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Trickle-Down Trepidation

In this economy, our family is taking a less-is-more approach to money: We’re spending less — and talking about it more.

Scarce jobs and bountiful bills have caused a cash crunch and I’m addressing it the way I address most problems: by surrounding it with the sound of my voice. My plan is to squawk and blubber about it until it asphyxiates on the carbon dioxide spewing from my motormouth. So far it hasn’t helped.

But while I’ve been prattling about money — pointing out the high cost of cable TV (was it always this pricey?) and proposing fun new dining-out policies like “I know! Let’s all order water!” — I think I freaked out my kid.

“Mom,” my 11-year-old asked this week, “are we having money trouble?”

I was rattled by the question. Embarrassed even. Sure, we’ve “tightened our belts,” as Obama likes to say, but no more than any other family. No one’s coming for our house or anything. I don’t think. Yet.

“You talk about money all the time,” he said.

Well, yeah. But I mean well. I want to convey the value of things, to show my oldest that financial responsibility involves making small but smart decisions: Buy new pajamas or sew the old ones? Hire a sitter or ask Nana to watch the kids? Grab a $4 latte on-the-go or brew plain joe at home?

I hoped that being conspicuously cognizant of our dollars would justify any spending changes my son resented (“I’m not buying you a new backpack when there’s a perfectly good, um, pink one in the closet”), and would teach him the lessons I never quite mastered about “rainy days” and “fools and their money” and so flipping forth.

Instead, it scared him. I overshot “create awareness” and landed squarely on “create anxiety.” Oops.

How, then, does one model financial restraint without coming off as a miserly killjoy or worse, stressing out one’s little dollar-devouring darlings? I asked some friends.

“I am a killjoy sometimes, but life isn’t always about getting what you want when you want it,” says Nicole, a self-employed mother of three. “What’s wrong with raising our kids to have to work for something worthwhile — or wait for it? I feel my children are better served having this awareness and will in turn be better people. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.”

“I use coupons now at the grocery store,” says my friend Skye, who has three kids. “I have the kids help me match the coupons to the items, and check the receipt at the end to see how much we saved. It’s kind of fun!” Sometimes they put the savings toward a family movie night, which, these days, means renting a discount DVD and making Boboli pizzas at home.

My friend Kendra is kind of brilliant. She got spend-smart by reading “most of the personal finance books in the library” and is already talking to her kids, ages 2 and 4, about money management.

“Financial responsibility isn’t about not spending; it’s about spending in accordance with your values,” she says. “We don’t say ‘Kids, our grocery budget has changed so we’re not eating meat tonight.’ Instead we say, ‘Hey, it’s a new recipe. What do you think?’ This lets them make up their own minds and not feel like money has to inform the pleasure they get from an experience.”

As for anxiety? “Being direct and clear with our children about money — and what it’s for — slays that dragon pretty effectively,” she says. “Remember that money has no intrinsic value. It’s just a tool we use to live our lives the way we want.”

I figure the best way to save money and ensure my kids’ fiscal foresight is to have them live with Kendra.

Published inColumnsParenting

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