The earlier the better

When our two sons, who are now 15 and 13, were getting old enough to start thinking seriously about money (a few years ago), they asked some really interesting questions.

They ran the gamut from careers (could they get rich as writers?), advertising (young kids have a hard time telling the difference between ads and entertainment), product placement (insidious!) and the overwhelming peer pressure to buy brand names (some things never change). 

My wife, Sandy Donovan, and I are both children’s authors. (I specialize in social-emotional issues, and Sandy has a background in economics.) 

The more we thought about our kids’ questions — and the more we read about the poor decision-making skills many adults have regarding financial issues — the more we realized the time was right for a book for young readers on this topic.

So we wrote one.

Geared toward ages 8 to 12, our 140-page book (full of illustrations and engaging typography to keep the concepts interesting for kids) is out now from Free Spirit Publishing of Minneapolis. It’s called The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give ($13.99, paperback). 

Why can’t schools teach this?

But wait: Shouldn’t schools be teaching kids these basics?

Luckily, kids in Minnesota today are likely to learn more about these topics in school than we did. Our state now includes economic and personal finance education in its standards. 

That’s a good start — kids may learn about compound interest in math class, about credit and debt in social studies, and, well, maybe a handful of other financial literacy topics here and there. 

However, Minnesota doesn’t require a class dedicated to personal finance as part of its high school graduation requirements. That’s not unusual; only 20 states (including Washington, D.C.) do. 

So the finance education kids get is likely to be piecemeal, and it’s never likely to be a class’s sole topic. Taught this way, the material is in danger of coming across as unimportant — and boring.

Another challenge: Less than 20 percent of teachers say they feel prepared to teach personal finance topics.

Finance is fun!

And that’s why we wrote our book (a project that took more than five years from idea to completion). 

We think financial literacy is not only super important — but also it can be fun and easy to teach. 

Our book project includes a free downloadable Leader’s Guide that provides 13 activities for classroom or home use. 

Kids learn to make a budget, research the ethics of companies, track and analyze ads, and more. Also included are dozens of discussion questions to help kids connect valuable finance lessons to their own lives. (Download the guide and other related printouts at freespirit.com.)

Sound boring? You might be surprised! 

As my wife and I have learned, many kids find certain elements of financial literacy super interesting.

An especially popular topic with our kids — and many of the “real-world kids” we profiled for the book — was being a savvy consumer and understanding how advertisers are trying to separate us from our money (and how we can outsmart them). 

We hope our book is an accessible tool for kids to learn about that, but also about earning, saving and even giving. 

After all, the sad fact is that many adults lack basic financial knowledge. 

Recently, when we debuted our survival guide at an event for booksellers, nearly every single person who stopped at our booth said the same thing: “I could use this book myself!” Or, occasionally, “My adult kids could use this.”

Start them younger

Younger adults are in particularly dire straits when it comes to financial literacy: According to the Council for Economic Education, four in 10 millennials say they’re overwhelmed with debt, and more than half are living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save for the future.

A whopping 75 percent of college students who have a credit card are unaware of potential late payment charges.

Give them an edge

It doesn’t have to be that way, however.

Parents can begin financial discussions anytime. School-age kids can begin to learn important concepts such as how to open and balance bank accounts, the power of interest rates (good and bad) and the importance of saving.

In our book, we write a lot about how money decisions affect people’s finances. But we also encourage kids to carefully consider their place in the consumer cycle, make mindful donations and make spending decisions that reflect their values. 

It’s not just about being thrifty (though it is about being thrifty); it’s also about being true to yourself and being a thoughtful, responsible citizen. 


Eric Braun is a Minneapolis dad of two boys. Send comments or questions to ebraun@mnparent.com.