household. I blogged about it here and was criticized on the Today's Parent Facebook thread for exposing my kids to adult worries. It was almost as if talking about money was as taboo as talking about sex with your kids used to be.
Ron Lieber, New York Times columnist and the author of The Opposite of Spoiled, believes that taking away the mystery of where money comes from is important and should not be off-limits in family discussions.
In his book, Lieber interviewed Scott Parker, a California father of six who dramatically dumped 10,000 one-dollar bills on a table to demonstrate to how much it took to run the household for a month. He explained incomes, taxes, entertainment and charity, dividing the cash into piles. “I was trying to make as big of an impact as I could, and I definitely had their attention,” he says.
"It may sound improbable, but you can begin to initiate them when they’re as young as five or six, building their knowledge slowly and giving them the real answer while they’re still teenagers. Handle it right, and it will be one of the most valuable lessons of their childhood," Lieber wrote in a post last week on the New York Times website. "But shielding children from the realities of everyday financial life makes little sense anymore, given the responsibilities their generation will face, starting with the outsize college tuitions they will encounter while still in high school."
While my husband and I aren't going to bring home rolls of loonies to show Isaac and Gillian that having children and running a household can be frightfully expensive, we're also not going to avoid talking about how we are slowly unburying ourselves from the debt incurred while my husband was off work. Though it means we may hear a few complaints about how their friends have suntans and iPads and that our house has mismatched furniture, I hope the lessons in patience, hard work and financial restraint stick with them for life. Even if those lessons are a little uncomfortable to learn.
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