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Financial planning as simple as child's play

"Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky shares five simple tricks you learned as a kid that can help get your finances in order well into adulthood.

Back in the 1980s, a man named Robert Fulghum wrote a book called "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten" (Ballantine Books). Perhaps you've heard of it. It took the world by storm, eventually being published in more than 20 languages and distributed in 100-plus countries. Personally, I still remember my mother reading it, dog-earing the pages, and raving about how on target this guy was.

So it caught my attention when Robert Pagliarini, author of "The Six-Day Financial Makeover," (St. Martin's Press) suggested recently that you pick up most of the skills you need to manage money successfully by the time you reach age eight or nine.

His theory: Qualities that are inherent in young children — like focus, flexibility and a willingness to work hard — translate into good money habits in adults. In reality, if we all relied on what came naturally to us as children, we probably wouldn't be in as much debt. We'd have padded savings accounts, and clear goals outlining what we want our money to do for us.The truth is, Pagliarini points out, much of what you need to know about money, you knew instinctively before you hit the double-digits. You just forgot. Here's a primer to refreshing your memory.

Focus on an objective.
Children are great at this — they will work for hours trying to put a puzzle together, or build the perfect tower out of blocks. "As adults, we lose that focus. Most of us have all of these things we want to achieve — whether it's a great retirement, paying for college, or a down payment on a house — but when it comes to saving for them, we just don't do it," says Pagliarini.

Children, on the other hand, are zeroed in on achieving what it is that they want, causing their success rates to skyrocket. Of course, it helps that they don't have as many obstacles (bills, for instance) to get in their way. But if you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that things other than bills cause you to sway from your financial goals — like a new pair of shoes, or the latest tech gadget. These are the habits that you can change.

Know your resources.
Then, align them with your passions. Children will make the best use of what they have at hand — heck, they are known for playing with gift wrap, toilet paper tubes, you name it. They make forts out of pillows and blankets, and instruments out of pots and pans. Take a cue from them — you may think you don't have any money left over each month to contribute to a 401(k) or an emergency fund.

But you're looking at your income from the wrong angle; that is, after you've spent it. Instead, you need to consider what you start out with at the beginning of each month, and stretch that figure to fit around your needs and goals — without dipping into a loan or charging something on the credit card. If that means cutting back on dinners out, or weekly manicures, so that you can put an extra $100 in the retirement, college or vacation fund, then do it. If it means selling some things you no longer use on eBay to make an extra couple bucks, set up an account. Success starts with using what you already have.

When you buy, do it yourself.
"Young children don't covet what their neighbor has — unless taught to do so," says Vivian Friedman, Ph.D. and an associate professor in the Department of Child-Adolescent Psychiatry at University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Adults, on the other hand, are more likely to feel the pressure to conform, and spend an awful lot of money living up to it. If Joe the neighbor has a new car, we often think that we need one too, even if it is going to drive us right into the red. Try to resist this urge by keeping your eyes on your goals — and not on the temptation in Joe's driveway.

See the value in small sums.
Again and again, people say, "I only have $50 a month to contribute to my retirement. It's not even worth it," or "My child is already 15 years old. It's too late to save anything for her college." Putting money away — no matter what amount — is always a good move, and one that children do very well. This is largely the appeal of piggy banks, in fact. "Children delight in small amounts," says Friedman.

"Adults get sort of burnt out, and think that the nickels don't count." When it comes to your money, it's never too little, too late. If you would've invested that $50 in a tax-advantaged retirement account each month from the time you were 25, you could easily have over $40,000 when retirement rolls around. And what is that $40,000, anyway, but a bunch of nickels added together?

Learn to appreciate.
Children are able to find enjoyment in just about everything. They love to do jobs around the house, while we complain that we have to go to work. They enjoy their first bank account, filling out deposit slips, and going to the local branch. For us, that's a chore. They also take pure pleasure in the things that they purchase, no matter how small or inexpensive.

We're always trying to one-up ourselves, and as a result, end up overspending time and time again. "Children are not ho-hum. They delight in what they buy with their money or what they get as gifts," says Friedman. Instead of always reaching for the next big thing, be happy with what you bought last week, and let that carry you through the rest of the month so that you can save a little extra.

Additional Reporting: Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .