The privilege of financial literacy

I remember being in the checkout line at the grocery store eyeing that rack of candy beside the conveyer belt. I wanted a Caramilk bar. I pointed to it and looked up at my mum, “Can I have one?”

“Sure. You have money.”

I had started getting an allowance. I opened my velcro wallet (~nostalgia~) and glanced at the cashier. I knew I could give these quarters to her and get the chocolate bar, or I could take them home and put them in my piggy bank.

I knew I couldn’t do both. And if I got the Caramilk now, that meant I wouldn’t be able to get one when we were back here in a few days. Tradeoffs. I had to make a choice.

Oh, that’s how it works.

I was five.

I remember sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with the contents of my piggy bank spilled out in front of me. I was pushing all the pennies together in one pile, all the dimes together in another, quarters…

I counted and stacked everything neatly. I opened my spiral notebook and wrote down how much I had. It was more than last week.

My mum walked in and asked,  “What are you saving for?”

I was six. 

I remember sliding a tin heavy with change across the counter to the teller. My mum had taken me to open my first bank account.

I knew what was going to happen next. She was going to give me a card. My very own bank card for my very own bank account.

“There’s fifty-four dollars and seventy-three cents in there,” I told her proudly, “I counted.”

I was seven. 

My mum never told me what to do with money, she taught me how to think about it.

I don’t remember her commenting on the stuff I bought. She never told me that something was a waste or that I should have saved my money instead. The point wasn’t what I was spending my money on, the point was that is was my money. 

She wanted me to see, for myself, how little decisions add up.

I learned about ownership, accountability, tradeoffs, and choice. And I learned when the stakes we low, real low.

I was five and my biggest financial concern was chocolate now or later. I wasn’t eighteen holding a credit card I’d signed up for during frosh week to get a free t-shirt, debating which car to finance.

She taught me how to ask better questions and how to figure out what I valued so that when the stakes were raised and banks were waving credit at me I’d be able to make my own best choice.

“You have to answer to yourself when you get older,” she said, “That’s life.”

I’m fortunate to experience many kinds of financial privilege, but it’s the privilege of financial literacy that’s given me the greatest leg up in life.

When I think about financial privilege this is what I keep circling back to…

It’s one thing to be given money—an allowance, an education, a house, a car, a job, a business—and it’s another to be taught how to make your own choices. Having your education paid for doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how to put money behind what you value. These financial privileges are kind of like building blocks and without that underpinning foundation of financial literacy… What do we have?

Financial literacy is about so much more than understanding compound interest and the time value of money. It’s about ownership and accountability. It’s about tradeoffs and choice. It’s about problem-solving.

Looking around at how we’re defining and teaching financial literacy, at the programs and resources that are available, that’s the biggest gap I see.

We’re still hung up on this idea that financial education boils down to numbers. We’re still empowering rules, not people.

We need to be teaching people how to think about money, not what to do with it.

This is a loaded and deeply personal topic. It touches on so many things that are impossible to tease out from each other—is the privilege of financial literacy separate from other kinds of financial privilege? How does poverty fit into this conversation?—and we all have our own definitions of these terms. This is my opinion, from my soapbox, and yours might be totally different. That’s OK. In fact, I’d love to hear it.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, my bank book from 2000. Bank book! Don’t you miss those?! I couldn’t find my first one from when I opened the account but you better believe I have it around here somewhere because if there’s one thing I am not… it’s a minimalist. 

financial literacy privilege kate smalley 1

financial literacy privilege kate smalley 2

P.S. Mum, if you ever find yourself on my corner of the internet reading this, thank you.


  • That was an interesting read Kate. My parents got me a savings account probably about age 6. Not much went in there until I was about 16 and my parents decided they would give me the monthly family allowance cheque that they got from the government so I could save it for college.

    My real financial education started when I was a kid when my parents engaged me in their money management practice. My dad was retired and we lived on his old age pension. When the pension cheque came every month, we sat down at the kitchen table with all the monthly bills and the cheque. My dad would write each bill and its amount on the cheque envelope and tally them all up and then deduct that from the cheque amount. The remaining cash was what we lived on for day to day expenses. My job was to take the envelope containing the bills and cheque to the bank and instruct the teller to pay the bills and put the remaining cash in the envelope for me to take back home. Sometimes a couple dollars into their savings account.

    Once home the money was split between my mum and dad and their steel box in their closet. Over the ensuing month money was distributed back out from the steel box for groceries and other shopping as required. My parents did not have credit cards or bank loans. Cash management was all very simple and what I learned from that is that all you can spend is what you have this month after you pay your bills, nothing more. You have to plan for bigger expenditures (like taxes) and keep putting money aside for those. I also learned that there was no point in asking for a bike or skates or to go to summer camp because there simply wasn’t money to buy those things. The limits were clear. Making me a part of the cash management process and living frugally as we did, gave me the skills I needed to manage my own money. Discerning between wants and needs was also clear.

    When it came time for going to college, like all students I applied for bursaries and a student loan, both which came through. But I resisted the temptation to start drawing on the loan, thinking that I would do so, only if absolutely necessary. Well, I resisted right through college and graduated debt free. Going to college locally allowed me to live at home and keep expenses down.

    Since then I’ve probably made lots of financial mistakes but I feel my family making an effort to include me in their thought processes / decision making on their finances has really given me a solid foundation for my own life.

  • I love this, Bev, thank you for sharing some of your story. How amazing that your family included you in that process and gave you a job to do (go to bank etc). I know sometimes involving children in family finances by giving them a ‘role’ of sorts is done out of necessity and sometimes it can be a burden… but when done in a healthy way—as a way to teach responsibility and involve everyone in the decision-making process—like your parents did I think it’s so powerful.

    It’s a foundation you can always come back to even if you make mistakes because we ALL do. I’ve made so many mistakes haha, but I’m thankful that I seem to circle back around to pretty healthy fundamentals and habits.

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