"Mom, what’s our family income?" How to navigate the earnings question

If your child asks you point blank how much you and/or your partner earn no one would blame you for wanting to head off that conversation with a pointed, “None of your bees-wax!”

When I was a journalism student, a professor offered some insight about Canadians’ views on money that I’ve never forgotten. He said that the toughest question for a reporter to ask isn’t about sex or politics but, rather, about income. In Canada, if you can get folks to tell you how much money they earn, they’ll probably tell you just about anything.

Think about it. In this age of social media — when mere acquaintances share the most intimate details of their lives — how much do you know about your friends’ income or financial situation? It may be the last surviving taboo subject.

So, if your child asks you point blank how much you and/or your partner earn (and that day will surely come, if it hasn’t happened already) no one would blame you for wanting to head off that conversation with a pointed, “None of your bees-wax!”

While it’s certainly your prerogative to keep the figure to yourself, you don’t necessarily want to shut down the lines of communication with your kids on the topic of money. Here are a few ways you can answer honestly, without divulging more than you feel comfortable with.

Ask why they want to know

When my son poses questions that seem to come out of left field, I try to get him to explain why he is asking. Often kids don’t feel comfortable voicing their true concerns, so they come at it a different way. For example, a child who is interested in upping the frequency of her dance classes might ask about your income because she’s worried that it’s too expensive. So, her real question isn’t really, “What’s our family income?” it’s “Can we afford more dance classes?”

Focus on disposable income

If you don’t want to disclose your salary (and I certainly wouldn’t advise telling younger kids your income unless you’re okay with the entire neighbourhood knowing it too) tell them the difference between your earnings and your expenses. Explain that this is called disposable or discretionary income — and list all the items that stake a claim on your pay each month: tax and other government contributions; rent/mortgage and property taxes; public transit and/or car(s), gas/maintenance and insurance; food and clothing; utilities, phone, cable/internet — and don’t forget to mention saving for your retirement and their post-secondary education! The bottom line will probably be an eye-opener for them.

Investigate similar salaries

There’s so much information available online that you can easily show your kids salary ranges for different occupations listed on job boards or in public union contracts. That way they can see what someone with a similar level of experience in your field might earn, giving them a ballpark answer rather than a specific figure. It’s also a good opportunity for them to consider what kind of occupation they might like to pursue.

Tell us — how have you answered your children’s questions about income?

About the Author

Tamar Satov

Managing Editor, CPA magazine
Tamar is a journalist specializing in business, parenting and personal finance. She blogs regularly in this space with advice and anecdotes on her efforts to raise a money-smart kid.

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