By Ron Arias Toby Kahn
September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

One afternoon two years ago, banker Neale Godfrey’s 4-year-old daughter, Kyle, called her at the office with a request: Could she please bring some money when she came home? Godfrey asked her daughter where she thought the money would come from. “Oh, Mommy, you know,” the tot replied. “It grows in the vault and then you pick it and bring it home at night.”

That evening, Godfrey gave Kyle an abbreviated version of the financial facts of life—and the discussion turned out to be as productive for mother as for daughter. When Kyle asked why there was no bank especially for children, Godfrey, then president of the First Women’s Bank in New York, realized that was a very good question. After making some inquiries, she discovered that New York State allows children of any age to open their own checking accounts. So last September Godfrey launched the First Children’s Bank in the Manhattan branch of F.A.O. Schwarz, New York’s premier toy emporium.

Godfrey’s creation, which is owned by the First Women’s Bank (now called the First New York Bank for Business), occupies 150 square feet, has windows at kids’ height, tellers at kids’ eye level and oversize checks that give account holders room for their occasionally wobbly signatures. With her mom’s help, Kyle opened the bank’s first long-term account, putting away $1,000 for college. Her brother, Rhett, 3, followed suit, and soon their friends joined up. The Children’s Bank now boasts hundreds of tiny customers.

Godfrey, 38, designed her baby bank as a “real-life experience,” not as child’s play. “I set up the system so kids could work in tandem with adults—all of the accounts are joint,” she explains. “And the parents have a financial vehicle to save for their children’s future.” In 20 years, she likes to tell parents, “it’s going to cost $250,000 to send a kid to college, and very few people can write checks for that.” Children, she adds, can learn about generosity at her bank as well. Every time a customer opens a college certificate-of-deposit account, the bank will make a donation to a charity of the child’s choice.

Godfrey firmly believes that good fiscal habits must begin at an early age. “It’s a basic life skill our children have to learn,” she says. Often, of course, they don’t. In January, Godfrey left the First New York Bank for Business and formed her own firm, the Children’s Financial Network. What she discovered after meeting with educators, publishers and economists across the country was that, although a number of banks for children were opening up, very little was being done to teach kids about money and banking.

Godfrey is now trying to start children’s facilities in banks from coast to coast. In addition to checking and savings accounts, she envisions credit cards, insurance and stock market services for kids. “Bankers understand the need,” she says,” but we’re grappling with big people dealing with little people here.” To help the grown-ups learn, she offers manuals on working with kids. Her own series of kid-level books on finance—featuring characters like Pound Foolish, an irresponsible cat—will be published next year. Making finance lively, Godfrey believes, is the surest way to reach the 10-and-under set. “The alphabet isn’t inherently fun,” she points out, “but Sesame Street makes it that way.”

Godfrey hasn’t always found facts and figures fascinating. One of three daughters born to John Godfrey, a business entrepreneur, and Georgine Axelrod, a onetime ballerina, Neale grew up in New Jersey and majored in diplomatic studies at American University in Washington, D.C. After graduation she was hired by Chase Manhattan Bank and climbed the corporate ladder until 1985, when she became First Women’s Bank president—one of the youngest female bank presidents in the country. Married at the time to lawyer John Fraebel, she is now divorced and lives in a three-bedroom New York apartment with Rhett and Kyle.

Those children, at least, are well on the way to being penny-wise adults. “They think it’s cool to save,” Godfrey says. “Each month they go down to the bank and deposit part of their allowances.” But Godfrey will not feel satisfied until she has spread her message to a significant number of small fry. “The United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any industrialized nation in the world, and that’s an absolute abomination,” she says. “We’ve simply got to stop the cycle.”

—Ron Arias, Toby Kahn in New York