A Finance Expert Shares Her Genius Tips for Raising Kids to Be Great with Money

CNBC's Megan Leonhardt says money shouldn't be a taboo topic.

These days, Megan Leonhardt is recognized by pretty much everyone as a finance expert. The senior money writer at CNBC’s Make It covers a wide range of personal finance topics, including millennial debt, student loans, money hacks and cybersecurity. Prior to CNBC, Megan was a writer for MONEY Magazine and held editorial positions at WealthManagement.com and other prestigious publications.

But none of us are born financial geniuses, right? Leonhardt had to start somewhere, just like everybody else. Keep reading to find out how her money habits and values were first formed — and get her brilliant tips for setting up today’s kids for future financial success.

What is the most important money habit you learned as a child?

It’s not necessarily a money habit, but my parents always encouraged a practical outlook on life, something I didn’t quite appreciate until I was an adult. While other parents told their kids to “follow your dreams,” mine were definitely more in the “make sure you can eat” camp. When it came to picking a major and a college, my parents really put their foot down. I was not allowed to rack up student loans, nor was I allowed to study an area that didn’t have decent job prospects. I think it broke my father’s heart a bit that I refused to go into a STEM career. Journalism was a definite compromise.

That said, it was the best life lesson they could’ve given me. Today I don’t have student loan debt, unlike so many of my friends and peers. I was able to move away from home right after college to New York and pursue a career in journalism and stand on my own feet financially. It was not a popular life lesson to impart, but it helped me build a sound financial foundation.

At around what age did you realize “money was money” — that it had value?

From a young age, my dad would take me with him to the bank on Saturday mornings. Even once much of his banking could be done online, he still went every Saturday. When I was around seven, I received some money as a gift and he took me to the bank to set up my own account. That’s when I realized that what I had received had value and was important enough to merit my account at a fancy institution, rather than in a piggy bank on my dresser.

If you could only teach a child one money habit, what would it be?

I would teach them to save, to the point that it becomes automatic. That’s something that my parents taught me. My dad, in particular, always set aside a part of everything for savings, and it’s a habit that I continue to this day. And not just with my paycheck. When I get a tax refund or the occasional bonus, I’ve always diverted most of it into savings.

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What was one of the smartest money decisions you made as a child or a teenager and why?

I don’t think I made a lot of smart money decisions as a child or a teenager, quite frankly. Money was a pretty taboo topic in my house growing up. That said, my dad did instill a healthy fear of debt, so I knew I never wanted to spend more than I had and that credit was to be used judiciously.

What was your first job?

My first job was working at Subway. It lasted maybe two weeks before my parents made me quit because the manager wanted me (just 16 at the time) to work a closing shift by myself and my parents weren’t comfortable with that. But my favorite was the year I spent working at a children’s resale shop. The experience taught me more than just how retail functions, but about the half-life of our stuff. I’m a huge believer of donating your used items, not just because it makes sense, but because you never know what will bring someone else real joy (probably at a fraction of the price you paid).

Read More: All the Best Mistakes I Made at My First Job

What was your biggest money mistake as a child or teenager?

I always wanted the latest fad or craze. I was a sucker for those late-night infomercials. I remember blowing a good portion of my savings on an inflatable chair set when I was in middle school. And when I got it, the chair was the most uncomfortable thing!

What would you say are the primary reasons parents find it difficult to talk about personal finance with their children?

I think that many parents themselves struggle to be financially responsible, so it can be overwhelming to try and teach their children about money beyond the basics. It seems even the most financially savvy parents don’t feel entirely confident in their abilities. At the same time, I also think that parents don’t want their kids to worry about money. I’ve seen friends who were given a good foundation by just working in basic money concepts into daily routines.

Research from Cambridge and Purdue universities reveals that adult money habits are likely established as early as age 7. Do you believe more personal finance should be taught in schools?

I absolutely believe that personal finance classes are desperately needed in schools. Growing up, I had no formal finance education — even in high school. Instead, I had a single macroeconomics course, which proved completely unhelpful since I didn’t have the basics to really understand some of the higher-level concepts that the teacher was trying to impart. In the end, I have no idea how I passed that class!

We need to have personal finance lessons taught both in the classroom and at home. And if parents are fearful about teaching these lessons themselves, then turn to experts. Shows like “Sesame Street” have been tackling these topics for decades, although we could definitely do with more educational programming in this vein.

What is your favorite book on personal finance? And, is there one lesson that stands out from the book?

I do like the Thomas J. Stanley classic, “The Millionaire Next Door.” I thought when I read it that it gave a lot of practical advice, as well as fulfilled our curiosity on how the other half lives. Not quite a personal finance book per say, I also absolutely love “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. It really brought out the struggles of so many Americans and concretely shows how expensive poverty can be.

A more recent book recommendation is Alissa Quart’s “Squeezed,” which outlines the social and economic headwinds that are being brought to bear against the middle class.

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