How Travel Can Help You Teach Your Kids About Money

Travel can teach to kids about money and help them become financially wise adults.
child sitting on couch making a surprised face and holding a jar of money; teaching kids about money
Photo: @crystalmariesing via Twenty20

Traveling with kids means exploring the world together, practicing curiosity, and making memories. It’s also an easy way into a conversation about money that boosts financial literacy for kids. Travel, with its currency switching, daily meals, and souvenirs, brings a consciousness that things cost money into kids’ realms. Talking to kids about money while traveling can be a teaching tool that helps them become financially wise adults with money sense to serve them well. 

How to Use Travel to Teach Kids About Money

Everything that follows is advice from a thoughtful parent, not a financial expert. These are the techniques I’ve tried with my own kids along with tips from parents of older kids. My goal is neither to raise the next generation of ruthless capitalists nor barter-obsessed disavowers of money. Instead it’s simply to help introduce the more practical aspects of money, value, and responsibility in small and manageable ways. Because as my daughter’s second grade teacher says (shout-out to Ms. Rossi), practice makes progress. 

Talking Through Vacation Expenses with Kids

It’s tempting to gloss over the fact that travel costs money, and that for many families it’s a special splurge that’s different from daily life. And while you could avoid these conversations out of a vague horror that kids might start dropping figures on unsuspecting friends and relatives, travel budgeting truly is a lesson waiting to be capitalized on.

With some guard rails (for instance, some families might preface the convo with something like, “We’re talking about this as a family, but that doesn’t mean we talk about it with everyone”), these conversations can open up a world of real-life lessons that will help prepare your kid to make good financial decisions when they’re in charge of their own money. 

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If you’re a spreadsheet whiz, you could present vacation expenditures this way, showing kids how spending more or less in a certain category affects the total. Even if you have a more relaxed approach to budgeting, you can attach dollar amounts to the elements that make up a vacation, from flights or rental cars to hotel stays, activities, food, and extras.

This conversation goes farther if your kids have a baseline understanding for how much things at home cost, so it can be helpful to compare what you spend on a month of gas for the car with the cost of a flight, for example, or break down your mortgage or rent into a nightly rate and compare it to a hotel stay. It will also help kids understand why sometimes vacation decisions are either/or (either zip lining or a boat tour) rather than yes/both. 

Giving Kids Their Own Vacation Money to Manage

Giving kids money (or the promise of money) up front on vacation solves all sorts of vacation parenting pain points, and helps them practice spending in a supervised environment. In my family, this money is for extras—not meals and activities but the kinds of things that trigger my is-this-kid-seriously-asking-for-another-stuffy/T-shirt/commemorative sticker irritation.

In some ways, it’s a selfish play because I take myself out of the decision-making loop. It’s not up to me if they decide they want a T-shirt or stuffed animal or outrageously large lollipop, and once they’ve made their decision and spent their money, they understand the well is dry. And then we can focus on having a good time and connecting, not stuff. 

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To employ this technique, decide how you want to work as the bank. Do you want to give them a daily amount, a by-attraction or by-city amount, or a set amount for the whole trip? For younger kids, smaller amounts broken up by day or attraction will probably go better, while for older kids, letting them practice planning ahead by giving them a larger amount up front can be good.

Something magic happens when you give kids their own money to manage: They ask for things less often. Because if it’s their money, it’s their decision. This is also a fun way to peek into the crystal ball and get a sense of what kind of spender your kid might be. Do they go al-in on the first thing that catches their eye? Save it and fret about finding the perfect thing? By watching their behaviors you can learn a lot about their natural financial inclinations and, over time, help coach them into better habits. 

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Another bonus of this approach is that empowering kids to manage their own money also provides real-life math lessons. Watch as they subtract the cost of a coveted object from their total to decide if it’s a worthwhile purchase. It’s enough to bring a tear of pride to any math teacher. 

Tips for Kid Travel Spending Budgets By Age

Make sure to be developmentally realistic as you come up with your plan for giving kids their own money to spend on vacation. The goal is something akin to success, not a total failure that makes everyone upset. Here are some ideas to get you started, broken down by general age range. But you know your kid best, so create your own approach accordingly.

Ages 3-5: Give younger kids an amount that feels significant to them but doesn’t overwhelm. Generally, I take a look at the average cost of a T-shirt and use that as the amount. For kids this young, using cash helps move money out of the theoretical realm and into reality. However, giving kids that cash to manage can lead to losing it on a sidewalk, so you might want to show them the money but say you’ll hold onto it until it’s time to spend. And when it comes time to spend it, let them hand the money over so they get that experience. 

Ages 5-9: At this age, assess whether or not having your child hold their money is a good idea. Something that came up for my family is that my elementary-aged daughter, like many of her peers, wears leggings without pockets, so she wasn’t able to tote her own cash. If you find yourself in a cashless environment (some places no longer take cash) or if you just prefer to pay for things by credit card, keep a piece of paper, a note on your phone, or use a spending app so your child can track their tally. 

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Ages 9 and up: Someone once told me that anything vital you want to teach your kids, you should teach them before puberty hits and you become the least-cool, least-knowledgeable person they know. That’s why it’s vital to not wait too long to do this work with your kids. At about age nine, consider giving kids a larger lump sum of cash or a prepaid debit card, which can act as a credit card with training wheels. Either way, they’ll need to track their own spending and think carefully about each purchase if they want to make it last. 

Using Foreign Currency As a Series of Mini-Lessons

Kids (and let’s face it, adults) love the fact that money looks different in different places. When you arrive in a foreign country, go to an ATM (the exchange rate is significantly better than the one you’ll get at exchange desks) and pull out cash. Buy something small so you get a variety of coins and bills back, and then sit down with your kid(s) and check it out. It will be a lesson in:

  • The country’s culture: Who/what is on the money? With internet access, you can look up the faces and objects featured on the bills and coins and learn about the culture you’re visiting. This also encourages kids to ramp up their curiosity in a new place where there’s so much to decode. 
  • Exchange rates: Rounding to an easy-to-understand exchange rate helps. If kids are young, you could even just give a general sense, like “a little less than a dollar” or “a little more than a dollar.” For many kids, it will be a new way of thinking about numbers, as it’s a weird situation in which one can equal two (or 1.4, or anything else). 
  • Kinaesthetic-tactile learning: The act of learning by doing, and by touching and interacting with currency, helps kids build a more three-dimensional picture of value, cost, and money. Letting kids participate in hands-on financial learning is like building little neural bridges between the acts of seeing ice cream, wanting ice cream, buying ice cream, eating ice cream, and then later seeing a toy but knowing you made your choice and that choice was ice cream. 

Learning and travel go hand in hand. While many parents feel uncomfortable talking about money with kids, travel offers a natural way to discuss and learn financial sense on the go while having fun. And talking to kids about money in the context of travel can be the perfect chance to them learn skills they will need to one day travel as confident and curious adults out in the world. 

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Christine Sarkis
Christine Sarkis is a traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor. The former executive editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, Sarkis has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir.

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