"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was, at one time, the modus operandi of many families in America. Since then, we've become a consumer-oriented, throw-away society that is prompting some pushback. In the face of rampant consumerism, how can we teach our kids to save?
Be a Role Model.
Imparting thriftiness, says Dr. Adrienne Gans, a clinical psychologist in New York City, involves setting an example. "It means self-control and self-regulation as opposed to immediate gratification," she explains. "Learning to be frugal entails absorbing the internal qualities rather than the outward behaviors."
Case in point: As a child, Lilly Slaydon longed for an American Girl doll, which her parents could not afford. The Los Angeles resident says she saved her allowance and birthday and holiday money and performed assorted chores for close to two years until accumulating enough to buy the doll herself. "I was so proud to be able to do that on my own," she says, adding that the sense of pride has resonated throughout her life, not to mention the understanding that she must work (and wait) for what she wants. The best way to teach kids to save, Dr. Gans continues, is to live that way yourself. If children see you modeling restraint, they will absorb the message. And if they see you do so without bitterness or rancor, the lesson will be a positive one.
A frugal lifestyle also can foster real creativity. Mira Smith, who lives in New York, fondly recalls "cabinet shopping" with her mother and siblings: They scavenged the larder and invented a meal out of what was already there. She says she now realizes this was a tactic her mother used at the end of a pay period when the budget was tight, but her mother turned the predicament into a fun activity rather than an embarrassing chore.
Making toys out of things lying around the house serves as another teachable moment. "My mom helped me be thrifty by giving us kids empty grocery and oatmeal boxes to play with," says Bridget Clark of Brooklyn. "We got really creative about the worlds we made up with them." Using their imaginations is what kids instinctively do, so use it to advantage.
"We always spoke frankly with our kids about money," reports Kathi Hubert of Ashland, New Hampshire. "If we couldn't afford something they wanted, we would have a discussion about how to get it by waiting or by finding a substitute."
Although discussing finances with your kids isn't always comfortable, the financial experts at Schwab advise that you do so anyway. The household's finances are integral to family life and children should be brought into the conversation when they're old enough to understand the concept of money.
Handing out an allowance is one way for to teach kids to save. And while they are sure to make mistakes, those, too, are lessons learned.
These days the reuse-and-recycle mantra is everywhere -- in school, in the media, at grocery stores, even in certain sectors of the fashion world. It is this generation's version of the old "use it up" maxim. Although the underlying premise is resource conservation, the point applies, as well, to family financial resources.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offers several tips for how to accomplish this. For starters, buy only what you need. If it's an item that can't be used up, pass it along when you no longer need it. Avoid single-serving food containers, and opt for products with the least amount of packaging. (These products generally are cheaper, anyway, so frugality comes with the territory.)
When kids hit their teen years, they're less likely to stick with the family program and may also rebel against social norms. "Getting teens to see advertising as a tool that companies use to get you to buy things you don't need directs their anger elsewhere," Dr. Gans points out, "and gets them interested in alternative lifestyles."
Teens who assemble new styles out of thrift shop finds exemplify how bucking the system can make them stand out while adhering to a frugal life. If this doesn't sound like your kid, the Schwab experts note that teens who hold jobs and must pay for purchases on their own are far more likely to be savers and develop cautious spending habits.
"As kids we worked as baby-sitters or camp counselors," says Wendi Landers-Lee of New York. "We had to save up to buy what we wanted. We didn't expect our parents to buy us everything."