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Why Barbie's a Big Spender

"Barbie wastes money," my five-year-old daughter told me. "She always buys things she wants and not things she needs." Rapunzel, she further explained, saves money. "She only buys things she needs." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Through my little girl's imaginary play I realized that she does listen to my money lessons and that it is possible to teach young children financial values.

But then I started to wonder why my daughter chose to make Barbie the spender. Why not Rapunzel? I realized that I'm not the only one my child listens to. She's also paying attention to those clever marketers at Mattel and noticed that Barbie has a lot of stuff. She has a dream townhouse, a pink convertible, a vacation home and even a glam jet. Don't even get me started on her movie star wardrobe. Poor Rapunzel has to get by with just a fairytale tower (she has to live somewhere) and some hair accessories for her long, golden locks.

Around the time my daughter turned three, I decided that I wanted to filter all the mixed messages she was hearing surrounding money. So I embarked upon a plan to start teaching her about finances and our family's values. I began by constantly repeating three lessons to her. I didn't expect her to really understand them. But my hope was that if she heard these phrases often enough she would never question them.

So what do I tell my kids? Here are my three money lessons:

1. We save our money so that we can buy the things we need. It's only okay to sometimes purchase items we want.

2. Money comes from working. Mommy and Daddy both work. Money does not magically appear out of an ATM machine.

3. You and your sister get new toys on special occasions, including your birthday and holidays. If you want something special at other times, you can buy it yourself by saving up your own money from your allowance. (Yes, my daughter gets an allowance. But she hasn't yet wanted anything badly enough to crack open the piggy bank and use her own funds.)

Now that my daughter has mastered my first lesson, I'm tempted to add another to my curriculum. Indeed, I already started to explain a new concept to her.

While my little one was still playing with her dolls, I warned her that Barbie shouldn't buy things, such as a new dress, unless she has the money to pay for it. Otherwise, she'll have to borrow the cash and that will put her into debt. And debt, I told her, is bad and expensive. That's because Barbie will be charged something called interest and that outfit she picked out will end up costing her a lot more than what was written on the price tag.

I know my debt lesson is complicated and probably won't sink in for a while. But even if it takes a few years for her to comprehend this concept, she'll be way ahead of many adults.

How do you teach your children strong money values?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Colette-Barbie-and-Ken image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
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