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Saving money is really hard to do
Aug 18, 2020
Season 1 | Episode 5

Saving money is really hard to do

So we’re gonna talk about why — and what we can do about it.

Jed’s treehouse needs repairs, but it’s gonna cost more than he has right now. Saving money can be tough — and even tougher to talk about! So this week on the show we’re gonna get the conversation started and learn a few ways to think about spending and saving our money. We’ll sit down with some experts, do some mythbusting around saving and hear from a young Dollar Scholar who’s got a unique way of keeping track of her savings. Plus, singer Natasha Bedingfield’s got a cheeky idea for a twist on the piggy bank.

A four-panel comic depicting a young ghost saving money. The first says "Set up two jars, one for saving and one for spending." The second shows the ghost looking at a picture of a treehouse, and it reads "Picture what things will look like when you get the thing you're saving for." The third says give yourself a treat or reward every time to reach a milestone." Finally, the last says "Tell you friends and family about your plan so they can help you stay on track."

And now … tips for grown-ups listening to “Million Bazillion” with kids

Money talks

Take a minute to recap the episode and review the key points. Here are some questions to get the kids going:

  1. While Jed’s been trying to save money for repairs, who’s been camping out in his treehouse?
  2. Jed spent some of the money he was saving on a new ice cream-making scooter. When you have a choice of spending your money on different things, there’s the dollar price you pay for the thing you choose — and there’s another cost. Do you remember what that’s called? It’s the thing you missed out on because you chose to spend your money on something else.
  3. Saving money is hard, but there are good ways to practice. Do you remember what the “jar system” is?
  4. Finally, let’s practice future thinking. Think about something you’d like to save money for, and write a little story about what your life will be like when you get it. The better you picture your goal, the more you’re likely to save for it. 

(Click here for the answers)

Tip jar

Talking to kids about spending and saving isn’t easy. When the time comes to start saving, it helps to already have some goals in mind. Here are a few tips we heard from other folks we consulted for this episode:

  • Amanda Krische at the Young Americans Center for Financial Education, a bank for kids in Colorado, said it helps to have kids differentiate their shorter-term goals (things like new school supplies or clothes) and long-term goals (a new bike or even a car or college tuition). “Write it down on paper — or draw it,” with the time frame spelled out, Krische says. The bank has more activities and resources here
  • Sonia Brown, a teacher in New Jersey, likes to use resources provided by her local chapter of Junior Achievement. She says she encourages her middle school students to create a budget by adding up the money they have coming in each week and then breaking down what they need to spend it on and what percentage they want to save. For big-ticket purchases, like a new pair of sneakers, she asks them how long they’re willing to wait — then she has them break down how much that means they’ll need to save each week. “A lot will say … OK, I can wait two months to get my sneakers,” Brown says.

Finally, an additional resource for grown-ups. For more context on the wage gap, we recommend this widely cited 2018 study from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development: “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.”

Gimme five

This week we talked all about saving money, so we want to know: What have you been saving up for? And how do you do it — a jar, a piggy bank, a real bank account? What’s your method? Send us your answers here

And keep those smart questions coming, too! What more do you want to know about money? We may just use your question in a new episode of “Million Bazillion”! Click here to get in touch.

Money Talks answers

  1. Squirrels and a ghost
  2. Opportunity cost
  3. Set up two jars — one just for spending and one just for saving. Every time you get some money, immediately put some of it in one jar and some of it in the other.
  4. Answers will vary

(Click here to go back to the questions)

Make Me Smart season 1, episode 5, “Saving money is really hard to do”  

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Jed: All right, I made it into my scary treehouse! Note to self: fix ladder, get tetanus shot… It’s not so bad in here. I bet most treehouses have faulty wiring. [SFX – ELECTRICAL ZAPS]



Jed: And creepy ghosts. (nervously) That’s a totally normal thing…

 Ghost: (haunting whisper) Leave this place…

Jed: Normal thing. Normal thing…

Ghost: Leeeeave! (Change to normal voice) Seriously, you gotta get outta here. This treehouse is not safe. There’s, like, missing floorboards — and those squirrels!

Jed: Oh yeah, those squirrels are mean. Uh, look, Miss… Ghost, I’d love to have a fancy treehouse without rusty nails all over the place (under breath) and that isn’t haunted. But repairs cost a lot of money, and I don’t have that much saved up. I mean, I try, but it’s really hard for me to save money.

Ghost: Man, you’ve gotta get on it. This place is a deathtrap. I don’t even like being in here, and I’m a ghost. Uh oh…

Jed: What?


GHOST: Squirrels! They’re coming back! And they’ve got slingshots! Run! RUUUUUNN!!!

Jed: [fading as he runs away] Ok, I do need to start saving, this treehouse does need work!

Ghost: Aww, they’re kinda cute!

Jed: Hey everybody, welcome to Million Bazillion, where we help dollars make more sense. I’m your host, Jed Kim.

Bridget: And I’m your co-host, Bridget. Today we’re talking about something that you probably already know is SUPER SUPER EXTRA DOOPER SUPER VERY MUCH SO…important. Like you’ve probably had a lot of grown ups in your life telling you how important it is to —

Jed: Floss and brush DAILY.

Bridget: That is true, but that’s not what I was going to say. I was going to say–

 Jed: Eat your green vegetables.

Bridget: Also important, but not where I was going — Jed, what’s going on? You seem to be stalling?

Jed: [awkward sigh] Okay look. I know we’re doing an episode about saving but… I hate talking about it! I know saving is important but it’s REALLY hard to do! And it makes me feel guilty! I’ve been trying to save to fix my treehouse but then I see a really cool scooter I want to buy…I have a lot of emotional feels in my chest right now!!

 Bridget: Aww, Jed, I get it. Actually, we have a listener who had that very question. Here’s Lilian:

 Lilian: Hi Million Bazillion. This is Lillian in Boston. Why is money so hard to save?

 Bridget: So today, let’s talk about why saving is so hard! And what we can do about it! That’s coming up…After this!

Narrator: And Now, it’s Time For: Asking Kids Not So Random Questions. If you had to design a vault to protect your money…what would it have?

Various kids answers:

It would have a password. And then it would have a fingerprint test. And then you would have a breath chest.There will be lots and lots of lasers.

It would have lasers around it. And if you got six feet into it, it would explode.

I would put lasers in an invisible maze. So once they get in, they can’t get out.

And my vault would have my dad’s old middle school number lock. And if somebody found the code. The jack in the box that would spring out and have their worst fear attached to it.

It would have titanium walls.

A trapdoor.


A maze.

Atom separating lasers.

A tilting room. Security cameras that showed who the person was and where they lived, as well as taking a picture of them.

And lava.

And if you somehow got past that, you’d still have to unlock the door to get into the box.

Narrator: That was on Ontu from Ontario, John in Nova Scotia, Lauren from Colorado, Alexis and Griffin from Michigan. Joe from Wisconsin, and Awin from Washington. This has been, Asking Kids Not So Random Questions!

Jed: All right, Bridget. I’ve got some good news and some bad news about my super fun tree house.

Bridget: You mean the scary shack you keep trying to get me to help you fix? What’s the bad news?

Jed: The squirrels have learned some basic trapping. I think they’re making a net to try to catch you– I mean me– I mean, uh, catch dinner for us next time we visit.

Bridget: Yeah, no, I’m NOT going in there. What’s the good news?

Jed: I’m feeling better about my savings issue after speaking with Margaret Echelbarger.

She knows a lot about why people save and spend. And I asked her if there was something wrong with me, because I just can’t seem to save.

Margaret: Well, first, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. When spending money, it can be hard to know or hard to think about what we’re giving up when we decide to buy something. 

Jed: Margaret told me about some things that make saving hard. The first one is called “opportunity costs.” And she explained it like this: imagine you’ve got a choice between a Snickers bar and a bag of M&M’s.

Bridget: Ooh, tough decision.

Jed: Yeah, and you can only buy one.

 Margaret: So when I give up the bag of M&M’s to buy the Snickers candy bar, I’m making a tradeoff. And it’s possible I would have enjoyed the bag of M&M’s more than the Snickers candy bar, but I’ll never know.

Jed: You’ve paid two different costs by going with the Snickers. There’s the dollar price you paid, but there’s also the opportunity of enjoying M&M’s. Margaret says a lot of people don’t think about the other things they miss out on when they buy stuff.

Bridget: So when you bought that ice cream making scooter last week, you missed out on the opportunity to put money towards buying new floor boards for your tree house.

Jed: Exactly.

Bridget: And you could have bought new windows with the money you spent on a dozen inflatable mustaches-


Jed: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Anyway, another thing she said that makes saving hard is that it’s tough to plan for the future. Which makes sense — We’re more naturally focused on things we want right now. In fact, Margaret told me about an experiment that showed this. Researchers gave a bunch of kids some pretzels to eat.


Bridget: MMMMM. Pretzels. I already like this experiment.

Jed: Yeah – delicious, but dry. They asked the kids — tomorrow, would you rather have more pretzels or a glass of water?

Bridget: More pretzels right? The answer is always more pretzels!

 Jed: Normally it would be. But since these kids were thirsty right then — they said they’d rather have water tomorrow. Even though by then they’ll probably have drunk lots of water and won’t still be thirsty.

Margaret: So this means that being thirsty, influenced what they thought they would want in the future.

Jed: And you know what? They tested adults too, and most thirsty adults thought they’d want water tomorrow too!

Bridget: Weird! So, I think I know where you’re going with this. Because we’re more focused on what we want right now, that makes us less likely to save for later?

Jed: Yup. It’s called “future thinking” and I’m real bad at it. Like, I try to think of what my needs will be someday, but all I come up with is how much I just want to be playing video games right now. I’ve been like this since I was little. Margaret says that’s why it’s important to build good habits early on.

Margaret: Saving is a skill that can be quite hard for adults, so the earlier we can start practicing, the better.

Jed: Ok, the last concept I want to mention is the ability to say, “Hey, I may want this thing really badly, but I’m still not going to get it.” It’s called “inhibition control,” and I actually don’t have a problem with it, so we can just move on–

Bridget: Jed, you totally have problems with it!

Jed: What? No, I don’t!

 Bridget:  How many woopie cushions did you buy last week?

Jed: Three. Oh man!!! I need help!

Bridget: Don’t worry Jed, we’ll get you that help!

Jed: Ok, in the meantime, take my wallet! I can’t be trusted with it!

Bridget: (fading out) Ok, I’ll throw it into your treehouse.


 Bridget: Hey you guys, since we’re talking about saving money, we thought we might ask a well-known grown up to answer a question about saving…today, we hear from a singer and songwriter who’s known for songs like Unwritten and Pocketful of Sunshine…and more recently, was inspired by her work on the movie Jungle Beat to send us this answer:

 Natasha Bedingfield: Hello everyone! This is Natasha Bedingfield, parked on the side of the road, answering a question for Million Bazillion. The question is, what shape would my piggy bank be? Well if I could make it it into any shape, I would make it into a monkey. I like monkies because they’re mischievous, they’re naughty as we say in England and a bit cheeky. So yeah, why not put my money into something that makes me feel a little bit dangerous? Sending you love! Bye!

 Bridget: I wonder how Jed would feel about a squirrel-shaped piggy bank…

 <ladder climbing sounds>

 Jed: Hellooo? Is anyone in my treehouse? Nice ghost lady? Are you there? Have you seen my wallet?

 Ghost: (not scary, more angry) Booo!

Jed: Really? Boo? That’s not even scary.

 Ghost: No, not like that. Ghosts don’t say “boo!” That’s offensive, man! I’m booing you, because you’re terrible.

Jed: What? Why am I terrible?

 Ghost: You’ve let this place get so dilapidated that my bosses thought it was at LEAST a couple of centuries old! And now I’m here haunting a two-year-old treehouse like some kinda entry-level ghoul?! I’m MID CAREER. I’ve been doing this for CENTURIES. So insulting.

Jed: I didn’t know ghosts had bosses. This is fascinating!

 Ghost: And now my phantom friends make fun of me for being stuck in this hovel. Even the squirrels moved out, because it’s too nasty!

 Jed: Oh, I’m really sorry. I just can’t seem to get enough money together to fix things up.

 Ghost: Look, I know saving is hard, Jed. But there are some simple things you can do to make it easier.

 Jed: Like you telling me where you hid the treasure you buried!

 Ghost: What? No — I didn’t have treasure! I had a Roth IRA and I cashed that out years ago. No, I mean things like the jar system.

Jed: The what now?

 Ghost: The jar system. It’s a way to improve your inhibition control. Set up two jars at home. Make one just for spending and one just for saving. Everytime you get some money — immediately — put some in each one. And I mean <ghostly voice + thunder crack> immmeeddiatellly!

 Jed: Whoa. Point taken. That way I’ll save money before I’m tempted to spend it. Good call.

 Ghost: <normal again> Exactly! You can even use envelopes or, if you’ve got one, a bank account. And if you’re using a bank account — maybe get a jar and put a pebble in for each dollar you save. That way you still have a way to see the progress you’ve made.

Jed: I do love putting things in jars.

Ghost: Another tip — this one to improve your future thinking — write a little story about what your life will be like when your treehouse repairs are finished. Think, what’s it going to be like in your awesome treehouse. Will you have friends over all the time, having fun? The better you picture your goal, the more likely you’ll be to save towards it.

Jed: It’s like a map to my goal! … a treasure map! … You sure you don’t have one of those? I mean it’s much more on-brand for a ghost to talk about lost treasure than to give financial advice.

Ghost: <ghostly voice again> Finaaaanciaaaalll advice is it’s ooowwwn treaaasure, Jeeed! <thunder crack>

Jed: Wow. That voice is really effective. 

Ghost: We learn it in ghost school. It’s pretty standard. Here’s one more tip. 

Jed: Lay it on me, frightening financial phantom!

Ghost: Tell your close friends and family about your plan to save. Then, they can help keep you on track. Maybe your parents will give you extra chores so you can earn more money. Or maybe your friends will stop you from blowing cash on stuff you don’t need. This is called accountability and it helps us stick to our plans.

Jed: You know, ever since I told Bridget I was saving to fix this place — she has been quick to keep me from spending. Thanks ghost! These are great tips! I’ll have this place fixed up in no time.

Ghost: Awesome! And if it’s not too much to ask – can you get coasters for the table too? We don’t want our drinks to stain the wood on board game nights.

 Jed: Ghosts use coasters?

 Ghost: <deadpan> Come on Jed. We’re ghosts, not monsters. Now <ghostly voice and effects again> goooo saaavvveee or ELSE!!!! <scary music>

<Beat of silence>

 Jed: Or else what?

 Ghost: I dunno. That’s all I had. Just do it, okay?

 Narrator: Here’s something I’ve been pondering…would you rather have a piggy bank that gives you $25 a week but you can’t open it for fifty years…or a piggybank that gives you $5 a week and you can open it anytime? After 50 years, you’d have a lot of money…you could pick back as a grown up! But that’s a long time to wait for a payday. Maybe it’s more fun to spend a little each week?

So which would you rather?

Bridget: And we’re back. So Jed, by now, you’ve probably noticed…some people think saving just takes self-discipline.

Jed: Yeah. Like, it’s always possible to save…if you just try hard enough!

Bridget: Right. that’s a myth — it’s something many people think is true, but really isn’t. And now we’re going to do a little more myth busting!– with some help from Dania Francis.

Jed: She’s an expert when it comes to money matters. She says the idea that anyone can save if they try hard enough is a myth — because you can’t save without one thing: enough money!

Dania Francis: If you have less income, you are less likely to be able to save from that income because you’re going to be spending more of your income on, you know, basic necessities like food, shelter, and things like that.

Bridget: For some people, after they pay for all those things they HAVE to pay for…there’s just nothing left to save.

Jed: That makes a lot of sense, especially now… when some people are making less money than they thought they’d be… or maybe lost their jobs.

Bridget: Another thing you might hear people say is…if you’re not saving enough money, just get a job that pays you more. But Dania was telling me about this and…it turns out that not everyone has the same chance to get those kinds of jobs…and not everyone gets paid the same amount for doing the same work. EVEN if they have the same skills or college degrees.

Jed: It’s called the Wage Gap. And that gap or difference can depend on things like your race, or if you’re a man or a woman. And that racism or sexism… still exists … and it’s not fair. There are people trying to help solve that…but there’s still a way to go.

Bridget: And here’s something else to keep in mind…not everyone’s family starts off with the same amount of money. Some have more than others…And some families have been wealthy for a really long time. That’s also sometimes a result of racism. But however they got their money, those families can afford to help their kids in pretty big ways, like–

Dania Francis: When parents and grandparents use their wealth to help their children and grandchildren pay for college without having to take out loans.

Jed: Of course it’s easier to save money if your parents GIVE you money.

Bridget: Seems pretty obvious, right? But Dania says we don’t always think about these other reasons that make it hard to save. Which is maybe why we fall for these myths in the first place.

Dania Francis: Sometimes because we don’t interact with each other, we may buy into some of the beliefs that, you know, if a group of people doesn’t have as much wealth as another group of people, it must be because they’re not saving as much or they’re not working as hard as we work.

Bridget: You know, we’re not all that different when it comes to saving money…we know it’s important and we try to do it.

Jed: We just don’t always know how similar we are because we don’t talk about why saving can be so tough. But now, you know! So don’t fall for that myth!

Jed: Bridget…I think we just answered Lilian’s question, about why it’s so hard to save money. As important as saving is, there are a lot of reasons why it can be pretty difficult.

Bridget: That’s for sure. But if any other listeners had questions they still wanted answered…they could send them to us at our website, marketplace dot org slash million. EVEN the really tricky ones.


Jed: And now it’s time for…Dollar Scholar!

Bridget: Where we hear from a kid who’s got something smart they’ve learned or cool to share about money.

Jed: Today’s Dollar Scholar is Adele…she’s 8 and she was inspired to start keeping better track of her cash after seeing her brother go through a money catastrophe:

 Adele: My dad gave him $1 And he lost it.

Jed Kim: How did he lose it?

Adele: He put it in his pocket. And the next time he went into his pocket he couldn’t find it. And then I told him Joseph next time get a wallet to put it in.

Jed: So you saw this happened to your brother and you decided not me. That’s not gonna happen to me. So what did you do?

Adele: I got a wallet and I put all my money in it. And I put it in my music box to make sure I never lost it. And I keep my music box under my loft bed. So I always know where it is. I never bring it anywhere unless my mom tells me.

Jed: Wow, that’s sounds super secure. Like you have three different steps that you take to protect your money.

Adele: Mmhmm.

Jed Kim: Have you ever lost any of your money? Do you recommend other kids keep their money in a wallet?

Adele: I think they should, because then they won’t lose it.

Jed: That was Adele with a great tip for all of us!

Bridget: If you want to nominate yourself…or someone you know…as a Dollar Scholar, write to us at marketplace dot org slash million.

Jed: Hey guys, there’s one last thing I want to talk about today. We’ve learned that saving is really important, even though it’s really hard. And we hope you’ve picked up some skills that’ll let you improve your ability to save.

But we know there are a lot of you listening for whom saving just isn’t an option. Maybe you don’t get an allowance, or you can’t have a job yet, or any money that you do get, you need to contribute to your family to help get by.

And we want to make sure you understand you’re not doing anything wrong by not saving. Things are really tough for a lot of us right now.

Hopefully, there’ll be a time soon, when you will get a chance to start saving. In the meantime, try talking to a grownup you trust. Let them know what goals you’d like to save towards — they can be little goals too. Maybe together, you guys can figure out ways to put some money aside every now and then.

And if anyone wants to make a little money, I’m looking to hire someone who can help me get rid of a really pesky ghost.

Bridget: This has been Million Bazillion — where we help dollars make more sense…

Jed: Our next episode is going to be all about…starting your own business!

 Bridget: If you’re not done learning about saving, check out tip sheets. Go to marketplace dot org slash million and click on the page for THIS episode. We’ve got a lot of great stuff for you and while you’re there, you can send us your money questions too!

Jed: Special thanks to Margaret Echelbarger, whose real title is post doctoral researcher at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. and Dania Francis, whose real title is assistant professor of economics at University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Bridget: We also had help from…Tracey Mumford, Jack Stewart and Charlton Thorp.

Jed: Million Bazillion is brought to you by Marketplace in collaboration with Brains On! And American Public Media. Ben Tolliday, is our sound designer and composed additional music. Million Bazillion’s theme music was composed by Wonderly. Bridget Bodnar is our co-host and senior producer. Elyssa Dudley and Sanden Totten were our editors this week. Tony Wagner is our digital producer. Erica Phillips writes our tip sheets. Sitara Nieves is the Executive Director of On Demand. I’m your host, Jed Kim.

Bridget: And special thanks to the people who provided the startup funding to make this show possible in the first place. The Ranzetta Family Charitable Fund and Next Gen Personal Finance, supporting Marketplace’s work to make younger audiences smarter about the economy.

Jed:To all the grown-ups listening right now – we hope that you and the kids in your life are having some good conversations about money thanks to Million Bazillion. We created this podcast to help kids get an early start on learning about the economy – but we can’t continue without your support. Donate today at marketplace-dot-org-slash-givemillion, and thanks for chipping in to make our work possible.

Jed: See you next time.

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