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Raise a Money-Smart Kid

My older daughter, Sophie, and I have a pretty good routine going at the mall. She understands that most stores are like museums: She can "ooh" and "ahh" at stuff, but she usually can't take it home.

On one particular day recently, though, Sophie's willpower was at a low point. She really wanted a stuffed animal, a favorite character from a movie. After several minutes of listening to her pleas, I finally said I didn't have the money. "Okay, Mom," she said thoughtfully. "Then could you just pay for it with that silver card in your wallet?"

Now, I'm pretty good at managing our family's money; in fact, using Quicken financial software is almost a hobby for me. But during that moment, I realized I'd missed a step in Sophie's money education. All the counting-penny games and toy cash registers in the world are no match for what we parents do with and say about money in the real world. That's how kids learn, of course: By watching us, day in and day out. It's so easy, in our busy lives, to overlook some of the crucial  -- yet simple  -- ways to teach kids about money. Five that you can start now:

Don't say "We can't afford it"

You can start teaching a child as young as 3 a healthy attitude about money simply by using the right language, says Neale Godfrey, a mom of two and author of Money Doesn't Grow on Trees. "Saying 'we can't afford it' to your child may be a lie, for one thing  -- you might actually have the money but have chosen not to use it," she says. "We don't want kids to feel like they're victims of money." You want to show your child that you're in control of your cash, not the other way around.

Children won't learn to manage their money well unless they understand they have a choice about how to use it. When your child asks for something you don't want to buy, say "I haven't budgeted for that this month" or "I don't choose to use our family's money for that."

The next step is to start teaching your child about spending, saving, and making good money choices. To do that, give your child a little spending money of his own, starting when he's as young as age 3. (That's when he'll begin to grasp what money's for.) Surprisingly, 83 percent of parents don't give their kids allowances, according to a recent survey on Parenting's MomConnection, an online panel of more than 1,100 mothers around the country. But even 50 cents a week per year of your child's age ($2 a week for a 4-year-old, for instance) can be a great teaching tool.

Then help your child develop a simple plan for his allowance. A good rule of thumb:

  • 60 percent of his money goes into a savings jar
  • 30 percent goes into a "quick cash" (spend freely) jar
  • 10 percent goes into a "giving to charity" jar

Don't worry if your child doesn't seem to get the saving and spending concepts when you first start. "Think of it like teaching your child to brush his teeth: Kids don't always understand why they have to do it, but you're helping them develop a good habit that will matter later in life," says Godfrey.

Teri Cettina also writes for and Family Circle.