Her chocolate brown eyes, already big as saucers, grew enormous as they focused on the object of her desire: the Barbie Magic Key House. “Are you sure?” I asked. Yes, she nodded, and heaved the large zip-lock bag onto the Wal-Mart counter with a bang. It contained thirty-five dollars of her long-saved money, mostly in coin and crumpled ones, warm from being tightly held during our walk through the store. Honestly, this moment broke my heart, but I had no choice: I had to let her count out her dollars with the kind checkout lady, receive her change, and walk out the door of Wal-Mart carrying the bag containing her own Magic Key House inside. She was seven years old.
My husband and I had sown the seeds for this moment months before, when we adopted a new financial policy in our home. We had two daughters, at that time six and nine, and we were about worn down by the relentless begging that inevitably happened at the checkout counter at the grocery store, the bookstore, the drugstore. Now, we could have kept saying “No!” until it sank in—but really, how long would that have taken? And then it struck us: this incredibly frustrating situation was a blessing in disguise. We had the chance to develop in our girls something we were also trying to cultivate in ourselves— better financial discipline. So how did we do this? Easy. We gave the money and the decision-making power to the children.
We told our girls that we would immediately start giving them weekly allowances. (I should note that they were expected to contribute to the household chores as members of the family, but the allowances were not positioned as payment for chores.) Our primary goal in giving allowances was to teach our children to be financially responsible. So what did this mean for the girls? It meant that every weekend they would receive a small amount of money—I think it was $1.50 for the six-year-old and $3 for the nine-year-old -—and they could do whatever they wanted with it. My husband and I would not judge their choices or decisions; it was entirely up to them. However, they could no longer ask for things while we were in line at the store. Candy, comic books, beanie babies, bouncy balls, temporary tattoos, sparkly hair things … these were the kinds of things they could choose to spend their allowances on. Oh, and one more thing. We took the girls to the bank, opened savings accounts for them, and let them know that if they chose to deposit any of their money, we would match their deposit. (We call it a one-way account, meaning the money goes in but does not come out—not until college, anyway.)
You might think this is all a little crazy—matching funds for kids? And maybe it was a bit sophisticated for the little one, who, after all, trusted the Ziplock bag under her bed more than the bank. At least, at first she did. As she grew older and began to understand for herself the value of saving, she started asking to go the bank a little more often. Now thirteen and sixteen years old, each daughter has a bank account that has crossed the $1,000 mark. Although their parents are responsible for $500 of each balance, it is only because those girls made the conscious decision to bank rather than spend $500 of their own money.
But not only that, remember that Barbie Magic Key House? Oh, the glory of it, with its baby pink plastic, its tinny music that played as you turned the key. I think it got exactly five minutes of playing time before becoming lost in the sea of other unused toys in my daughter’s room. We have talked a lot about that Magic Key House over the years, about how important it is to really think about a purchase before you make it, and about how much it can hurt to spend all your money on something that turns out not to be so great. It’s a lesson that sometimes hardheaded women need to learn over and over. Earlier this summer, that same daughter, after a few days hanging out at the local skate park watching the boys, dropped $50 of her hard-saved money on a skateboard that has yet to be ridden. Oh Barbie! Where were you when we needed you?