My first clue to my son Michael's financial personality came on his second birthday, when his grandmother gave him two crisp dollar bills to mark the occasion. He promptly tucked the cash in his sock for safekeeping and carried it there for the rest of the day. Now 3, he habitually collects the loose change in my car and, when I pick him up at preschool, asks plaintively if we can visit the bank before going home. His sister Rachel, 7, spends her allowance as soon as she receives it, covets every product peddled on TV, and picks the mall over the bank every time.
It's obvious I've got two distinct financial personalities on my hands: an incipient saver and an inveterate spender, each of whom displayed the classic signs of their respective types before they even hit kindergarten. And that's not unusual. Psychologists who specialize in financial issues say that from toddlerhood on, children give clear signals of how they think and feel about, and are likely to behave with, money. And it's in every parent's best interest to learn how to read them. "We routinely try to change behavior patterns that we're afraid will sabotage our kids' chances in life, so why not try to work on their money habits, too?" says Dr. Kathleen Gney, a psychologist from Incline Village, Nev., and author of "Your Money Personality." "After all, we stop our children if we find them throwing water balloons out the window. Why not stop them from throwing money out the window?"Know thy child: Most children, like most grown-ups, fall into one of two basic categories: savers and spenders. Savers routinely squirrel away their money, delight in collecting and counting coins, and rarely embarrass their parents with public tantrums when denied a toy or treat while shopping. Spenders typically reveal themselves first in chants ("I want it, I need it, I've got to have it now!"), and later in a love of stores. They run through their allowance long before payday, frequently borrowing from the Bank of Mom and Dad.
As children grow older, variations on the saver and the spender themes become evident. One permutation of a saver, for instance, is the accumulator, a kid who simply delights in acquiring both money and goods. This type of child always knows about and wants the trendiest toys and clothes on the market, but tires of new playthings almost as soon as he's acquired them. Then there are the entrepreneurs - kids who are as adept at making money as they are at saving it. They're the ones selling soft drinks at their parents' yard sales.
Temper the extremes: None of these personality types is inherently better - or worse - than any other, and there are an almost infinite variety. But each one does have its negative aspects which, if left unchecked, could produce financial trouble or unattractive habits in adulthood.
To prevent your little spender from becoming a debt-swamped 25-year-old profligate, teach her the art of prioritization and delayed gratification.
Free spirits who inadvertently spend beyond their means may just need a little structure imposed on their finances. Try prepackaging their allowance in envelopes earmarked for specific purposes - say, spending, saving and sharing - rather than expecting them to regulate themselves, advises Judith Briles from Aurora, Colo., author of "Raising Money-Wise Kids." Since free spirits often lose money, Briles also suggests helping them figure out a single, convenient location in which to stash their cash.
Surprisingly, though, the toughest challenge of all is to persuade die-hard savers to part with cash. Accentuate the positive: "Catch your kids being good" is a popular refrain among child experts. In terms of money habits, that means encouraging the positive aspects of your child's money personality as you discourage the negative ones.
Go ahead and applaud your spender when he spots a true bargain. Tell your conscientious saver how proud you are of her efforts and show her you mean it by taking her out to lunch.