Click here for a printable version of our Game for Kids: Intro to Personal Finance (12 pages).

Module 8 – Mistakes

I am currently in the stage of parenthood where being in a car with one of my kids provides a great opportunity for conversation. One-on-one car rides allow for a bubble of privacy, and we seem to be able to connect well in a low-pressure, wandering sort of way. But even more importantly, during these conversations my kid HAS to listen to me, because they’re trapped in a moving car. What are they gonna do, hop out in the middle of the highway? I don’t think so.

Which brings us to this morning’s errands. Armed with a belted-in kid, I surreptitiously locked the car doors (just in case!) and began my tale of financial woe. I told my 15-year-old son Gage about the time I signed his dad and myself up for a phone plan we couldn’t afford. It was in the first years of our marriage, and we were already barely scraping by. We were in our early twenties (this was ~2002), when we held ourselves to a strict $50 per week grocery budget. We were paying back student loans, we’d just purchased our starter home, and we weren’t yet making salaries, just paychecks. We were managing, but barely.

One morning I fielded a phone call from a mobile company that promised all the bells and whistles for a two-phone plan, and the first month was free! All of my friends had cell phones, and I was tired of being left behind. I asked a bunch of questions, and it all sounded too good to be true. I signed us up right away. A week later I got the phones in the mail. I was so excited, but I also had a nagging feeling of guilt. That feeling only intensified when I began to read the Terms & Conditions.

I’d made a mistake. I’d agreed to something without knowing enough about what I was getting myself into. I’d jumped at the chance to have the thing I wanted now, instead of doing my research and comparing costs. I felt both fooled and foolish. I bowed out, immediately, sending the phones back and cancelling without ever even getting my own phone number.

The worst part of this money mistake – the part that sticks with me almost twenty years later – is how I felt when I opened those cell phones and knew I’d been reactive instead of smart. I certainly didn’t wake up that morning thinking I’d purchase two cell phones; I’d only done it because I was approached by an outside force; I’d let a simple phone call nearly derail my careful plans. And yes, I hear how dramatic I sound. This wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But when you’re stretching every dollar, you can’t make an abrupt change of plans (new, unaffordable monthly payment) without everything else getting thrown off-track.

The lesson I learned from this money mistake was that I needed to build a step in between wanting something and buying it. I’d felt happy on that phone call – I’d felt excited and deserving. I’d said yes because I felt excited. But I can’t say yes any time I feel excited, or we’d have no money. So now, when I feel emotional about money, I take a step back. I wait a day. Sometimes that means pushing back against a salesperson, and sometimes it means there’s some unhappiness. But if I let gratification drive my spending I would definitely not be meeting my goals of saving for education and retirement. I learned that I needed to be in control of my money plan, and I couldn’t let a sales call derail that plan.

Mistakes – they’re unavoidable, they’re humanizing, and – once the sting wears off – they make for some entertaining storytelling. Gage enjoyed hearing about his imperfect mother, and I was glad to reflect on how that one incident reshaped the way my husband and I took ownership over our budget. Gage will make his own mistakes…we all do. Ideally he will learn from them, just like his mom (who, you’ll be relieved to hear, finally has a cell phone of her own).

Next up is our Final Module: Community

Module Seven: Phases of Life