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Friday, 2 November 2007

Remember What You Learned from Your Allowance (and Why Kids Still Need Allowance Today)

Can you remember what it was like to be a kid and really, really want something? To feel like all your future happiness hinged on your ability to get your hands on that one item, be it a pony, a bicycle or a comic book? To look forward to the next gift-giving holiday with hope and worry? To empty your piggy bank, count, recount and calculate how many more months allowance you still needed? Of course you can. And you can probably remember exactly what it was that you were saving up for. For me, it was a horse. And I'm certain that you can remember whether or not you ever managed to get it. Me? I didn't.

But no matter what the details of your memories, happy or sad, you learned something from them. In a nutshell, you learned about money - what it can and can't buy, how it doesn't grow on trees, and why you need to be careful about when and where you spend it. Simple lessons learned in a simple way, at a simple time in life.

Sometimes I wonder if the emotions people attach to their allowance-related memories aren't drowning out the lessons. So often what we remember most is the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, or the weeks, months or years we spent feeling like have-nots. These negative feelings tempt us to forget the valuable lessons connected to them, and it seems to me like too many people are giving in to their temptations, turning a blind eye to the lessons they once knew, and vowing that their children will never want for anything.

Not all life's lessons are pleasant to learn, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still better to live through them when you've still got time to learn from them. Not getting that horse as a kid has, in the long run, made me a lot happier than I would have been if my parents had spent way, way beyond their means to see my dream come true. For one thing, our already-tight family budget would have snapped and I'm sure my parents would have snapped too. I wouldn't have learned how to save because I wouldn't have had to pull $8 from my piggy bank- two weeks allowance - for each horseback riding lesson. Later, when I was big enough, I'd learn a little bit more about work by helping out at the horse farm in exchange for free lessons. And in the end, after years of working on the farm and riding, I realised that horses live longer than my dream was going to and that I'd been having the same experience, or maybe even a better one, than my horse-owning friends who were now stuck with a very expensive pet they couldn't take to college with them.

Two summer camp experiences stick out in my mind. The first was when I was about 10 years old, at a day camp for Girl Scouts. I remember explaining the agreement my parents and I had about my horseback riding lessons to an inquisitive camp counselor. Actually, I think it was the camp director. She was amazed that I was willing to forfeit all my allowance money (and all the candy, toys and whatever else kids spend their money on) for one half hour of horseback riding twice a month. I was amazed that she was so amazed, amazed enough that I still remember the conversation. I thought that was just the way things were; everyone had to prioritize their desires/needs and make sacrifices You couldn't have everything.

In retrospect, I still think that's the way things are - we do have to prioritize and make sacrifices - but I'm a lot less surprised that my camp director was so shocked that I, at the age of 10, seemed to know this. Ten years later, I would be the camp employee shocked by what kids do and don't know about money. I spent a few summers working at an academic summer program, a cross between a summer school and a summer camp. I was the "Supply Office" manager, responsible for the program's entire inventory and purchasing of classroom supplies. I know that doesn't sound like much, but the program was home to 700 kids for six straight weeks and the number of classes was somewhere around 300, each with its own budget, and many with titles like "Cooking with Chemistry" or "Fashion Design - Make Your Own Clothes" requiring a lot of supplies. If an instructor needed a box of paper clips or a lemon, they came to me so that I could check through their budget to see if they had enough money to make the purchase. If they did, I put their request on the shopping list for my staff to buy. There were a lot of boxes of paper clips and a lot of lemons... And rocket engines and pink lace and whiffle ball bats and clown noses and frozen turkeys.

And then there were the bogus requests. One of my favorites was a requisition for liquid nitrogen and no, that wasn't a joke; someone was really expecting me to get it for their class. But more frequently the bogus requests came from instructors (all college students) who obviously never had an allowance as a child and weren't paying for their tuition, meal plan, books or toothpaste. Once an architecture instructor asked me to get something like $75 worth of foam board for a one time activity when he only had a budget of $100 for the entire 6 weeks! I remember fighting with him, trying to convince him that even though using plain tag board wouldn't work quite as well for the activity it was still better than having no money or supplies left for the rest of the summer. Not long after, my staff and I adopted the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" as our official office theme song.

Too many of the kids attending the summer program were a kind of spoilt I could never have imagined. They would roll in on the first day with an entire set of authentic Louis Vuitton luggage and turn their noses up at the college dorm rooms they were expected to sleep in, leading me to wonder how they were going to get through the summer. The thing about kids is that they're very good at adapting. The first few days were always tough, but most of them made it through just fine without their Starbucks, cell phones or favorite evening meal. Yet I pale to think how quickly these same kids adapted right back to their old lifestyles upon returning home.

So the moral of the story is this: allowance is good, not bad! Remember the lessons you learned from it and if you have kids of your own, do them the same favor your parents did you and be tough about allowance. As soon as your children are mature enough to understand the cause and effect relationships of money (probably sometime between the ages of 8 and 10), set a weekly amount, clear requirements for "earning" the allowance, and boundaries about what kinds of things your children are expected to buy for themselves. And then, stick to those boundaries.

This is the hard part. For example, if your son is saving up for something he will probably have to give up other things he wants; you need to be willing to watch him go without. Don't "reward" him by giving him extra money or buying him the things he is giving up. To do so would be to completely undermine the lessons of allowance. He is supposed to realise that if he spends all his allowance on a pair of fancy sneakers, he won't have any money left to go to the movies that weekend and show off those snazzy new shoes. Instead, reward his good budgeting behavior by giving him additional privileges and freedoms regarding his money (maybe let him buy those concert tickets, etc.) By doing so you also give him additional opportunities to learn how to be responsible with his money.

It won't be easy, especially if your family's finances allow room for occasional splurges, but when you're tempted to stray from your own rules, just remember, you're probably in this position because you learned about money as a kid. And if you don't find yourself rolling in extra cash, then setting a budget for your kids (and for yourself regarding what you'll spend on luxury items for them) can help you balance your own household budget and adopt frugality as an entire family commitment.

I wasn't a genius at age 10 (some things never change) just because I knew that I needed to prioritize my wants and needs; I was just lucky - lucky that my parents had stood firm and taught me the lessons of allowance.

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Eileen said...

Oh...I have to wonder! I never received an allowance and my mother was so secretive about our finances! She was very frugal and upon her death bequeathed a nice inheritance to me and my 3 sibs. However....only ONE (and it isn't me!) of us knows what the heck we're doing in terms of finances these days. Yikes!! I have the blessings of a grown daughter who is very wise (after some foolishness) with her money; a 2nd daughter in college, working part-time and an autistic 11 year old, who ONLY WANTS DIMES (ROFL!!) from us! Still...man. Can see how the allowance would be wise. We seesawed with this with the 2 older kids....because they blew it ALL THE TIME. Interesting post.

Frugal Fanny said...

Eileen, thanks for your comment! It's nice to know there's someone else out there who can see that there might be a little bit of value in allowance even in this day and age. Lots of luck with your own finances - it's never too late to learn!

allrileyedup said...

I remember all too well the things I did and did not have based on how I spent my allowance. I hope to raise my kids this way, but it's a lot harder when their grandparents are more than happy to buy them whatever they want.

Fanny said...

allrileyedup, that's a tough problem. I'm assuming it's not your parents that are the issue but your childrens' other grandparents. Beyond talking to them about it, I'm not sure what else you can do. Anybody else have any suggestions?