A family in Lexington, Massachusetts, has come up with an unusual game for teaching their 11-year-old son about money: Every month, they hand over a wad of receipts and the family’s monthly credit card statements and ask him to play detective. If he spots an incorrect charge on his parents’ statements or notices they’ve been spending more than usual, he flags the charges for review.
According to New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, the family’s inventive “credit card scavenger hunt” game was designed to teach their son about how much it costs to live in the real world. By steeping their son in real life numbers, the family hopes he’ll develop a tangible sense of what it takes to maintain their standard of living.
According to Lieber, the credit card scavenger hunt also has another, more self-serving purpose: It gives parents an incentive to keep their financial noses clean and avoid behaving in a way they wouldn’t want their kids to mimic.
“Not every grown-up will be up for this sort of scrutiny,” wrote Lieber in the Times column about the game. “But for those of us who expect embarrassment, it’s reasonable to ask why that might be and whether it signals some sort of subconscious desire for more careful saving and spending. Whatever our patterns, the scavenger hunt can serve as an accountability mechanism or as a way to let our good financial hygiene rub off on our offspring.”
An intriguing educational tool
Based on Lieber’s description, the credit card scavenger hunt sounds like an intense chore for an 11-year-old. Not only is the pre-teen tasked with matching receipts to charges, he’s also responsible for interviewing his parents about their monthly bills and expenses and looking for spending patterns. If he notices they spent substantially more one month or less in another month, he’s encouraged to ask why. He’s also begun taking his parents to task when they overspend and nudges them to do better, says Lieber.
It’s a big responsibility for a kid who’s just barely reaching middle school. But according to Lieber, kids can do a lot more than parents think and they should do more if parents want them to grow into responsible “unspoiled” adults. Kids “ought to do [chores] for the same reason we do — because the chores need to be done,” argues Lieber in his new book, “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money.”
Financial chores especially can help instill key financial values and give kids a more concrete sense of what’s worth spending money on, he argues. For example, in a recent interview with CreditCards.com, Lieber noted that the credit card scavenger hunt is not just good for teaching responsible money management; it also helps kids identify the purchases that give their family the most “fun” for their buck. “The idea is not trying to encourage people to be cheap, but to only spend on the things that are awesome,” said Lieber in the interview.
Being open about your expenses can also help shield your kids from a rude awakening once they reach adulthood, Lieber argues. It’s hard to make major financial decisions — such as where to go to college — if you’ve never practiced making them.
As a new parent myself, Lieber’s argument is persuasive. I wish I had had a better sense of how much life really cost before I leapednto adulthood and crashed at age 25. It wasn’t until I ran out of money and had to temporarily live with my parents that I realized that attending prestigious universities without adequate financial aid and taking glamorous jobs that didn’t pay anything were luxuries I couldn’t afford.
I hope my own son leaves our home with a much better sense of what it takes to stay afloat. If that means letting him peek at my expenses, I’m all for it. I might not give him all my credit card statements. As my editor noted, parents might not want their kids to see everything they purchase. But I’ll at least let him into regular discussions about our family’s finances and make talking about the family budget a key part of his growing up.