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Money’s taught best from home

by Sarah Catherine Gutierrez | September 11, 2022 at 2:03 a.m.

This month I challenge you to start teaching your kids about money using your own family economy, however you choose to design it. If you are wanting some inspiration, read on, and I will lay out our strategy including our logistics of payment, what we pay for, the spend versus save discussion and our recent move into stock market investing. Our strategy comes from other systems people have taught me over the years that we have cobbled together to make our own. A system that suits our family. Create a system that suits your family.

For our system to work, we knew that there would be one tough rule that would have to always be factored in to make the rest of the system work: We couldn't buy our kids stuff (except for birthdays and Christmas). Everything else was easy.

I recently asked my 9-year-old son, Marco, to imagine something: what if we were at Target and he saw a toy he really wanted. And then I just bought it for him. In fact, if he wanted a game or a trendy pair of shoes, or even his favorite snack at checkout, all he would have to do is ask for it, and there would be a good chance that my husband or I would just buy it for him.

Marco looked at me suspiciously and asked, "what's the catch?" I replied that he would have to give me all the savings in his bank and stock account and he would have no way to earn and save money going forward.

He laughed, shook his head and defiantly said: "No way. No way."

Just like his two younger siblings, he LOVES earning money. He LOVES spending the money he earns, and, folks, I gotta say, he is starting to even warm up to the whole saving idea. There is nothing that sniffs of deprivation. Watching their interest in our economic system grow, not wane, over time, has made me wonder if we aren't tapping into a deeper human need. Maybe it is fun for them to long for something they can't have and then work to achieve it. Why would I rob them of this experience at a young age?

It bears reflecting on what I see in our retirement plans. Young folks start their first jobs unequipped for the savage financial world with traps around every corner. I think about the $50,000 student loan debt they assumed would pay for itself or the credit card debt from trying to look the part of success that Instagram influencers say is so important, even if you're not successful yet. Could I prepare my kids now to avoid those traps later? I hope the answer is yes.

In our Gutierrez economy, the kids can safely fall into money traps or consequences under our roof and feel the relatively minor pains of those mistakes. Whenever I get tempted to ease their financial pain, I remember better here, better now, than later over there.

For example, last year my middle son, 7-year-old Max, shattered my husband's iPad pro when he dropped it. It was absolutely an accident, but we made him turn over $400 in savings to help replace it. All the kids' mouths dropped open when we followed through with that cash withdrawal from his account. Even I admittedly wavered a bit on that one. But lo and behold, Max became extra motivated to get his money back in his savings account and learned how to unload the dishwasher and use the shop vac to clean out my minivan for extra money to put that money back. For months I have enjoyed driving in a paradoxically "clean minivan."

My biggest goal for each of them was that they understand the value of money and realized the benefits of accruing it and paying themselves first. Maybe then the decision to save into a retirement account from the time they get their first jobs will be reflexive.


We have simulated a retirement account structure and long-term goal with saving for a car. They must save at least 10% of everything they earn, and we match 100% of whatever they put into savings. They are only fully "vested" in our match if they use the money to buy the car. In other words, yes, they can withdraw from savings, but if they withdraw, we do, too.

They get to invest in the stock market through individual accounts at Stockpile, but they have to maintain a certain savings threshold before they can invest.

They can spend their remaining money on whatever they want. Yes, I still beg them to forgo the Game Goblins shopping trip and save instead! But in the end, they get to do what they want. (We do have rules -- no electronics, no video games, or things we think will impede their schoolwork.)

To recap what, up until this point, is fairly uncontroversial:

• Stop buying kids stuff.

• Define a long-term savings goal.

• Make a deal about how much they must pay themselves first into that goal.

• "Match" savings toward that goal in their accounts.

• Let them spend the rest.

Now let's get to the logistics of how we get money into our kids' greasy little hands. Prepare to judge me. I will take it and I am humble enough to admit that we might be doing this part all wrong.

I pay my kids to do just about everything.

I pay them to try new foods, to read chapter books over the summer, to go to bed without me having to nag them, to help us around the house, etc. I pay them if they wake up early enough to get to the bus stop by 6:45 a.m. which avoids us having to drive them to school.

A lot of people would take issue with this. Kids should be natural helpers and citizens of the household and should instead be paid a fixed allowance. But if you asked me which is the better system, mine or theirs, I would answer "both." The smaller point is how to get money into their hands. The bigger point is once in their hands, will they make educated and properly incentivized decisions on what to do: how much to save versus how much to spend.

Given the covid shortage in hard currency of 2021, in our family economy we now use beautiful wooden tokens on Amazon that can be purchased in large bags. We denominate one token to one quarter. I have a large white bowl in which to store the tokens, and unlike our prior jars that I felt uncomfortable leaving out in the open with cash and coins, each kid collects his/her token from bowls that look beautiful and tactful sitting out in the open in our kitchen. Bigger bonus, imagine how much easier it is to reward tokens when you just walk through the kitchen, grab the tokens and sprinkle them into the jars.

I pay varying amounts for different chores or objectives. For example, getting to the bus on time is worth 5 tokens, or $1.25. That may sound like a lot, but to achieve the goal they have to wake up by 6:15 a.m., eat breakfast, get dressed, pack their backpacks, water bottles and lunches and be at the bus stop by 6:45 a.m.

What is giveth, however, can be taketh away. I get to take tokens away for shoes on the ground, toys laying around, etc.

When a bowl is filled to the brim with tokens, they sort the tokens into piles of four ($1.00) and then count how many dollars for me to cash them out. They decide how much of that to save, and I pull up my banking app and transfer from my checking account to their individual savings accounts, the savings amount times 2. Then I give them the remaining cash to spend.

If each kid has met the agreed upon threshold in savings, then I make their transfer directly into their Stockpile accounts rather than into their savings accounts; they then buy a stock market ETF. They currently find the stock market unappealing since they started their investing journeys right before the stock market's recent downturn, but they also are trusting me and continuing to buy through the downturn.

Big message: make the system easy for YOU to sustain. For us this means buying enough tokens and having a large stash of $1.00, $5.00 and $10.00 bills in a safe or somewhere easily accessible in our home for "cashouts" when the bowls are full or when the kids request it.

Remember, there is no perfect "system." We may regret elements of our system one day, but we will never regret this attempt, however flawed, to teach our kids about money.

Do you have a successful money system you would be willing to share? Send me an email at I would love to hear about it.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at

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