Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life Lessons: Teaching Kids the Value of a Dollar

I'm no financial wiz or guru, but I have some very definite opinions about the values we, as parents, instill in our kids about money - and therefore, about a lot of other things.

I grew up not having much in the way of material things. My mother was a young, single mother supporting three kids on what I'm sure in that day and age was a paltry income, as well as the paltry child support from my dad. We got basic necessities and very few extras. Although my brothers both played Little League, that was the extent of our extra-curricular activities; there were no music lessons, no dance, no trips (with the exception of a cross-country drive to Illinois when I was 8 for my dad's brother's wedding), and no trendy clothes. My brothers and I all desperately needed braces on our teeth, but we didn't get them until long after most of the other kids our age had gotten them - not until my mother married her second husband who had insurance through his employer that would pay for orthodontia.

All this has led to a consciousness on my part as a parent of all the things I did without as a kid, and a tendency to want to make up for that in the way of overcompensating. It's a tendency I've worked hard to resist, though, because I've seen the effects of kids who grew up not ever experiencing much deprivation. I can completely understand the desire, as a parent, to grant our kids instant gratification. Of course we want to make them happy, and if a new Dora doll, or a new pack of Pokemon cards is going to make them happy, what's the harm?

The harm is that kids who are handed everything they want - and worse, who even as adults are allowed or encouraged to see their parents as safety nets they can fall back on when the going gets rough - become adults who still expect instant gratification, who tend to never feel they have enough, who have very little self-restraint when it comes to acquiring things, who are selfish and irresponsible. In the long run, these qualities do not make for a happy adulthood.

I am very glad that I am in a much better financial position raising my kids than my parents were in when they were raising me and my brothers. I'm glad that we are able to provide our kids with enriching activities and experiences like sports, music lessons, and dance. When Kevin got braces on his teeth at 10 years old, I cried because I remembered how I longed for braces as a kid and had to wait so long for them, and it felt really good to be able to provide my kid with something so basic and necessary.

That said, I feel very strongly about my kids learning that money doesn't grow on trees, and that there are certain things they might want that they will have to find ways to pay for themselves. When Kevin was 9, he wanted a Nintendo DS. Santa had already brought him a Gameboy a couple years before that, so I told him if he wanted a DS, then he'd have to save his money and buy it himself. And he did. For a year, he saved his allowance as well as birthday money, and he bought that DS himself, and I am convinced that he values it much more for having done that (he still plays it at age 13, and pays for any new games he wants for it). I am happy to buy books for the kids if they are enriching, but "junk" books they want, they have to buy themselves. Even Kevin's upcoming eighth grade class trip to Washington DC we expect him to help pay for - and over the summer, through allowance, babysitting, tutoring, and a couple of lemonade stands, he raised well over the amount of money we told him he had to contribute to the cost of that trip.

I have no plans to run out and buy any of my kids a car when they turn 16 (and I am fiercely leaning towards making them wait to get their drivers' licenses anyway, as I just don't think 16-year-olds belong on the road); I don't intend to pay for any expensive weddings (I'd rather impart to my kids that it's the quality of the marriage that counts, not the wedding - elope for goodness sake!); and here's a shocking confession: we're not saving for our kids' college educations. We have retirement to worry about; I see nothing wrong with their working their way through college, taking out student loans, and/or striving for scholarships.

Giving your kids everything without ever teaching them what it feels like to work for something they want, to wait for something they want - while that may put a smile on their shining little faces now, it really only enables them to become irresponsible grown-ups. Likewise, agreeing to be your adult child's financial safety net may make you feel good, but it only enables them to remain in a stunted, immature state of never really taking full responsibility for themselves. It's one thing to be there for your kid in times of hard luck, but to repeatedly bail them out of their own bad choices doesn't do them any favors in the long run.

And that's all I have to say about that.


Kara said...

I agree that kids need to learn the value of a dollar. However, I also think that college is expensive, even to the point of excessive student loans being cripplingly devastating in a young adult's financial life. I hope to be able to do what my parents did with each of their four kids- pay for the 2nd and 3rd year of college. That way if the kid screws up their freshman year and needs to repeat it, it's out of their pocket. It also is an incentive to graduate college early. I'm also pushing state schools.

Cwilks said...

Could not agree more! It is a fine line between wanting to give our kids all the opportunities we did not have and spoiling them. We too are not saving for college, my husband and I both struggled along with some help from our families. We also have just started having Sawyer save his allowance for things he wants. I still struggle with the family vacations and Disney passes, because they are things I want to do and never did as a child..but I often feel like my boys do not understand or appreciate how good they have it. I really want to get involved in service projects hoping that they will come to understand that it is such a privilege to live the way they do.

Julie said...

Me too! Me too! Can you see me waving my hand? My son had to save the money to buy his own laptop before he went to high school. We helped him comparison shop for a refurbished PC laptop, but the money was all his. We also expect our kids to pay for a portion of upcoming school trips (DC and Spain/Italy). My son has a friend who said I was mean for making him pay for a good portion of his trip...I say he'll appreciate it much much more!

Miriam's mommy said...

I of course agree with you about buying lots of material things for kids -- that's what allowances are for and it's important for kids to learn how to save.

But I don't agree with you about college education. Certainly, parents shouldn't be expected to contribute any more than they can afford, but parents should do what they can to save for kids' college education. Tuition is so, so expensive that it's unrealistic to think that summer jobs could do more than pay for books and maybe housing. Graduating with huge debt limits what fields kids can go into and/or their graduate school choices. Kids should think about the salaries of any prospective jobs, but they should also be allowed to follow their passions and/or do something socially responsible.

Kristin said...

I agree with much of what you have said. I made a decision to stay at home with my young children and I was the main breadwinner in the family. We have gave up many extras when we became a one income family but my children do value the things that they do get much more. I also make my kids save up for expensive toys that they want. I do have a plan for saving for college but I know that it will not cover all four of them in college. I feel that college is one thing I would like to help them with. Unfortunately I will probably still be paying off my student loans when they start with theirs.