The value of a dollar

Dollar symbolWhen my kids were about 10 & 12 years old, they spent a week at my sister’s house. One night, when I called to talk with them, my brother-in-law answered the phone and told me he couldn’t believe what had happened that day. They had visited an aquarium, where he offered to buy them a souvenir from the gift shop. My kids, after walking around the shop, politely told him they didn’t need anything. This place was chock full of stuffed sea animals, books, t-shirts, and toys, and they didn’t want anything! To this day, my brother-in-law still can’t believe it.

By contrast, I wasn’t surprised. Over the years, when my husband and I took them to museums or zoos, we would tell them they could buy something from the gift store, but they need to spend their own money. Like many parents, we gave them a modest allowance to help them learn the value of a dollar. And it seemed to work. Sometimes they would buy something at a gift shop, but more often than not, they wouldn’t.

As you can imagine, hearing this story my children at the aquarium was a crowning moment for me as a parent. I was raising frugal kids who treated someone else’s money like it was their own. At the time, I gave myself a big pat on the back. And I silently thanked my friends and family who, by sharing their thoughts on allowances and spending money for kids, helped me figure out my approach.

In hindsight, I also realize how much I was influenced by a colleague, who spent hours and hours every week tracking the contractors in her department. She maintained a large spreadsheet, entering line items for each person’s hours and knowing, down to the penny, how much she could still spend each month. When her staff requested more hourly help, she would prioritize the request against the others she received, review the budget, and decide what they could afford. This system worked for her, but I vowed to never spend that kind of time on my work budget. Instead, I would delegate budget responsibility as much as possible.

As my professional responsibilities grew, so did my budget. But, keeping to my vow, I took every opportunity to push budget ownership to the mangers on my team. I’d make decisions each year about how much total budget we needed and how to divide it between my groups. But, once it was divided, I let my managers decide how to spend their budget.

Sure, my managers would come to me with expenses that they hadn’t anticipated, or opportunities that popped up that would require more budget. With each request, I’d prioritize it and see if I could support it. The requests were all reasonable, and only came to my attention when my team couldn’t figure out how to fund them from their budgets.

When my children move on to college, I want to push more budget responsibility to them. While they use their allowance today to pay for meals out, movies, gifts for friends, and so on, moving forward I want them to propose a budget for living expenses above and beyond tuition, room and board. I want them to think about their needs for books, clothing, over-the-counter medicine, and travel. I want to delegate managing this budget to them so that they learn this critical life skill. And, just like with my experience with budgeting at work, I expect that my kids will have unanticipated needs and will ask me for more money. Given their frugal experience early on, I have a feeling that these requests will all be reasonable.

I bet many of you have pushed budgeting to your teams or to your kids. Please share your strategies. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The value of a dollar

  1. My son is 4. To buy things that he wants he has to save up ‘points’. 1 point = $1. To earn a point he has to learn something, practice something or work hard on something. This way we are trying to teach him the value of money and the relationship of effort required to get it in the first place. We keep his points recorded in a small note book called his treasure book so he can see his own progress against his goals.

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