Kids' first money lessons: spending wisely
Boston — Teaching your kids how to save is important. ''But it's better to teach wise spending first.'' So says Grace Weinstein, a personal-finance and child-development expert who has written extensively on children and money. In her view, a child's ability to spend intelligently is tied up with his being a generally secure person - being willing to try new foods, for instance, and to make friends in new situations.
A child continually consigning his shiny coins to the piggy bank - or to a real bank, where for all he knows they are lost forever - may have no clear idea what he is saving for.
Ms. Weinstein strongly advocates giving children a regular allowance big enough to cover routine expenses they can handle themselves: bus fare, for example, and some discretionary purchases. This is important if the children are to learn to choose between, say, bowling on Saturday and ice skating on Sunday.
Parents must be aware that the prices of childhood essentials such as comic books and candy bars have risen alarmingly since parents themselves were in the market for these commodities. ''Five or six dollars a week for an 11-year-old sounds like a lot,'' Ms. Weinstein notes, ''but the allowance shouldn't be just a bare minimum that's continually being supplemented.''
Routinely supplementing the allowance doesn't help the child learn decisionmaking. ''And it gets to be such a manipulative thing. The kids say, 'Let's not ask Dad tonight; he's in such a crummy mood, it will be better to wait till morning.' '' Or they catch him in a mellow mood and get away with what they can.
All this argues for parceling out a fixed sum, as regularly as parents expect to receive their own paychecks.
The amount of the allowance should be reviewed fairly often - perhaps every two or three months when the kids first get started. After a while an annual review - perhaps every fall at the beginning of the school year - should suffice.
Small children should get their allowance weekly, Ms. Weinstein says, but as they become older they should be learning to manage their money over longer periods of time; in high school a monthly or even quarterly allowance might be appropriate, and college students should be learning to handle money over a semester.
Another point Ms. Weinstein stresses strongly is that parents should treat sons and daughters equally. ''So many times the girls get an allowance and the boys don't, because 'a boy should earn his own way,' or boys get an allowance and girls don't because 'boys need to finance their social life,' or parents feel a need to control their daughters' spending. And manipulative behavior is encouraged in girls - Daddy's little girl wheedling money out of him. That kind of behavior is not considered cute in a boy.''
Ms. Weinstein also does not think much of docking the kids' allowance as a means of punishment; in her view, this ties with canceling TV privileges as the most unimaginative punishment parents mete out.
''The allowance is a learning tool,'' Ms. Weinstein says. And so children should no more be deprived of their allowance than they should of their schoolbooks. ''And kids need to have room to make mistakes if they are to learn from experience. So many times, the first time the kid buys an expensive shirt that shrinks the first time it's laundered, the clothing allowance gets yanked, and the lessons are missed.''
She doesn't see an allowance as wages for daily chores. ''Children should do their chores because they have a responsibility to the family. If they don't do their chores, you shouldn't cut off their allowance, but rather tell them, 'You can't go outside until you do your chores,' or whatever.''
She also urges parents to be a little more creative in assigning chores. ''So often we give the kids the jobs we don't like to do ourselves. Or we make them empty the wastebaskets. But why not let the kids do the cooking, for example? Instead of having them do the cleanup afterward.''
She distinguishes, moreover, between routine chores and special big jobs - putting the storm windows up, for example, or cleaning out the attic. She recommends parents negotiate these jobs with the kids on a businesslike basis - and that means giving them the opportunity to turn down the job. ''Lots of kids would much rather play than earn money.''
Carol Liutkus, a family counselor in Shrewsbury, N.J., urges parents to be careful not to use the allowance as a weapon. ''So many parents can't find the positives. If the kids don't make a fuss, they don't see they're doing something right. And there should be a way to say, this is my money, this is for fun stuff. If the kids want 'Flashdance' sweatshirts, or something, that should could out of their funds, and let the parents pay for the normal clothing. Don't say, 'It's your money, and here's how to spend it.' ''
When young people start saving for something, ''the important thing is that it's the kid's own goals,'' says Ms. Weinstein. Although older teen-agers may reasonably be expected to help out with their expenses, ''the parents who insist that the 11-year-old's paper route earnings to go his college fund are wrong.''
Charlotte Baecher, editor of Penny Power, the Consumers Union publication for children eight through 14, is less adamant on such questions as regular allowance vs. ad hoc appropriations, or whether children should be paid for chores. For her, the important thing is parental involvement. ''Parents need to see their kids as little money managers.''
Penny Power surveys have indicated that there isn't much back-and-forth over allowances; the parents hand them out and the kids spend them. But the discussion that develops when kids ask for a raise or want to consult on something they want to buy is the most helpful channel for teaching children about money.
It should be clear to children that their parents will not be forcing their adult choices on them; and then the children will feel free to discuss, for example, whether a shiny new bike is what they really want, or whether a secondhand one will do just as well.
Critical TV-watching is another important part of the learning process, Ms. Baecher says. ''In the commercials, it's always the good-looking girl in tight jeans who has all the friends. But there are so many other values and choices.'' Parents can help children distance themselves from the message of the tube.
Both Ms. Weinstein and Ms. Baecher agree that it's good to introduce children to the mechanics of banking - and be sure to tell them that although they won't get the same dollar bills back that they put in, they will get interest.
But bank fees have changed since the heyday of the school savings program, and parents should be alert to minimum-balance requirements and fine-print regulations, particularly on passbook savings accounts, which may be slapped with service charges if there isn't regular activity in the account - at least posting of interest. It may take some shopping around to find the right institution for the child's first account.
Similarly, it can be a good idea for young people to learn the mechanics of a checking account while they're still at home, with parents at hand to help reconcile the monthly statement. But again, banks may not want to deal with such small accounts.
Another aspect of money management is credit. While many people roll their eyes at the thought of teen-agers armed with plastic money, Ms. Weinstein argues that credit cards are part of life and that young people should learn how to handle them. ''And I don't mean just signing on them, I mean paying the bill afterward.''
Credit cards are particularly helpful for young people flying between home and school, she says.
''It's not a bad idea to establish a credit rating early on,'' Ms. Weinstein says. Parents can put their teen-ager's name on their own accounts. Young people can also build a record by accepting (judiciously) some of the credit-card offers typically made to new college graduates.
It's important that the young person realize that records are being kept of how promptly he pays up, and that there's no point in building a credit record early if it's not a good one.
Penny Power is $9.95 a year from Consumers Union, 256 Washington Street, Mount Vernon, N.Y. 10553. US TEENAGERS' AVERAGE WEEKLY INCOME Allowance Earnings Total Boys $11.05 $10.50$21.55$ 13-15 Girls 11.20 11.0522.25 13-15 Boys 20.55 29.9050.45 16-19 Girls 21.25 30.5051.76 16-19 Source: Rand Youth Poll; GENE LANGLEY