“I’m sad.” She says, blindsiding me as we’re out walking the dog in the local park under a sun-filled blue summertime sky.
“Sad?” I ask. “Why are you sad?”
“Mom won’t let me spend any of my money.” She sighs, and walks on down the park path without much further explanation. We’ve been trading chores for allowance for a couple of years now, a magnetic tracking chart queuing up a ledger of positive-reinforcement-based compensation tacked to our kitchen wall and tallying a weekly list of incentives for not only helping out around the house, but trying new foods and enhancing other softer skills.
“Well… what do you want to buy?” I ask, prodding. After all it’s not as if we are lacking much of anything.
The problem with teaching kids about money, I realize, is that first they must actually want to spend it on something and second, you’ve got to let them do just that. She’s done neither. The former, because our house is stacked with books and video games and she has rarely lacked for toys and other amusements and boredom is a rare commodity within our walls. The latter, because we tend to be quite frugal with ourselves and with her, and her small allowance has accumulated into a big, bulging wallet of cash and coins that is all-too-often met with the answer “no, you don’t need that” when she asks to spend it.
“Just something.” She shrugs. There is that note of quiet frustration in her voice that eight years as her father has taught me to recognize as genuine, heartfelt, disconnect. “Why won’t mom let me buy anything?” This was followed by a short recounting of a recent visit to the bookstore and that oh-too-familiar mantra. “No, you don’t need that” followed by youthful disappointment.
“I guess…” I frantically search for an explanation while maintaining a sliver of parental authority in my voice. “I guess she wants you to buy the right things.”
Another frustrated sigh. “But what’s that?” she groans.
I take a deep breath. “Well, let me try and explain the difference between impulse shopping and saving for something you really want…”
fostering independence, rule 024
learning to spend takes practice: sometimes you need to be less frugal
Our walk around the park lasted a solid twenty minutes and during that short time I attempted to communicate the difference between –on the one hand– identifying something and then saving up to buy it and –on the other hand– walking into a store with a fistful of cash and a desire to spend it on something… anything. At the age of (not-quite) eight it’s a hazy distinction that a significant part of learning how to use money involves not just earning it and spending it, but thoughtfully planning how you want to use it. Her mother (the banker by trade and by philosophy) had instilled an ethos of frugality in our house and had enforced a seemingly arbitrary lock-down on impulse shopping. Yet that is only half of the lesson.
Spending money is as much an art as a science, I think. Kids can learn to save money, but not always by pure enforcement: if the ability to be less frugal is available, as squeamish as may make some parents, there is a learning opportunity in the practice of spending of that money, too.