Family Money Night helps families navigate financial concepts with their kids

March 29, 2022
By Maureen McMahon

Two cards, one with piggy banks and one with the question,

A research-based pilot brings money talks to Chicago families

When it comes to families and talking about money, open discussions often feel taboo. But when kids and parents sit down together and explore what-ifs, preferences, and their curiosity around money, it sparks discussions of all kinds—some deep, some lighthearted, but all valuable.

A new pilot program from the UChicago Financial Education Initiative is facilitating these conversations for local area families. Funded by the University of Chicago Women’s Board, Family Money Night puts a time to talk about money on the family schedule—and brings parents, kids, and schools together in a uniquely research-based experience.

For three nights this spring, educators will interact with families on Zoom to model enjoyable discussions that promote financial literacy. Each family receives a “Money Night Bag” in advance of the event, containing a UChicago Financial Education Initiative Talking Cents card deck of conversation starter questions, a book to read aloud and discuss to normalize talking about money at home, and a deck of playing cards to facilitate math games to build basic numeracy, a key component of financial literacy.

The University’s chapter of My Very Own Library and UChicago STEM Education partnered on community outreach for the pilot, utilizing their network of school principals and community organizations to get the word out about the event. They focused on the Chicago neighborhoods of greater Bronzeville, the Far South, the West Side, and Lawndale, and were successful at signing up 225 families—75 per night of the free program. They worked with schools and community centers to create hubs for distributing the bags to families.

The program’s approach is informed by research that suggests families transmit their values to their children when they share attitudes, skills, behavior, and knowledge. Taking time for these conversations about money—known as financial socialization—is needed for kids to navigate the financial world as they grow.

Studies show parents exert more influence than educators, peers, media, and self-learning in promoting good financial behavior and experiencing financial well-being.

“The idea is to get families talking about money, to really increase financial socialization, and to build financial literacy,” said Rebecca Maxcy, director of the UChicago Financial Education Initiative, a team of Physical Sciences Division researchers, educators, and writers who advocate for financial education in schools and an increased focus on financial socialization in schools and homes.

For an hour and a half, from the comfort of their own homes, the families discuss open questions like, “What career would you choose if all jobs make the same amount of money?” or “What’s something that is priceless to you?”

Maxcy said the first meeting in March got a lively response and “proved their pilot concept.” Seeing kids actively engaged, nodding, and enthusiastically adding to the discussion was proof of positive socialization.

“We asked, ‘If you could pick any job and do it for just thirty days, what would you do and why?’ That one I had to cut off!” she said. “So many great ideas! The why portion of the question is what’s really interesting.

One kid said, ‘I want to be a cook because I don’t know how.’ And one parent said, ‘I would love to be president for a month because I could understand how difficult it is to make decisions.’”

Parents shared their own stories about how they reached a decision. By telling their children about these meaningful experiences, parents demonstrated executive functioning skills that affect financial decision-making such as self-control.

“We read a story out loud that is meant to be reflected on with their families,” Maxcy said. During the story, the educators intersperse questions that are not necessarily about money, but what the characters’ interactions are with money.

“When we ask, ‘What is the character saving for?’ it opens the door for parents to weigh in and discuss what they may be saving for. Using books provides them with the opportunity to share tendencies, biases, and other personal factors that their kids can learn from,” Maxcy said.

The kids reported in a post-event survey that they love being read to, while adults and kids both found value in every exercise. Hosting the event virtually also worked well, and will likely become the program’s standard, as it offers flexibility for families on a busy school night and models a relaxing setting for talking about money.

“It was a powerful sight to look around and see parents turning to their children and having a conversation—they are engaged and listening to each other,” Maxcy added. “Sometimes you see a smile and a nod, and you see that conversation come alive. And that’s what we wanted, just to get the conversation started.”

Family Money Night continues March 30 and April 27. UChicago Financial Education Initiative hopes to provide more events like this in the future.

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