(CNN) -- Parents have a lot to worry about in these difficult economic times. It costs more for everything from food to gas to clothes. It's hard for them to be a good example for their kids when it comes to being prudent with money.
Parents can start lessons early by having their child save for a reasonably priced toy.
But teaching children about financial management is important, says Laura Levine, who thinks it's never too early to teach kids about money.
Her 3-year-old son has a piggy bank. But it's no ordinary piggy bank. The modern kids' saving tool has four chambers for coins -- one for saving, one for spending, one for donating and one for investing.
"He likes to put change into his piggy bank, and he understands that it is money and understands that he is saving it for later," she said.
Levine said she likes two things about the piggy bank she and her son use. It teaches children that money is not for just one thing and parents can easily understand how to use it.
When it comes to teaching kids about money, Levine is more than a mother. She's also the executive director of Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a group whose Webs site states its goal as "that basic personal financial management skills are attained during the K-12 educational experience."
Jump$tart was created in 1995, Levine said, because the organizations involved thought there was a need for better financial education in schools, and the few programs that were around were operating in a vacuum.
"I look back about 10 or 12 years and since then a lot more states have addressed it legislatively, a lot more programs have been created and distributed and there's an awful lot that has improved since then," she said, "but ... when we last did our [high school] survey in 2006, 16.7 percent of the respondents said they had taken a course in personal finance."
For many, one out of six is just not good enough. Like Levine, Robert Duvall, president and CEO of the National Council on Economic Education, believes financial education needs to be taught to youngsters.
He said many teenagers pick up some knowledge about money through the events of their lives. They work at fast-food restaurants or they become babysitters. You don't need to have academic lessons in supply or demand to know that if more parents are working, you can raise your price for watching their kids, he said.
"Our argument is that if we are really going to improve the capabilities of our young people and empower them to be able to live successfully in a complex world, we've got to convert those street smarts into real education," he said.
Entrepreneur and author of "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" Robert Kiyosaki said he learned financial responsibility as a child and kids can learn as he did by putting things on paper.
"A thing a parent might do is to ask them to write down everything they spend their money on so they can see where it goes," he said. "It's a great way to teach them what money is for." Watch Kiyosaki discuss teaching tips for parents »
One area where real world financial knowledge has yet to prepare teenagers is with credit cards. A 2005 survey commissioned by Jump$tart found that 31.8 percent of high school seniors had access to a credit card, but they scored lower on a test that included questions about credit cards than those students who didn't have a card. It was an alarming result considering Americans' increasing willingness to buy items with money they don't have -- and have difficulty paying back.
According to CardTrack.com, the percentage of people delinquent in paying their credit card bills is at its highest point in three years. That's a sobering thought, considering Americans charged more than $2.2 trillion to major credit cards in the past year.
Levine and Duvall agreed there is progress being made in schools.
According to a 2007 report by the National Council on Economic Education, 28 states require personal finance curriculum in their standards. That is twice the number that mandated the same standards 10 years ago. Seven states require a personal finance course be taken (up from 1 in 1998).
Duvall said the results of a study done by the U.S. Department of Education -- the first national assessment of economics education -- are still being analyzed for specific data, but show some encouraging numbers in some areas, such as consumer and personal finance decision-making.
"They did a little better than we quite expected," he said, but added there were still significant issues in what they were learning.
The basics are critical, both experts said. Kids need to understand that what they buy has consequences and that, as Levine said, money will affect some aspect of their lives every day. That can be in the form of using their savings to buy a pair of basketball shoes or using a credit card to get dinner or cashing a gift card to get new clothes.
Parents can help with the basics, but a lot of them also lack financial education, Levine said. She added that where parents can be very helpful is in giving their kids their first lesson about money.
"I always use the analogy of brushing your teeth," she said. "Quite frankly, a child doesn't need to know why it's important to brush their teeth everyday; they just need to develop that habit."
Even though parents will make children brush at night, often a dentist or hygienist still has to reinforce that information with the correct ways to brush and floss, she said, much as schools can help augment a parent's discussions with children about money.
There are concerns that parents aren't setting a good example for kids. The national savings rate has declined since 2001.
"Today's kids, just like their parents, are coming up in a spending culture," Levine said.
The most important thing for a parent is to make sure that their child's first savings experience is a successful one, she said. Too many people try to get their kids to save for things that are too far into the future or too big. For a young child, saving for next year is an eternity, she said. If the goal is intangible, the money will seem lost to the child.
Parents should set a short-term goal, but one that requires some discipline. If the child gets an allowance, work with him or her to decide on a purchase that will take two to three months to save for.
"Set a goal that is reasonable for the child's age," Levine said. "If that child saves for whatever amount of time you set and gets there, they'll have a success. They'll have a good feeling about it. They'll get how the mechanics work but they'll have a good feeling that carries over into the next exercise in savings."
Lessons learned as a kid can be built upon as the child grows up, she said.
Duvall said teaching a child about money is about making priorities and talking about the decisions that go into spending money. Routine actions, like giving a gift card for a birthday or a holiday gift, can become a teaching experience, he said.
If a parent and a child cannot find an answer for a money question, it is good if they look up the answer together, Levine said. One aspect of that could be to find out from the child's school if personal finance is being offered. There are also programs and educational materials available online, she said.
Learning about money needs to be a combination of all facets of life, Levine said.
"Financial education needs to be in school, after school and at home," she said. "Kids can learn the standards-based education in the classroom, but at home they get how money and [family] values intersect." E-mail to a friend
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