My 9-Year-Old Asked Me What My Salary Is–I Didn’t Know How to Answer

I pride myself on my transparency with my kids. When they have questions about war, I answer them. When they come to me demanding to know what a prostitute is, I push through my discomfort and provide a (sex-positive!) definition. But there’s one topic that makes me antsy whether it’s brought up by a child or an adult: money. You know, the great squirm-inducer simmering just below the surface of every seemingly polite conversation about jobs, vacations and so-and-so’s new patio renovation.

My son has long been interested in money—from the time he first started getting allowance at age 6 to his constant curiosity about credit cards, restaurant bills and (I kid you not) property taxes. But over the years, his questions about specific dollar amounts have become increasingly hard to answer, culminating in a moment last month when, in the middle of the grocery store, he flat out asked me how much money I made.

“I, er, Daddy and I make the right amount for our family,” I stumbled.

“No, but how much?”

“Enough. We’re comfortable.”

“$100 a day? $1,000 a day?” The kid wanted answers. I didn’t want half the third grade knowing my income.  And I had no idea what to do. In the moment, I quieted him with my platitudes. But later, I sought out an expert, Jennifer Seitz, the CFEI and Director of Education at family finance app Greenlight, to see how I could have handled it better.

Meet the Expert

Jennifer Seitz is the Director of Education at Greenlight, the family finance company on a mission to help parents raise financially smart kids. A Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) and a mom of three, Jennifer uses her expertise to teach kids and parents alike about smart money management. She led the educational development of Level Up, a gamified financial literacy experience in the Greenlight app, and recently launched Greenlight for Classrooms, a free library of personal finance resources for K-12 teachers in all 50 states. Prior to Greenlight, Jennifer spent more than 15 years with CNN where she held several content roles.

For Kids Under 10, Stick With Concepts Rather Than Numbers

Seitz says that ultimately, you know your kid best and when they are ready to hear real numbers. But on the whole, she maintains that “for younger children, it's best to keep explanations simple and focus on the basics. You can discuss concepts like how your family is budgeting, saving and setting financial goals in a way that they can understand. However, it's generally not necessary to provide specific details about your income, expenses or debts at this age.”

In other words, instead of talking about how much a home costs, you could talk about the concept of making a down payment, and making smaller mortgage payments every month thereafter until the loan is paid. Or, instead of revealing the true cost of your Disney vacation, you could start a shared change jar to finance a dinner or souvenir, illustrating the concept of saving up for a big trip. One more thing: With my own kids who are 7 and 9, I’ve found it’s helpful to reveal concrete numbers when discussing lower-stakes purchases. For example, when we’re at a restaurant, we’ll talk about why each kid can get one $5 Shirley Temple, but not two. Or, when they beg to go to the indoor trampoline park every weekend, I have very honestly told them that it costs $40 a kid, which makes it a special occasion treat, not a guaranteed Sunday activity.

As They Get Older, Get Into the Nitty Gritty

“Around the ages of 12 to 14, children are often ready to start learning about real-life examples,” Seitz maintains. “The right age for [them] to start understanding the actual costs of things like houses, college, vacations and other major expenses varies, depending on their individual development and exposure to financial concepts. However, generally speaking, children can be introduced to these numbers, especially related to college and the costs of independent living, as they become interested as tweens or early teens.”

She recommends involving them directly in family budget conversations (say, deciding if this is the year to spend $10,000 on a bathroom upgrade or installing central AC), showing them examples of home listings or college tuition fees and talking about the importance of planning and saving for these expenses. Use real-life examples, she advises, teaching them about trade-offs and promoting the concept of saving and setting aside an emergency fund. Heck, you may even want to tell them how much is in yours.

Finally, in the interest of tying the financial to the emotional, I think it’s also worth a chat about discretion as children learn these numbers. If you decide to tell your kid your salary, they need to understand that this is private information that could make people feel bad or uncomfortable if blabbed all over town. If you share your home value, they need to know they can’t go around asking other people theirs. (Let them find out later about how to get it all from Zillow.)

So What Should I Have Said?

Per Seitz’s guidance, my 9-year-old probably doesn’t need to know my dollar-amount income. But I could have given him something more useful than evasion.

“Discussing salary can be a learning opportunity to explore salary ranges for many different professions and also concepts, like employee benefits and even intangible benefits that go along with career choices,” she says.

In short, I might have taken the opportunity to explain the difference between the hourly employees at the grocery store, salaried employees like me and annual-contract holders like Travis Kelce or royalties-earners like Taylor Swift. (Can you tell where my brain is?) I could have talked about how important benefits like health insurance and paid parental leave are, and how I believe those are rights all workers should have. I could have even talked about how earnings-potential is different for different professions (teachers vs. doctors vs. movie stars), but how that’s one of many factors that goes into choosing a career.

Bottom line: I could have done better. And maybe next time, I will.

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