This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Everybody's talking about money these days: Unemployment is up, house prices are down, and gas and grocery bills are expected to continue rising. It seems that everyone is tightening their belts as 2010 gives way to 2011.
But how do parents explain this to their fashion-conscious middle-school kids? How about teens with dreams of out-of-state college or a new car?
“Be honest with your children — but don't tell them more than they need to know. Avoid overloading older kids with too many details or worries that might scare them. Stick to brief explanations and be clear about changes made to the family budget,” says Dr. Heidi Sallee, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and a mother of four. “Knowing what you want to say, what changes will be made — and how those changes will affect each child — can help make this a little easier.”
When dealing with the demands of a younger child, remind yourself that it's OK to reject pleas and set limits. You're not depriving your children — you are teaching them important lessons about delaying gratification, earning treats and rewards, and about family finances. After all, food and rent come before toys.
If you can afford it, offer a small reward in exchange for good behavior or keeping the bedroom straight. Short-term rewards, such as stickers or tokens, can keep younger kids motivated. Financial incentives can help older kids earn money toward their goals while teaching them valuable lessons about saving.
Preteens may not be interested in the global economy or why money is tight, but they can be told that there is a limited amount of money in the family budget. Do not cave into their every whim, and instead encourage kids to plan ahead for new purchases. Preteens are old enough to save money from a weekly allowance or earn it by doing chores around the house, raking leaves, or shoveling snow around the neighborhood.
When talking to your kids, let them know that they're not alone in their desires. Say how you feel when you see something that you want, but can't purchase it right away. Explain that everyone in the family has to cut down on spending — including you — and remind them that, if they're really motivated, there are ways to earn money and work toward the things they truly want.
Teenagers may roll their eyes when you tell them that you walked or rode a bus to school, but challenging them to find a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way to get around town may appeal to their "green" orientation. Likewise, suggesting that teens save up for that big-ticket item — and seeing that goal through — will help them feel more empowered as they move toward adulthood. Through part-time jobs or regular babysitting, teens can earn money outside the home and cover many of their own expenses.
Family meetings are a great way to establish these new rules, even if they're temporary until family finances are in better shape. Explain the new rules and also new opportunities for earning privileges and treats. Make it fun: challenge kids to come up with family-friendly, cost-effective activities that everyone will enjoy. Once you've had "the talk" with your kids, keep a list posted — perhaps on the refrigerator door — of the new house rules so that everyone knows what is expected of them.
What Else You Can Do
- Manage stress levels. Get support — yours is not the only family going through hard times. Try joining a support group or other social network in your area. Support groups are offered through local hospitals, churches, synagogues, libraries, and schools.
- Learn to say "no." Sometimes parents say "yes" to their kids before figuring out how they'll afford a new expense. Even if you agreed to something, you can explain that you made a mistake, and — in order to be a financially responsible family — everyone must forego certain treats for a while.
- Explore fun, low-cost activities. Challenge your family to create memories without visiting a mall or a store. Some ideas include: bike riding together, going to a park, free movie nights, concerts, library events, museums and other local art, cultural, or sporting events.
- Get kids involved. Do kids get an allowance they can save up? Can they earn money or points toward back-to-school items? Older kids might look into helping pay for college by saving money or applying for scholarships, loans, or grants.
Encouraging kids to find creative ways to save or make money not only helps them feel empowered — it helps them feel like they're doing their part to help out.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.