We’re either instilling financially literacy, or raising embezzlers

money_ipodHey mom, “I just found a ten thousand dollar bill,” Colin said, eyes wide.

“Just kidding,” he added a nanosecond later, knowing how quickly I make plans. He pulled out a laminated bookmark a teacher had given him. “See? It’s a fake. They don’t really make ten thousand dollar bills.”

That’s good information, just in case I was thinking of consolidating all the tips I make pole dancing. I’ll need to think smaller denominations.

Somehow, both boys have amassed wads of cash this summer from chores. They started flashing it at us every once in a while, fanning themselves with hands full of ones and fives … which ended pretty abruptly when I started asking for loans.

We pay our kids for chores. But, when I say “pay” I mean the kids keep running totals of what we owe them on a slip of paper on the fridge. Every once in a while we deduct a few bucks on request and add a video game or a Microsoft points card to our cart before check-out at the grocery store.

It’s a pretty loose system which I don’t monitor like I should. I sometimes worry that instead of teaching financial literacy, I’m encouraging the development of latent embezzlement skills, but at least I’m not one doling out the bills for them to flash like gangsters.

Jack started mowing the lawn a couple of years ago and my mom hired him to do hers. Colin is responsible for picking up after the dog and other odd jobs. My mom pays in cash, which makes her chores much more popular than the stuff I want done around here.

It’s not that they don’t have better places to stash this stuff. A few years ago, we convinced them to start tucking some money into savings.

I marched them up to the bank counter and had them count out their bills. They each took a sucker and a pen and were fawned over by all the tellers.

Then, I took their deposit books and stuck them up in the cupboard.

We successfully talked the boys into making one or two more deposits since that auspicious launching down the road to financial literacy, but otherwise those little black deposit books rarely make an appearance.

It’s not that they don’t remember the money is there. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion to make a withdrawal for some frivolous item or another, at which point I puff up my chest and launch a lecture about the virtues of saving.

The kids aren’t new to money talk. We’ve recently had all kind of conversations about family finances. We’re in a place where every expenditure is carefully examined. It’s all part of that mid-life crisis thing that resulted in one of us giving up a perfectly good career.

All will be bueno at some point in the not too distant future, but in the meantime we’ve cancelled cable TV as well as my membership to the Diamond Tiara of the Month Club. We talk about delayed gratification, goal setting, keeping track of our resources.

But at the same time, it occurs to me there’s a reason no one’s taking me up on the offer to escort them to the bank to make a deposit. It seems as though when one socks money away for years on end with nothing to show for it except a number in a little, black book, that’s not a huge incentive for continuing to save.

Go figure.

My dad grew up with the concept of “Have a buck? Good. Now stretch it until it screams bloody murder.” He was raised by a generation that had the rug pulled out from under them in the Great Depression, and were never fully convinced it couldn’t happen again. “Frugal” in our case doesn’t even begin to describe his childhood where pairs of socks were allegedly split up and wrapped as individual presents, for more to open on Christmas morning.

To some extent, we’ve all had that frugalista influence in our lives and the lessons learned have come in handy. Mike and I lived on a grocery budget of $25 a week for the first year of our marriage and survived (although Top Ramen is no longer allowed in my presence).

But with all due respect to our budget conscious mentors, keep too tight a grip on the finances and somebody, somewhere along the line, is going to crack and spend all their student loan money on downhill skis.

I decided this week to relax the iron grip I have on the money the kids stashed into savings before realizing it would never again see the light of day.

With that in mind, when probably for the gajillionth time Colin asked to take his money and spend it on something he wants, I acquiesced.

This week’s request: an IPod Touch.

My first thought was why that? The kid is so plugged in to electronica, he makes the scenario in The Matrix look quaint. Why another gadget?

But I must stop the second-guessing. He earned the money. He saved it. Let him spend it. Even splurging and then potentially being unhappy with a purchase is as valuable a lesson as the saving itself.

Shortly before I was Colin’s age, I saved all summer long for the double LP official sound track to the movie Grease. Later I saved for a pair of San Francisco Riding Gear bell-bottomed jeans. Did I need to wear yards of heavy denim or memorize all of Rizzo’s lyrics in order to be a better person?

Of course I did, but that’s not the point.

I learned the satisfaction of setting a goal and reaching it. Being happy with my purchases was the icing on the cake. I also wore those jeans until they were scraps, and I still know every line to every song in that movie.

So, Colin has a new gadget, and so far hasn’t unglued his face from it except more than a couple minutes at a time.

Now we get to work on screen time limits. Yay.

He’s saving the ten thousand dollar laminated bookmark, though. For a rainy day.

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2 thoughts on “We’re either instilling financially literacy, or raising embezzlers

  1. I recently increased my kids’ allowances, but I’m trying to give them more responsibility for their own purchases. It’s funny when they beg for something and I say, ” Sure, if you want it, go ahead and buy it!” More than half the time they don’t want something as badly as they thought if they have to pay for it with their own money. I love saying Yes to everything now, but my children are much more careful with their own money than they were with mine!
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