Any parent who takes their child into a grocery store knows the routine: The child wants Mommy or Daddy to get them everything - and doesn't understand that it costs money.
So the result is an upset, angry or whiny child, and parents who wonder why they brought the child to the store.
That's an all-too common story for many Americans. But while it's usually the source of some eye-rolling bemusement now, it can also be the warning sign of what's to come in the future - when the child grows up, still doesn't fully understand how to handle money, and winds up buried beneath a mountain of debt, with no steady income, no retirement savings and no ability to manage finances.
That's why experts say you should start teaching your children early about the value of money, what it means to save or spend, how to budget and how to handle yourself financially.
"This isn't for some of the population. This is for all the population," said Laura Levine, executive director of the national Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. "The financial decisions vary, but we all have to make those decisions."
Otherwise, they say, children will end up making the same mistakes as their parents before them, because we can't just assume they'll pick up the knowledge and good behavior along the way from someone else.
"There's room for financial awareness around the dinner table and in the classroom, right on the way up," said Timothy Oldenburg, career and technical education coordinator and director of the Academy of Finance for the West Seneca Central School District.
"It's about preparing for your life as part of a family and also your life in the workforce and preparing more than ever for your own retirement desires," he said.
Understanding the basics of handling your money isn't one of Americans' strong suits. Countless studies have shown many people don't know how to balance a checkbook, don't know how credit cards and checking accounts work and don't comprehend many other fundamental financial concepts. As a result, they don't teach their children. even cited a recent survey by that found about 20 percent of parents had never discussed the basics of money with their kids between the ages of 4 and 18.
While that's been "a tremendous failure" by parents, it's not because they don't think it's an important thing to do, Levine said. "I don't think they misunderstand the importance, but there are a whole lot of things that get in the way, including parents' own lack of knowledge and comfort with money management," she said.
Increasingly, schools have been introducing personal finance curriculum at all levels, through partnerships with banks or groups like Jump$tart, Junior Achievement and others.
Bank of Akron, for example, is launching a new financial literacy program from one of its vendors for middle-school grades in Western New York. Called Money Island and featuring a character named Stone Broke, it's set up like a video game, and the bank will offer it free to local schools. It also has had a partnership with Akron Elementary School for 10 years.
"We think that it's good for young children to have some kind of incentive-based program in the elementary school level, where they can have accounts and a piggy bank," said E. Peter Forrestel II, president and CEO of Bank of Akron, which gives each child an account and collects their savings at the school once a week. The bank even brings the first-graders for a tour, letting them hold a packet of $10,000 to see what that much cash looks and feels like.
"We just think it's good for kids to save, so we're willing to shoulder the expense of operating the account and sending the statements," he said. "When they're in first grade, they're learning things, and that's a good time to learn what a bank is and what a bank is for."
The Academy of Finance, a national initiative that operates in high schools across the country, is a formal school-based program that has been growing. The three-year program includes financial literacy, with a course on budgeting, setting financial goals and reconciling bank statements "so they know what they have in there, how to plan for the future and reach those goals," said Renee Day, the program's lead teacher for the two West Seneca high schools.
But it also offers a deeper grounding in finance and allows the students to operate a bank branch in the school, for use by students and parents. The branch at West Seneca is operated with Evans Bank, while Lancaster High School's is run with Bank of Akron.
Formal education isn't the only time to teach money skills, though. "At schools, we have the opportunity to teach kids standards-based education," Levine said. "At home, kids have the opportunity to see some of this in practice and parents have the opportunity to integrate their own values. So parents still play an important role."
So how early should you start to talk about money with your children? As early as preschool, ages 3 to 5, experts say.
"I absolutely believe in starting early," said Levine, who started with her son at age 3. "This is the age at which they are learning behaviors, learning right and wrong. They're starting to form their opinions, starting to understand how the world works. This is the time to teach this."
Here's a few basic tips from experts, including the local banks, JumpStart and
1. Set a good example. Make sure you're saving money yourselves from every paycheck, and that your kids see that.
"Even if you maybe have not done as well as you could have in the past, you have to resolve to do better starting now, so that your kids can see that," Levine said. "If you're telling your kids you ought to save but then you're out spending on things you can't afford, your kids will be more influenced by your behavior."
2. Start talking to your kids early about money. When your child receives cash, have them divide it into three groups of "give," "save" and "spend."
"It's never too early. I'm having conversations with my 3-year-old," said Curtis Arnold, founder of, chairman of the Arkansas JumpStart Coalition, and father of six children. "If they can work an iPad better than we can as adults at age 3, then you can teach some basic principles."
3. Start a bank account early, and have them save money.
4. When you bring the kids to the grocery store, talk about how much things cost, and look for what's on sale. When they're older, let them choose items, so they learn to compare prices.
"You take every opportunity you can as a parent," Day said. "It's a safe environment, because if they fail, they have a parent to help them out, unlike when they're on their own."
5. Engage your kids in family budgeting and decision-making, especially about big purchases. "If you look at a house, a lot of students take for granted that the phone is always on, the heat is always on, the cable is always on," Oldenburg said. "But with that comes a monthly bill that has to fit with income coming in and expenses going out."
6. Giving an allowance can help a child learn to manage money. But make sure you have the cash ready on time. "You can't get to Sunday night and not have cash to pay. That sends a message to the kid that money is kind of loose," Levine said.
7. Show the meaning of earning money, by making them do some extra tasks or chores. But make sure those tasks are above and beyond what's normally expected of any member of the household. Don't pay them for making their beds. "We don't want to raise kids in a frame of mind where they won't do anything unless they're paid," said Levine, whose son helped her touch up paint on some walls to earn money for a video game.
8. As they get older, work with them to help them set short-term and long-term goals for their money, and even to budget their spending for themselves. And give your child the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. If your child overspends, don't bail them out.
Finally, "if you don't start early, don't give up. That kid isn't lost," Levine said. "You still have lots of time to influence behavior throughout their childhood years."