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Three jars: Helping the digital generation understand and appreciate old fashioned money

Today’s young people are commonly referred to as “digital natives.” The proliferation of digital technology has reshaped most facets of human life—from self-driving cars to telemedicine, and beyond—and it’s shocking to consider that many of these technologies may still be in the infancy stage.

The financial realm has morphed as much as any industry. Finance and commerce are being reimagined through a digital lens, and while the youngest of our population may benefit in some ways from an array of apps and other conveniences, they may also bear a significant burden as a result of these technologies. Why, you ask? Because they do not SEE the money as frequently as the “analog generations” did during our formative years. It is less tangible. What began with the convenience of consumer credit cards has now exploded into a layered landscape of cashless financial transactions, and for those who do not have the experience of hand-to-hand financial dealings, the concept of money may be extraordinarily difficult to comprehend. As a parent or caretaker, this presents a problem. How do we teach our digital natives the “value of a dollar” when the very concept itself is so amorphous?

While there’s no perfect answer to this question, here’s an idea we have been piloting in our household for several years. It’s the “Three Jars” method. I first read about a version of this approach in a magazine a few years ago, and only wish I’d saved the magazine to properly credit the author.

Here’s how it works: First, you set up and label three jars (per child) as SPENDING, SAVING, and GIVING and place them in a common area of your home, or in the bedroom of each child. Explain to the children that whenever they receive money, they can put it into the jar of their choosing. Then, you have a family meeting and talk about these concepts in detail. Consider the following topics…

  • What does it mean to spend money? Do you understand that once you spend the money, it is gone forever? Are all purchases worth it? Why or why not? Let’s look at some of the things around the house that we don’t use as much as we once did. What does it mean to outgrow something?
  • Why does a person save money? What does it mean to invest? How does a person invest money? What are some types of investments you know about? What can money be used for in the future? Can you think of some purchases you might like to make when you are older?
  • Can you think of any organizations that rely on giving in order to exist? What do these organizations do? Why is it helpful to give to these organizations? Who do they serve? Beyond giving money, what else can you do to help these organizations? How does it make you feel to be able to help someone? Who do you want to help?

Here’s the kicker - as parents (or grandparents/caretakers, etc.), we are in the business of shaping behaviors. One of the key tricks here is to direct the kids’ thinking patterns toward saving and giving, rather than spending. To do this, we offered a 1:1 match for each contribution to the saving and giving jars. Warning: this can become expensive for the administrators of the Three Jars project!

This experiment has produced several findings in our household. For starters, the boys were actually seeing money more often than we originally thought, but they weren’t really talking about it prior to this experiment. Whether this was a $5 dollar bill from their great grandfather, or a quarter from the couch cushions, or a buck they won from beating their dad in H-O-R-S-E, the concept of money became more present.

It also became more intentional. When a dollar surfaced in the household, it sparked a conversation about the destination for the dollar. We are unsure whether it’s the intentionality of the conversation or the parental match, but our experience has been that the kids feel proud and fulfilled to contribute to the saving and giving jars. When the saving jars filled up, we went as a family to open a bank account for each child. When the boys’ school system runs certain charity drives, the children have their giving jars at the ready to contribute. Best of all, our family has benefitted from the dinner table discussions following these actions.

There’s no comprehensive playbook for raising a digital native, which is a reality that can be painfully evident at times (screen time discussion, anyone!?) But if you have a few mason jars laying around, you might find you way into some productive family dinner table chats that can help these digital natives develop more of an appreciation and understanding of money.