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Mommy, Pleeeease!

by Marc Eisenson

When was the last time you stopped at a cash register, money in hand, and asked yourself, "Do I really need this?" Can't remember? Well, when was the last time you told a pleading child, "You don't need that," or "You just had a treat," or "That's a waste of money"?

Kids watch how we spend money on ourselves and compare that to how we allocate it to them. They recognize the arbitrariness of grown-ups' rules, and you can bet they resent the typical parental response, "It's my money."

I have an opinion. Double standards are unfair and counter-productive. As part of the family, children are entitled to a fair portion of the family pie -- in other words, an allowance. (As family members, though, they should also share in the day-to-day responsibilities.) And within some limits -- for example, no cigarettes -- kids should be allowed to spend that money on what they want. That's why it's called an allowance.

But whether given as an allowance, as payment --for services rendered," or as a combination of both ... these days especially, parents have to do a lot more than dole out the dough.

"Do as I say," doesn't cut it anymore

With the average child seeing 30,000 - 40,000 commercials a year, it's more important than ever to help kids learn how to distinguish needs from wants ... how to make choices about their money. Unfortunately, far too many adults are themselves confused about needs and wants -- and set a bad money management example. Youngsters who see their parents routinely going into hock for stuff they don't need, will have a hard time understanding why their wants can't also be immediately satisfied.

If you don't yet have it down pat, take heart: You can get better with time. The example you begin setting now, on how to spend, save, and earn money, will make a difference. Perhaps it will be some consolation to know that my three children, Robin, Sharon, and Adam, have all grown up to be extremely responsible money handlers ... in part because of their parents' example ... in part, despite it.

I want it, I need it, I must have it!

Explain the difference between wants and needs. (If you're having trouble explaining it, your homework's cut out for you!) Teach your children that food, shelter, and clothing are on the short list of human needs. In our society, electricity, transportation, and phones also fall into the need category. Designer clothes and cereal in the shape of cartoon characters qualify as "wants."

Let your kids know that your first responsibility is to provide for the family's needs. Once you've paid for the basics, explain that the family can choose to spend some of the remaining money, right now, for fun things -- but would be wise to always put some aside for future goals like taking a vacation, buying a house, or paying for college.

As soon as children are old enough to name the toys, cereal, or candy they want, they're old enough to make money choices. The older they get, the more your kids need to be included in decisions about allocating family money. Today, it may be money you've earned, but before long, they'll only get money by working just as hard as you do now.

Never underestimate the power of the boob tube

Make it a point to watch TV with your children. Especially tune in to the commercials they see. Help them understand that products are heavily hyped. What they see is not what they'll get.

Here's a particularly effective technique: Compare a toy your child had to have ... and got ... with the commercial that was so bedazzling. Point out how the product fell way short of your kid's expectations, but try not to say, "I told you so!"

It's important that kids learn from their spending mistakes, but they don't need the message pounded in. Tell them about a time or two when you made a dumb decision of your own. (I know I once did.) They'll remember the lousy purchases, theirs and yours, and hopefully make a better choice next time.

While I wouldn't want to dictate what children can or can't purchase with their own money, you can easily pass along your own ideas of what's worth buying. For example, let your kids know that you're happy to buy them a perfectly fine pair of sneakers for $20. If they decide to "upgrade" to the $100 designer pair, it'll be with their own funds. Of course, you'd add that they'd have $80 less to spend on something else they'd really enjoy ... now or in the future.

Will they feel deprived if they don't get everything they want? Maybe, for a little while. Eventually, kids need to learn that no one, no matter how wealthy, can do it all or have it all. Better they learn priorities from you, than from the boob tube.

Money doesn't grow on trees

Talk to your kids about how you make and spend your money. Even the little ones ought to know that you work for every penny, nickel, dime, etc., and that the cash coming out of the ATM machine isn't magic money. It's money that you worked hard to earn.

Ditto for checks. Double ditto for credit cards. We're particularly incensed by a new preschooler "play store" that boasts "real shopping sounds," and drones out, "credit approved," reinforcing the use of plastic monsters at a way too tender age. Are they trying to create the financial equivalent of Joe Camel??!

Say "Hello!" to Harry the Gorilla

While you probably won't see him on billboards any time soon, Harry the Gorilla is going to help today's youngsters learn how to make smart choices about money. Remember, you met him here, first.

The brainchild of my son, Adam (an elementary school teacher), Harry's the lead character in The Peanut Butter and Jelly Game ($14.95), Adam's first book, and one that Nancy and I are particularly proud to be publishing.

Never thinking twice about the consequences, Harry impulsively blows a week's grocery money on a bright, shiny, new baseball mitt that he absolutely "must" have. It comes as a great surprise to Harry ... but not to his level-headed best friend, Bradley the Porcupine ... when the hungry gorilla discovers that he's run out of food.

Harry then tries to bum the ingredients for his favorite meal, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, from his friends. After numerous humorous encounters, Harry learns that with a little advance planning he can have the food he needs, as well as the glove he wants.

A simple way to soothe your impulsive beasts

My kids and I developed a "wish list," an often discussed (but never written) record of what they most wanted to have or do. Actually, we called it our "eventually list," and it helped all of us prioritize. Sooner or later, most everything on the list got covered ... or lost its appeal.

Knowing that it would indeed happen "eventually," seemed to calm the need for instant gratification. So next time your kids "must" have something, make it easy for them to save for it, a little at a time -- just like you do, right? If they don't lose interest along the way, they'll really value the "prize," once they've saved enough to make it theirs.

The Pocket Change Investor
The Secrets to Getting Ahead -- Even If You Have a Pile of Credit Card Bills, Hefty Mortgage Payments,
Loans Out on a Clunker or Two, & a Bad Case of the "I'm Tired of Living Payday to Payday" Blues.

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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor© 1996, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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