My 11-year-old son recently told us he wants to empty his bank account to get a new iPad. Apple (AAPL) shareholders will no doubt love seeing that. Me? Not so much. I have the burden of knowing what happens when you don't learn good savings habits early.
The experience forced me to admit a difficult truth. In some ways, my son is paying the price for my money mistakes.
At his age, I wasn't just buying comic books -- I was blowing money on everything I thought was interesting. And when I wasn't spending, I was hoarding, earning exactly 0% interest on the money I collected from my paper route by storing hundreds of dollars in a tin can above the bookshelf.
To their credit, my parents got me a passbook savings account. They encouraged me to save, but they didn't force the issue. Naturally, I didn't force it, either: I treated all money as if it were disposable income. (At that age, it was.) Those habits came back to haunt me -- and my family.
Paying Double-Digit Consequences
When I was a teen, the little cash I had with the bank earned so little interest that I would fail to learn the concept until I was paying it -- at double-digit rates -- thanks to thousands of dollars in credit card debt I accumulated during my years in college and graduate school. By the time I was 27, my wife and I were $45,000 in debt.
We dug out of that hole eventually, only to get ourselves into another when I switched careers. Living expenses outstripped self-employment income, all while our tax and health-care obligations soared to new highs.
Our situation has grown more manageable recently, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it's a struggle. A good portion of the blame goes to my failure to adopt good money habits early in life.
Stopping the Cycle of Debt
When it came to our son, my wife and I devised what we thought was a simple plan: We told him he could buy the iPad, but that he could only use 50% of his savings. Also, moving forward we'd expect half his income from mowing lawns, allowance, aluminum can recycling, and the like to stay in the bank. Think of it as an emergency savings fund, we said.
We figured he'd able to save at least $100 month, growing into ever-greater sums as he got older and took on more expensive work. He'd have the means to get what he wanted -- but first, he'd have to learn to delay gratification a little.
As we talked more about what we had in mind, I could see he felt punished. My good intentions had turned into your classic teenage tete-a-tete, with me spouting off platitudes about how someday he'd understand. All the stuff I hated hearing when I was his age.
The Sins of the Father; the Strengths of the Son
The problem, I later realized, is that my son is not like I was at the same age. This is a kid who spent the summer building a lawn-care business from nothing. He scrimped, saved, and routinely put money in the bank. By August, he'd saved up more than $800 -- not enough to buy the MacBook Air he wanted, but enough to get us interested in helping. We had stored up enough affinity points with American Express that buying the computer through their shopping portal would cut at least $600 from the purchase price.
While he was away at camp, I put in the order. He arrived home on a Friday night to a new fully configured system. He couldn't have been happier and still brings it to school each day. Teachers love how he uses it to stay organized and complete exercises online.
Looking back at our most recent conversation now, I realize that I was more than just a hypocrite. We were, in effect, scolding a kid who had already demonstrated an ability to save when he wanted to.
The difference -- and why we balked -- is that "signs" aren't the same as habits, and given my history, we want to help him cultivate a savings habit.
A Better Kid Than We Deserve
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. About 90 minutes after our first talk, our son relented. He showed up at the bedroom door with a wad of cash for deposit in the bank.
"That's what you wanted, right?" he said, somewhat cynically. "No," I said. "I don't want you to be miserable. I just don't want you to make the same mistakes I did."
He shook his head OK, and that's enough. In fact, it's more than I can ask for. I was never so flexible at his age. I'm just grateful he's willing to listen to his old, hypocritical, well-meaning dad.
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and past columns, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a bull call spread position on Apple.