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About allowances…

April 13, 2011

Sometime in your child’s early years you may get tired of handing out loose change or dollar bills or enduring repeated pleas for whatever he or she really, really, really wants to have.  (“No, really — I need it.”)

Or maybe you’ve just decided that it’s time to teach your child the value of money.

And so — a few thoughts about allowances.

Parents are often inclined to link an allowance to the completion of chores.  (“I have to work for a paycheck, and she should, too,” this thinking goes.)

But do you really want to be your child’s employer?  These arrangements can easily turn into power struggles — with reductions in allowance for work poorly done, or an allowance withheld because chores aren’t done at all. Or, when you ask your child to do something not on the chore list, and your child responds with, “How much will you pay me?”

One approach is to explain that everyone in the family has chores — that we all need to help one another, and take care of the place where we live.  We do those things because we live together and have responsibilities to each other.

An allowance, on the other hand, is a teaching tool.  You might sit your child down and say, “We’re going to give you an allowance so that you’ll learn how to handle money.  How to make a budget, plan for things you want, and learn how it feels when you run out.  So from now on, you’ll be getting $X every Saturday.  We’ll help you learn how to use it, and we’ll talk about it together.”

The amount should be appropriate for the child’s age and developmental level, and in accord with the family’s finances.  Stick with small amounts at first, until you see how your child handles it.  (Think carefully about how much money you can stand to watch your child spend on candy.) Let kids know that the allowance may increase when you see that they can make good decisions about their money.  (And yes, it will be very hard to watch them buying things that you know are worthless pieces of plastic junk: just remember that it’s a learning tool.)

Make it predictable: hand it to the child at the same time every week.  Don’t withhold it because, for instance, the child just received birthday money from an aunt, or because he or she got to pick out something at the store that you paid for. Your child may see such tactics as unfair or arbitrary, and the lesson about handling money is lost. You might tell the child to wait until allowance day — but don’t withhold the allowance.

Parents are often tempted to withhold allowance when children do something they’re not supposed to do.  It may not feel great to hand money to a child who has told lies or done something unkind or destructive the day before, but using money as a reward or punishment is another slippery slope.  Deal with the objectionable behavior — but don’t do away with the allowance.

Inevitably, we transmit to our children our own ideas — good and bad — about what money means in our lives. It’s worth taking some time to sort through those ideas.  Does money mean power and control?  Is it about love and approval? What did our own parents think about money, and how much of that have we held onto?

And with this new opportunity to teach your own child about money, what do you want to say?

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One Response to About allowances…

  1. valentine says:

    This is terrific advice.

    My parents didn’t give an allowance and we were simply expected to help keep up the home we ALL lived in. Regarding money, it didn’t occur to me to “beg” for something in a store. (Maybe kids didn’t have the “must own everything I see” idea yet. Dunno.) And I don’t remember being in non-grocery stores very often. (I do remember going to the drug store once in a while but I don’t think so much stuff was targetted at kids back then.)

    When I was 12, we were at M. Field’s to get a birthday present for my best friend. We narrowed it down to three items, discussed each, and she rejected the pingpong ball gun because it wasn’t “nice enough” for a best friend. But she bought both the sweater set that I gave my bff next day … AND the pingpong gun – with extra pp balls, because (she said to me) “you have a lot of siblings.” I never asked for it. We were there to buy Amy a gift, not me.

    So we got little toys once in a while, just not bits of crap every week. (I still have the pingpong gun. It still works. My husband calls it “vintage.” Awesome.)

    I don’t think kids should have money. You do NOT want them becoming part of the consumer culture so early, when they don’t even know what “marketing” tactics involve. Or what “aspirational” means. No.

    And I don’t get why buying things is something to encourage. Kids have tons of stuff. Every birthday and Christmas, all the relatives heap “things” onto the kid. Your point is that “you must consume/purchase ALL year”? Hell no.

    Why inculcate the “thrill of the buy” so young?

    There are other ways to have them learn about money. My dad taught us to write out cheques for bills – like water and power. (I was horrified at the amounts – gigantic to a kid.) We would have contests who could estimate the bill for the grocery basket closest. (HOW much did it add up to? OMG, small bits ADD UP to really big amounts….)

    The adrenaline of buying something (we’re all junkies here) is NOT what parents should be teaching young kids. It will become hard-wired.

    Teenagers, however, are a different story. But teenagers NEED to work for someone else – not the parent. Too tangled otherwise. Start young (mow lawns, pull weeds) well before 16 (pack groceries at 14 with consent).

    For my family, still no allowance even in high school, but we were given what we needed as asked for – because all the kids worked at the family business. (The theory: we’re all a family so we all keep up the house and yard and we all work at the family business AND we all get money as needed.) But I got an “outside” job (waiting tables…NOT the family business), so was “cut off”: I now had to pay for school uniforms and my own books where my siblings didn’t. (They continued working under mom and dad.)

    I thought it terribly unfair at the time. Basic stuff, like school shoes (specific required type) and #2 pencils? Really? While my twin is handed $20 whenever?

    The following year, day before Thanksgiving, my mom gave me the grocery list (huge…) and realized she forgot to go to the bank – which was now closed until Friday. (This is before ATMs.) She’s also out of cheques. She tells me to use my tips money and she’ll reimburse me. By Friday, she was pissed at all of us (six kids underfoot, 30 dinner guests night before, still a LOT of dirty dishes, three more days with all of us, etc.) and said I should “contribute” more to the family…so no reimbursement. She had tied my money to her mood.

    I learned a good lesson that day (and a couple other similar instances I couldn’t wiggle out of). Maybe not the one she wanted me to, but valuable nonetheless.

    Your post is spot-on about “what is your child learning” as opposed to “what message do you THINK you are sending.” Seriously brilliant.

    p.s. Tasks to keep up the home you all live in shouldn’t be compensated. Adults don’t get paid to take the trash to the curb.

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