As the summer ends, you’re likely thinking back to your memorable family vacations. And, if you’re like me, you’re already planning the next excursion. I grew up traveling and love the anticipation of jumping into the car or boarding a plane for a new adventure. When my daughter was 2, we went to Detroit to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins. It was her first plane trip. From that moment on, traveling together has been our favorite pastime.

Traveling is a great time to naturally reinforce money skills. How do you use their natural curiosity to teach your kids about money? This is the first of three blogs sharing tips on just that. Your strategy will vary with your child’s age and experience, so today, we’ll focus on children between the ages of 5 and 8.

First thing’s first

When teaching your kids money skills through travel, don’t forget:

Memories are Most Important. Life’s busy. Enjoying your travel time and creating memories is top priority. Any learning opportunities should fit naturally into your vacation and not take away from this bonding time. After all, years from now, you’ll be talking about the colorful fish you saw snorkeling, and not how much money was spent on a t-shirt at the souvenir shop.

Kids learn by doing. Kids are naturally curious. They like to engage directly with the world. So provide situations in which they can wrestle with choices, make independent decisions, and experience the natural consequences. As much as you can, don’t “rescue” them from what you think is a poor decision. They’ll weigh their satisfaction and adjust their decision-making the next time. 

Money skills involve more than dollars and cents. Situations that require your child to plan, organize, and weigh different choices all increase their budgeting skills. Time and money are both limited resources that we budget; so when you travel, use concepts of time and money to teach decision-making skills. Deciding how to allocate each generally involves a similar process. And both are a natural part of travel.

Know Your Child

As you decide how to sprinkle money skills into your travels, keep in mind your kids at this age and stage.

At this age children think fairly concretely. They learn best using their senses–by hearing, seeing, touching, etc. They’re just developing a sense for abstract concepts like time and money. When traveling with kids, you can most effectively teach them about money by providing them opportunities to use tangible, paper currency rather than credit or debit cards. 

They have short attention spans. Attention span increases with age; at this age range boredom will set in after about 10 minutes. Provide opportunities that allow them to move rather than sit and listen. 

They are egocentric. At this age, they thrive on direct, individual attention and validation. Find opportunities to genuinely and honestly praise their decision-making process. Note that there’s a difference between praising their process and praising their decision. Perhaps they weighed the pros and cons of each option before making a decision. Or, they realized that if they spend money at the amusement park today, they’ll have less to spend at the museum tomorrow. Reinforce the process rather than judging the decision of what they chose to buy.

They learn by imitating. Our financial habits are largely established by our observations of our parents. Your children are absolutely paying attention to what you say and do. So, take advantage of this teaching opportunity. As you make money choices on your travels, share your thought process conversationally with your kids. They’ll ask questions, take away lessons, and apply them to their own decisions. And, it’s amazing how often you might learn something from them!

For more information, check out this guide from Purdue University.

Putting it Together–Teach Kids Money Skills At Each Travel Step

As you begin planning your trip, infuse natural learning opportunities throughout the process.

Planning the Trip:

At the planning stage, let them pick an activity or two for the agenda. When my daughter was this age, she loved dinosaurs and water creatures so we visited every “dinosaur” (science) museum and aquarium within a two-state radius. 

If they don’t have a specific interest, you can give them 3 choices from which to choose. Look at the websites of each venue together and encourage them to share what they like or don’t like as they make their choice. Point out the section of the website with the pricing information and talk about how many tickets you’ll need and the cost for each age group. Talk about which day would be best for each of their chosen places taking into account things like location, weather, etc.

Preparing for the Trip

Packing for a trip is a great opportunity to reinforce planning skills at any age. In the early years, keep it simple. After you’ve determined your full itinerary, help your kids make their packing list—will they need jeans or shorts?  How many of each? Rain jacket? Swim suit, etc. 

Once the list is complete, ask them find those items and set them aside. Review the list and the items they set aside together to ensure they have what they need. Here you model planning, executing, and reviewing.

I began doing this with my daughter when she was about 6 years old. Sometimes she ended up with mismatched tops and bottoms, but she quickly learned to consider things like the climate of the location and the length of the trip when making her clothing selections. 

Financial Decisions While Traveling

It’s important for your kids in this age range to make some independent money decisions, but it’s challenging for them to plan for long periods of time. Give them specific and limited opportunities to make money decisions.

  • Give them money at specific events–Decide ahead of time their total vacation budget. Then take that amount and divide it over the total number of events. For example, if you’ll allow them to spend $50 and there are 5 main events, then let them know they’ll have $10 to spend or save at each event. Whatever they save can be added to the $10 allowed at the next event. 
  • Alternatively, you can share the itinerary with them ahead of time and let them decide where they are most likely to want an item. Then, you can divide the total budget over that many venues. They can make the same spend or save decision at these limited locations.
  • Whichever method you choose, when they do decide to make a purchase, allow them to actually make the transaction. Help them calculate the approximate total cost and how much cash they need to give the cashier. Then help them count their change and determine if it’s correct.

If you prefer not to travel with cash, you can keep a ledger on your phone or paper. This is less tangible, but still allows them to make their spending decisions. I’m an advocate of letting kids also add any money they’ve already saved to their vacation spending budget if they wish.

If you travel internationally, you can share the currency of the destination with your kids.

  • Talk about how money is different in different countries.
  • Research the pictures and text on the currency together and discover the history of the currency.
  • Allow your children to make purchases with this currency and talk about the equivalence in American dollars so they develop an understanding of what they are spending. Because foreign exchange is a very abstract concept, this will be more difficult for them to grasp, but by using physical currency, you’ll establish the foundation for the concept of exchange rates.

When You Plan Your Next Travel Experience…

Remember to take advantage of the opportunity to teach your kids relevant money skills of planning, evaluating options, and decision-making. Bring them into the conversation from the beginning by allowing them the opportunity to collaboratively choose an activity or two and research the cost of taking the family. Reinforce planning skills by modeling the process of creating and executing on a packing list, and give them opportunities to make genuine spending vs savings decisions on your travels.

If your children are older or more experienced with planning and money, look for our upcoming posts on how to reinforce money skills through travel with your older children. And if you want ideas on how to teach your kids about money from day to day, check out our blog, Planting the Seeds.