Eight Priceless Financial Lessons You Learned on the Playground

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By Jesse Campbell
One of the best parts of childhood (besides nap time, obviously) is all the lessons you learn when you don’t think you’re learning anything. It’s the dirty little secret of being a kid – the most important lessons we learn actually happen in those moments when no one is trying to teach us. (Don’t tell kids this.)
Take recess, for example. You know you’re supposed to be learning something when you’re in the classroom, but recess is when your brain closes down service for a half an hour. It’s just a time for simple, mindless fun. Nothing coming in, nothing going out. Leave a message. Check back later.
But recess is really just a parallel classroom, where peers become teachers and the lessons are a bit more practical, and a lot less theoretical. The playground is where we learn quite a bit about who we are and how to behave. Without meaning to, we also learn quite a few invaluable lessons about how to make, manage, and think about money.
You can’t prevent a catastrophe, but you can reduce the risk
Almost everyone I know went to grammar school with at least one kid who cracked their head open on the playground. It’s a terrifying reminder that no matter how pliable and nigh unbreakable kids usually seem, they aren’t impervious to harm.
Every story, though, usually comes with a similar set-up. “They were standing on the swings.” “They were walking across the top of the monkey bars.” “They were running like mad across the blacktop.”
Catastrophes, both financial and monkey bar-related, can’t always be prevented, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to reduce the risk. As a kid, reducing risk meant slowing down and being more mindful of what you were doing. As an adult, it’s pretty much the same thing. Be mindful. Manage your finances in a way that gives you the lowest chance of disaster and the easiest path to recovery in the unfortunate case a disaster does happen.
You should always read the fine print
Bargaining is a staple of life on the playground. Turning what you have into what you want is a skill that you never stop improving on. But the first time someone trades for half of your pudding, only to reveal that they’ve actually purchased the bottom half of your pudding and need to excavate the top in order to reach their share, you realize the importance of understanding the terms and conditions of every transaction you make.
You can’t control what others do
Chaos is more or less the rule of the day out on the playground. Kids are running, screaming, skipping, talking, yelling, and singing all over the place. It’s madness.
If, in the midst of this madness, you’d like to have a nice, quiet game of Four Square, well, too bad. The kids keep running and they keep screaming and you don’t get to have what you want.
That doesn’t mean that recess is ruined, though, because while you can’t control what other people do, you can change what you want and how you plan to get it. That’s an important lesson not just for financial goals. Any time you feel impeded by other people, don’t just wish that they’d change. Change your path and find a new way to get what you want.
You can’t get hung up on fairness
Kids are big on fairness. “THAT’S NOT FAIR!” is usually the second complete sentence kids learn (after “Can I just have cake instead?”). And if you’ve ever strolled through an active playground you’ve likely heard the clarion call of justice sounding far and wide.
Kids get stuck on what’s fair and what isn’t, because we tell them that things are either right or wrong. If someone does something that’s “wrong” there must be some sort of consequence, and more importantly, the wrong needs to be righted.
But it never really works that way. Bad things happen and they aren’t made right. People, circumstances, and life itself can be downright unfair sometimes. Eventually you realize that you can’t worry so much about what’s fair and what isn’t, and start focusing on what you can do about the situation.
People will always try to make you feel like what you have isn’t good enough
Kids are great, but when they aren’t being great they can be all kinds of awful. How many times as a kid do you remember coming home from school and demanding that your parents buy you a new backpack/jacket/sneakers/whatever because some kid at school made fun of yours?
Life is full of people telling you that what you have isn’t a good enough thing to have. You need something better in order to be better. It starts on the playground and never really ends. What you learn, however, is how to (hopefully) filter out those messages. Because what you have says nothing about who you are, no matter what that Bobby kid tells you.
Doing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t mean you’re doing the right thing
When kids get in trouble, their first option is usually to deny involvement. “I wasn’t there!” When denial isn’t a plausible excuse, they turn to this old chestnut: “But everyone else was doing it!”
That excuse has never saved one single child in the history of humanity.
When it comes to investing money, spending money, or making money, popularity does not equal infallibility. There is almost never safety in numbers. Make choices that you believe in.
You never have as much time as you think you do
Eventually the bell rings. Time always moves much, much faster than it seems. Your grand vision for recess goes incomplete once more. You blink and you’re married. You blink again and you’ve got kids of your own. You try not to blink anymore, then sneeze and blink accidentally and your kids are in college.
We never have the time we think we do. That’s why it’s so important to pick our goals and our values and go to work. And that’s why it’s doubly important to not accept “good enough” when there’s almost always a path out there that can get you where you really want to be.
Sometimes you need help from other people to get what you want
You can’t play baseball by yourself.
Some goals can’t be achieved single-handedly. Sometimes we need help. That can be hard to accept, but once we see how much farther we can get and how much more we can do when we trust in others, we finally come to appreciate the value of seeking help. And whether that help is for something fun, like playing a game, or something potentially life-changing, like getting out of debt, it all starts by simply reaching out and asking.
Jesse Campbell is the Content Specialist for Money Management International, the nation’s largest nonprofit credit counseling agency and a proud provider of financial education services. Money Management International is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.