The Denver Post

COMMERCE CITY, Colo,

In the pasta aisle of the grocery store, Maile Diaz surveyed her options. In the 6-year-old's hands was a shopping list she wrote out before she and her father left home.

"This one is $1," Paolo Diaz said, pointing to a box of spaghetti on sale at 10 for $10. "This one is $2.99. Which one should we get?"

"This one," Maile said, selecting the less expensive of the two.

It may not have made for the speediest shopping trip, but for the Diazes, grocery shopping is about more than restocking the pantry. It's a weekly opportunity for Diaz to start teaching his daughter, in first grade, how to manage and spend money wisely.

"More than anything, I want her to know she needs to be responsible when she grows up so she doesn't go through what I did when I was in college," he said.

In college, Diaz maxed out three credit cards and ended up going through credit counseling after seeing an ad on TV. The agency consolidated his debt, some $8,000-$9,000, and it took him five or six years to pay everything off.

"I don't want her to fall into that trap," he said.

Parents like Diaz play a critical role in making sure their children have the financial know-how to navigate the world as adults, financial education experts said.

According to a 2013 survey sponsored by TCF Bank, though, 90 percent of teenagers felt they weren't learning everything they needed to know about money management.

In Colorado, the basics of personal finance -- planning, saving, credit, debt, risk management and insurance -- are now part of the curriculum for all grades K-12.

But experts said it's at home, not the classroom, where children get the real-life experience with money they need to succeed as adults.

"In my opinion, it's one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our kids," said Rich Martinez, chief executive officer of the Young Americans Center for Financial Education. "All the way up until we leave this world and die, every day we're making some kind of financial transaction."

"A lot of parents are embarrassed with what they've done with their finances," he said, "but it's essential [that] parents get involved."

Kim Curtis of Denver began schooling her daughter, Arden Gehl, 15, in personal financial literacy as soon as Arden knew what money was.

They started with a savings account at age 5.

When Arden turned 14, she got a debit card through Young Americans tied to her monthly allowance, money meant to cover her personal expenses -- clothing, entertainment, trips to Starbucks.

At the end of the year, she and her parents reviewed how she had spent her money -- and promptly decided it was time to have a family meeting about budgeting, Curtis said.

"She could be a shareholder at Red Mango," Curtis said, referring to the frozen-yogurt company.

"I was shocked at how much I spent," Arden said. "Because you're not holding money in your hand, you don't realize how much you're spending. I had gone to a coffee shop in the morning, Starbucks at lunch and another coffee shop after school. I didn't realize I had gone to a coffee shop three times in one day. I could have saved money."

Her parents cut off her allowance until she went through a budgeting exercise and set some savings goals, Arden said.

Now, she has to put 20 percent of her allowance into savings every month. Her goal is to buy her mom's car, a 13-year-old Volvo, after she gets her driver's license.

This year, she also has to pay a percentage of her cellphone bill and part of the increase to the family's car insurance now that she's driving.

Curtis leads a Denver wealth-management firm, but said you don't need to be a financial planner to teach kids about money.

With her children, it hasn't been a smooth process -- a few family meetings admittedly have ended with Arden storming out -- but Curtis said what's important is being intentional and meeting your kids where they are developmentally.

"It's up to (Arden) to make trials and errors for herself when the mistakes are small and recoverable versus when she's out on her own," Curtis said.

"When you think about financial literacy, it's economic self-defense," she said. "Money skills -- saving and spending and charity -- that's our armor to prepare Arden and our son for life's challenges. It makes them less vulnerable. If we don't do that, who will?"