When you were growing up, you probably became accustomed to hearing some typical thoughts about money from your parents. These parents are the ones who told you that money doesn’t grow on trees. If it weren’t for your parents, you wouldn’t know that children are starving in Africa and therefore you should eat your entire dinner. When you didn’t complete your chores, you didn’t earn your allowance. Sometimes.
If your childhood was like many people’s, your parents had good intentions. Even while they may have offered some suggestions for handling money as you grew into a young adult, you learned more from their behavior than from their words. And even though you promise to learn from your parents’ mistakes, chances are you will end up, once you have children of your own, being more like your parents than you would like to admit.
Here are ten quick lessons our parents should have given us.
1. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some times, you’ll get what you need. Who knew that The Rolling Stones would have important life lessons to impart to the public. It’s poignant for a rock and roll song, and a good place to start. With a generation of parents who have been financially successful or have had easy access to credit, have wanted to provide the opportunities for their children than their own could not have afforded for them, and have been encouraged to do whatever it takes to ensure their children rise to the top, some children have grown up with very high expectations for themselves and a feeling of entitlement.
2. Avoid debt but understand its role. Credit cards are everywhere. Young children quickly recognize that by handing a cashier a plastic card, you can walk away with whatever you want. But even teens do not understand what it means to use a credit card and the dangers that can arise from its use. Debt can be expensive if it is not handled properly and should only be used in certain circumstances.
3. Spend less than you earn. It’s simple mathematics, but parents should help their children realize what can happen when someone consistently spends more than they earn. These consequences are often hidden, so shine the light on unsurmountable debt.
4. Consider a practical career. Did you hear, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” when you were growing up? That may be true in some circumstances, but it simply is not always the case. If your passion is bicycle racing, and you wish to do this competitively, you better make sure there is nothing else you could possibly do with your life that will make you happy. It will be very difficult to make a living bicycle racing unless you make your way to the very top. And bicycle racing is only an example.
5. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it opens opportunities. Studies show that there is only a shaky correlation between net worth and happiness. But maybe happiness is the wrong thing to measure. Having money left over at the end of the day — more income than you have expenses — provides you with opportunities to have satisfying experiences, and with more net income, you can have more and a higher level of variety of these experiences.
6. Give to the world and the world will give back to you. It is naive to believe that for every dollar you provide to a charity or every hour you spend as a volunteer will come back to you in the same form it left. But every human being has a responsibility to try to improve this world in whatever way he or she sees fit. Not only that, but charitable work makes you feel good about yourself, and since there is no such thing as altruism, all motivation comes back to feeling good.
7. You can make the financial industry work for you. Everyone wants your money, whether they are retail stores, banks, credit card companies, your landlord, the electric company, your college, or your local coffee shop. You must give part of your money to some of these beggars, but while you do, make your money work for you. Earn interest in a high-yield savings account. Don’t stand for any financial accounts where you are required to pay a fee.
8. Don’t go into business with your friends. Once you lend money to or start a business with your your friend, your relationship is changed forever. It is likely your friend will not behave as you hope, and the result can be disappointment or outrage. Good friends can be hard to find, so don’t ruin a relationship with money or business.
9. Save first, then spend. This needs to be an explicit discussion. Children see their parents buy whatever the need whenever they want, but the background story is often hidden. They don’t know that the parents have been saving for a year in order to afford the family vacation. To a child’s point of view, Christmas presents magically appear. While you may not want to spoil the idea of Santa Claus — who must be fabulously wealthy — at a certain age, children must learn Where Presents Come From and How Many Months We Saved to Afford Them.
10. You may have to take care of us some day. Here is one reason to ensure you have money to spare as you get older: your parents are getting older first. Lifespans are generally increasing, but quality of life may not be. You may find yourself dealing with your parents’ health issues, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, or any number of medical conditions that will make it difficult for them to live without assistance. Not everyone has long term care insurance, and even if they did, there is a good chance it won’t cover all the care that is needed.
What lessons about money did your parents teach you? Are there any lessons you’ve learned since your childhood that you wish your parents had taught?
Updated April 26, 2010 and originally published July 20, 2009.