I Taught My Son An Invaluable Life Skill – This Is How I Did It

Teaching children the value of money is of lifelong benefit to both parties. But how do you go about it? Chris Wheal tells us how he taught his son, Joe.

Joe Wheal in Cambodia.

We taught our son to manage money at 13. By 19, Joe had saved up enough for ticket to Australia. He’s been home twice since. We have seen Joe for a total of eight weeks in the past four years and he has never once asked us to bail him out.

As I write this, he is in Cambodia, alternating between hacking through jungles, lying on a beach and partying all night.

It started with the familiar teenage refrain: “You never spend any money on me”. So I made him add it all up. It was a painful few weeks as he frequently had teenage strops. But, eventually, we had a chart with months vertically and spending headings on the horizontal.

Joe was cricket mad. Despite going to an inner London ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive that didn’t even play cricket, Joe ended up captaining London Schools.

Cricket meant a lot of expenditure in the summer months. I remember Joe’s grandfather asking why Joe needed a new bat every season when his own bat as a youngster had lasted years. “Because I score a lot more runs than you, Granddad,” was the brilliant answer.

We paid him monthly, as if he was on a salary

In addition to cricket kit and match subs, everything else went on the spending chart too: school uniform, underwear, shoes, trips to the cinema, and those incidental times you give your kids money for a birthday present or a day out with mates.

Although Joe could see how much he would spend each month, we added it all up and divided it by 12. In January 2009 Joe started to receive £200 a month, aware that he needed to be saving for the cricket season starting in May.

Our bank, First Direct, refused to help with a child’s bank account but we found that NatWest, at the time, offered the best deal, providing a debit card so Joe need not carry cash with him, but could not go overdrawn. We paid him monthly, as if he was on a salary.

He did go spectacularly bust – of course he did. But not at first. His first response to having all that money was to not spend a penny of it. He watched it grow while his socks grew full of holes and his underpants lost their elastic. Eventually, we had to march him to the shop to buy basics and throw away his disgusting worn-out clothes.

The cricket season came and went and Joe had a brand new £250 bat, new pads, gloves and a second set for wicketkeeping. It was having to buy his school uniform for school in September that prompted his first financial crisis.

He had to raid an old building society account that had a small amount of money deposited in it since his great grandfather passed away. He blamed his monthly allowance not coming through because of a bank holiday and he did pay back his building society account afterwards. But the rot had set in.

By Christmas, Joe had realised that his “You never spend any money on me,” statement may not have been true

He started buying clothes that looked “cool”. He’d dip into that building society account more often, paying it back only some of the time. If he just got out a tenner he’d forget to put it back up. Soon the reserves were depleted. Just then, London Schools wanted £120 for the ten-week winter nets at The Oval. Joe didn’t have it and had to ask if he could pay weekly.

By Christmas, Joe had realised that his “You never spend any money on me,” statement may not have been true. His disinterest in identifying all our spending on him a year before had been a mistake. Now he wanted a pay rise. Negotiations began. He asked for £10 a month extra. I agreed – it was clearly nowhere near enough and only when he realised this did proper talks start.

Nobody gets a pay rise just because they need one. Nobody ever gave me more money just because I had a wife and two children. I explained this to Joe. He had to show us how much more value we were going to get for our money to justify a pay rise. We settled on £30 a month extra.

But it was no good. A girlfriend saw to that. Or Vodafone. Joe would spend ages on his mobile phone to his girlfriend. We would warn him that his contract at the time had a limited number of minutes (these days they seem to be unlimited). We would repeatedly knock on his door and tell him to get off the phone. After just two weeks of this I made him look up online his Vodafone account.

In two weeks he had used up all his included phone minutes and run up an extra £500

If it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all, Vodafone made sure Joe understood the meaning of loved and lost. In two weeks he had used up all his included minutes and run up an extra £500 – one call, lasting nearly four hours, had cost £70.

And do you know what? When he split up with that girlfriend a few months later, his reason was: “We ran out of things to say to each other.”

This financial crisis was another valuable lesson for Joe. I bailed him out for half the bill and offered to lend him the rest, but at a very high interest rate. He was outraged. I gave him the choice to go elsewhere and borrow the money.

It was a good time to explain credit ratings and how poor people, with low credit ratings have to pay more than rich people to borrow money. Life’s not fair, I told him – I used that phrase a lot. He paid it back over many months of reduced allowance.

By the time Joe was 16, he’d learned to manage money – the hard way. Sixth form was a struggle because school uniform – no longer required – is so much cheaper than a wardrobe full of trendy clothes and brand-name trainers bought to impress your peer group.

Joe got through. He then worked for a year, saved up, bought a ticket to Melbourne and flew the nest.

‘Four years away from home with little help speaks for itself’

What was meant to be six months became a year, then two, and so on. He’s always found work, paid his taxes (then claimed a rebate when upping and leaving) and moved on. His favourite job was working on the cricket square at Wellington, New Zealand. But other jobs paid better.

He works and spends his money, then has a blitz to save up and goes off travelling somewhere. He paid for his own ticket home to see us the first time. We loved having him home so much we offered to pay for the second visit.

This is what Joe has just sent me via WhatsApp: “I’m still not very good with money. What it’s taught me is how to spend all of it really quickly and then how to survive off the bare minimum until the next pay check.”

And then he adds: “Four years away from home with little help speaks for itself.” And it does, doesn’t it?

Chris Wheal
Chris Wheal is a journalist and editor. He went freelance after losing his job the day his son was born. Working from home meant he was the parent on all the school trips, as well as in charge of sewing costumes and making models. He’s married and has a son and a daughter, both now in their 20s.