Pennywise from K through 12: A parents' back-to-school guide to teaching financial literacy

September 18, 2023 | By Christine Gibson

With the new school year in full swing across the country, students of all ages are hitting the books to brush up on their multiplication tables or precalculus skills. But amid the shuffle of lab reports and history texts, one subject is often forgotten: financial literacy.

“The biggest mistake parents can make is not discussing money with their children,” says Jennifer Seitz, a certified financial education instructor and the director of education at Greenlight, the family fintech company on a mission to help parents raise financially smart kids. “Most preschoolers understand the concept of money, so you can introduce the basics — what money is used for, how we earn it, and how much things cost — at a young age.”

She encourages parents to keep the conversation going at they grow to instill healthy habits and decision-making skills that can have a lasting impact.

Parents themselves, Greenlight’s founders Tim Sheehan and Johnson Cook wanted to empower families to raise financially smart children. So they launched Greenlight to help parents teach their kids and teens healthy financial habits across earning, saving, spending, giving, investing and more.

Last month, in partnership with Mastercard, Greenlight introduced an industry-first credit builder for teens. Parents can add teens as authorized users to the Greenlight Family Cash Card to build credit before 18. Teens learn to manage credit responsibly by tracking their balance within the Greenlight app, while parents set flexible spending limits and get real-time purchase alerts. Mastercard is helping power the card so families can build credit and learn to manage credit responsibly together.

To help parents start their children on the path to a healthy financial future, Seitz shared answers — tailored for different age groups — to some common questions.

How should I talk to my kids about ...

Grade school

Middle school

High school

... budgeting? 

As soon as your kids can count, start talking about basic financial concepts — that goods cost money and money is not unlimited. A request for a new toy is a chance to learn how to balance wants and needs.

Help them start setting a budget and encourage them to consider the future when making decisions. What might they want in, say, six months — new ski boots? A bigger bike?

Discuss their long-term financial goals, whether it’s paying for their education or getting their own place. Then help them develop a budget to achieve those goals. Practicing responsibility now can prevent costly mistakes later on.

... avoiding scams and identity theft?

Warn them never to share personal information with strangers, because it could be used to steal virtual belongings like someone’s bank balance or even something from their gaming account. Make sure they always choose hard-to-guess passwords.

Explain phishing: A real-looking message may contain a harmful link. Familiarize them with scammer tactics like urgency and the promise of rewards. Caution them not to enter their username and password anywhere until they have used a search engine to verify the company’s web address.

Urge teens to consider their digital footprint, and to bear in mind that their online behavior can impact job opportunities or college admissions. Remind them that anything they share can be used by scammers, so they should be careful about what they post

… managing their own spending money?

Give them a small allowance. Use the Greenlight app to assign chores and either automate allowance or pay once chores are complete.

Increase their allowance and reinforce the concept of budgeting. Capitalize on their personal passions to set savings goals, like buying tickets to a favorite artist’s upcoming concert tour.

Let them manage a larger allowance. They can cover everyday necessities, but if they don’t have many expenses, they should save the majority. Start discussing larger financial goals, like college tuition.

... the merits of saving?

Make saving tangible, so they can watch their money grow. Use Greenlight’s in-app saving goals to help kids track their progress towards goals — like being able to afford a longed-for toy.

Encourage delayed gratification: Save for something big rather than spending impulsively. Learning to think about the future will help them prioritize it.

To show how saving now can ease financial burden later, describe how you’ve prepared for emergencies, planned expenses, or avoided unnecessary debts. Involve them in family financial discussions.

... credit scores? 

Liken it to a report card: Just as grades reflect how you're doing in school, a credit score shows how responsible you are with money. Paying bills on time helps you maintain a good “grade," making it easier to buy a house or a car.

Explain how to manage a credit card and point out the consequences for using it improperly. Share real-life stories — like your experience with your first credit card — and encourage questions.

Consider giving them a credit card of their own on your account, and emphasize the habits that can boost their score, like keeping the balance low. You can add teens as authorized users to Greenlight’s Family Cash Card to start building their credit with your oversight.

Christine Gibson, contributor