Give and let give

On our way to school the other day, my 5-year-old nonchalantly mumbled under his breath, “You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.”

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

He couldn’t remember. But as we hiked the four flights to his kindergarten class, I realized it made perfect sense in today’s times, given that most people are just trying to get by. Who has the time or resources to take care of others? Funny how a kid can zone in on the zeitgeist.

Then he asked me if we could have broccoli with garlic sauce for dinner, or something along those lines, kissed me good bye, and ran to the block-building area labeled “manipulatives.”

Philosophical musings over for him for now, I guess.

But as I headed back downstairs, besides thinking about ordering in Chinese food tonight, I also found myself thinking about when and how do we instill a sense of caring and generosity in our kids so that they’re willing to give up something in order to give to someone in need?

A friend of mine weighed in: “For any birthday or holiday, the kids get to spend a third, save a third, and give away a third to the charity of their choice. We’ve done it since they were little and now that they’re teens, it’s become a habit.”

Another acquaintance has her kids use their hobbies to help out. Her daughter, a dancer, collects outgrown leotards and donates them to a needy dance studio in a nearby community. Her son does the same with old football jerseys. They have a network of friends and friends of their friends who drop bags off at the end of each school year.

I, too, have always felt that we should give back—often and happily— since our family is incredibly blessed. So for every birthday since they were young, each of my three children has been given the option (read: strong suggestion) of asking their friends to bring nickels, dimes and quarters in lieu of presents for some sort of charitable project. To be clear, our children were in no way deprived. They received multiple presents their mom and dad, from two sets of grandparents, from aunts and uncles and cousins. So, they never showed any resentment for having to “give away” presents they felt they were due.

One of our family’s favorite memories: my youngest son’s fourth birthday. The deal was that every guest was asked to bring a few quarters for a lemonade stand. The party consisted of us decorating the lemonade stand out of a giant cardboard box, and discussing price, job assignments and location (location, location) for the right spot outside of our home. The kids loved it. The idea that they were doing something “real” seemed like a nice alternative to the typical puppet-show parties that were the trend at the time. And, equally as important, my son had a blast.

Part of what made the party so fun was not just that the dough that was raised was for charity but that it was a particular charity that resonated with 4-year-olds. There are many like it, but the one we selected—Heifer International—is incredibly cool and accessible. Raise $20 and you can actually purchase a flock of chicks which will be sent to a family in Cameroon. The money wasn’t going to some amorphous organization or cause that he really couldn’t understand. It was going to a family with a kid, probably about his age, who would then use the animal for its eggs, which would add protein to their diet. My son proudly counted out his $20 and decided on a flock of ducks for a village in China. There’s nothing quite like buying a duck—especially for a city kid.

I’m proud of our kids. But I wonder sometimes if it’s too much to ask a four-year-old, as eager and excited as he seemed to be, to give away his potential presents in order to buy a duck? Am I setting them up for major therapy bills later on in life? I think the answer is no, but that’s one we’ll just have to wait and see.

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Talking the money talk

When my 5-year-old overheard recently that a friend’s father had lost a job, he asked me, “Can we help him find it?” Children may have an idea of what money is, but they can’t wrap their minds around the big concepts. You may think this means it’s better to hide money problems from them. But as we all know, kids observe and absorb our every mood - even if they don’t fully understand it. That goes for our anxieties about finances, too.

One of the big questions in this recession is how do we, as adults, talk to our children about money? It’s a bumpy road to travel, but it’s the only route to helping your kids understand the money problems that might exist in your own families. Until they hear what’s going on from you, their fears could be spiraling out of control, based on information they’ve overheard from adult conversations, schoolyard gossip, and news reports.

Older kids are online, watching TV, or reading the headlines decrying the latest unemployment figures. They won’t be as shocked if the family has to make changes. Explaining that times are tough everywhere, that other families are making do with less, too, will help. Tell them you’ll make sure they have what they need, but, for now, no more extra spending on things the family can live without. Ask for ideas about how to make a leaner family budget — you may be surprised at their suggestions and willingness to pitch in.

If the problems are big, like you’ve lost a job or may have to move, kids will need your reassurance more than ever. Tell them that even though part of your life is different right now, they’ll have what they need. You’ll still bring them to school, help them with home work, make them dinner and put them to bed at night.

There’s another benefit to talking with kids about money: how you talk to your kids will also give them the tools to talk to each other.

The other day I was talking to my 14-year-old daughter and some of her friends, and it was heartening to hear how they’d become much more sensitive to each other because of the tough economic times.

One boy said, “If you have money, you don’t want to be a show-off, and if you don’t, you don’t want to be a moocher.” A girl added that “It’s a really sensitive topic because we know that with the recession some families are in trouble.”

The bottom line is that kids of all ages need to know we’re there for them no matter what. They need to know how they can pitch in for the family, too. Talking about money is one way to bring the family closer together — and that, in turn, helps our kids talk to each other, and be compassionate, supportive friends.

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Got to get me some H1N1 vaccine

Because we’ve been hearing how virulent H1N1 has been for the under-Kindergarten set, my husband and I were particularly worried about our 5-year-old. But with the swine flu vaccine harder to get than World Series tickets, we were stumped. Our beloved pediatrician had been promised a batch weeks ago, but he was repeatedly stood up. Putting some solid journalistic reporting skills to use, we hit upon a Duane Reade (a ubiquitous NYC drug store chain) that happened to be giving the shots to pregnant women and children. Swine flu bingo!

I was feeling, shall we say, ambivalent, in the cab ride downtown. Duane Reade? Do they really know how to give shots? Fortunately, it was a spanking new store that looked more like Sephora, the national beauty chain. For some very shallow reason that gave me comfort.

We filled out some paper work (actually I did, while my son tried to “figure out” the combination on the door marked “employees only”). There were two obviously pregnant women in the waiting room. For a minute I wondered, perhaps I could get a shot, too? I’m not expecting, but how does the guy taking the forms know that? Naturally, I was embarrassed that I would consider, even for a few seconds, taking the vaccine that a woman carrying a baby would need. Not a high-point in my ethically correct day.

As we sat and waited, a nicely dressed, smooth-skinned thirty-something guy approached the desk and mumbled, “I’m here for the H1N1 vaccine.” My ears perked up. Clearly he would be turned away. He certainly wasn’t pregnant and despite his youthful appearance, he was not a child. But to my surprise, he was given a form and told to fill it out.

Now I was annoyed. Was he a friend of the guy behind the counter? Some government official pushing to the head of the line? Whatever happened to pregnant women and children first?

Were some people more entitled to the H1N1 vaccine than others? If so, were those entitlements for sale? Could you buy your way in, like you can scalp a ticket to a Green Day concert? (Okay, I’m not that cool, but my kids are, or at least they think so.)

In other words, if the vaccine simply went to the highest bidder in a free market auction, would that be a better alternative? I was told it would cost $35. Surely someone would be willing to pay ten times that amount or even more. We don’t know how serious H1N1 is going to be, how much it will spread, and what the implications will be, but wouldn’t most people with enough money be eager to fork it over to get inoculated?

Being the highly ethical mom that I am, I decided to use my 5-year-old as a pawn in my game of vaccine chess. I asked him to ask the guy, who I now officially see as pure evil, if he were a doctor. “No, but I work in a hospital,” he cheerfully told my son. Once again, I was chagrined. I forgot that health care workers were also on the priority list, which makes complete sense.

Clearly my moral compass was now shattered on Duane Reade’s linoleum floor. After all, what’s more democratic than Duane Reade? I should be grateful that it was they and not some exclusive outlet that was doling out inoculations only to those who could afford a big price tag.

The truth is, as our leaders debate the merits of health care reform, it can all be boiled down to having enough money to get the best care. A friend of mine’s pediatrician recently mentioned that the practice was considering dropping her health insurance carrier. My friend and her husband fought for days over whether they could afford to stay with the doc who’d known her kids since they were babies and pay out-of-pocket. In the end, the pediatric practice was able to negotiate a deal with the insurer so they continued to accept it. But my friend was really lucky.

We all know people who have lost their jobs and their coverage. But even those lucky enough to have employer-provided care have seen co-pays rising, deductibles skyrocketing and premiums ratcheting higher than they thought possible. Suddenly, we think twice before visiting the doctor. And while some say that’s just prudent, I say, tell me that when my kid has undiagnosed strep because I didn’t want to pay the fee and then is sick for a week since she didn’t have antibiotics. And now with this swine flu scare, it’s particularly stressful for financially strapped parents who are being forced to flip a health care coin: heads, my kid; tails a high co-pay.

As I was pondering all this, my son’s name was called, and after some tears and a bit of a chase around the room, the deed was done. I was proud of my little guy for being stoic, though I hate to break it to him that he’ll need another shot in a month since he’s under 10. I was proud of myself for making sure he was protected. And I was proud of our country’s priorities—to put people first rather than profit. For now.

Have you had to trade off health concerns with money worries? How do you deal with it?

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Can the kids buy what they want?

I don’t know if you’ve begun this conversation over at your house, but at millions of homes across the great U.S.A, you can hear the high-pitched whines of kids of all ages saying to their parents: “It’s my own money! I should be able to do whatever I want with it.”

This pronouncement brings to mind the response of a no-nonsense friend of mine whose daughter recently asked if she could get a tattoo: “Sure,” she coolly replied. “When you’re 30 years old.”

But what is the right answer? If your kids maniacally save their allowance, or if they are savvy enough to babysit, shovel snow in the neighborhood, walk dogs or shampoo a neighbor’s plant (listen, I do know of people whose neighbors asked them to do this!) shouldn’t they be allowed to splurge? Or are kids, after all, kids, and it’s fine for us, the grown ups, to tell them that as long as they live under our roofs, we get to have a say in how they spend their money?

Let’s start with the easy ones. My Reese’s Pieces-popping five-year-old would shake down his grandpa if he thought he’d be permitted to spend that cash on candy and ice cream. It would be death by chocolate, and I’m not talking figuratively. The rule is clear: You can’t use your money to buy candy.

Next, my eleven-year-old must run all iTunes downloaded songs by me to ensure they are not the “explicit” versions—and to have access to my credit card number. And for my teenage daughter—no high-heels or “age-inappropriate” outfits, and it doesn’t matter if it’s charged on a gift card from Grandma.

That said, I don’t try to exert 100% control over how my kids spend their money. If they want to blow it on some toy or game or magazine that I don’t think is “educational” or worthwhile, it’s their right to ignore me. (Which they usually do anyway…but that’s a different story.)

Some friends think I’m too controlling. “I let my kids buy whatever they want (as long as it is age appropriate) with their allowance, even if we think it’s a total waste of money or just a passing interest,” one of my most favorite, frugal and wise moms emailed to me the other day. She went on to explain how her son saved his $8-a-week allowance for 6 months straight so that he’d have enough money to buy a $200 electronic game player for the family—something she didn’t want in the house at all—but felt obligated to let him have since they told him he could if he saved up.

Others feel that it’s just not acceptable to have a child make such a large purchase. One parent that I know has a budding Annie Leibovitz (let’s hope she’s better with her money!) who already has a digital camera but wants a much fancier, much pricier model. The mom in this case feels strongly that her kid’s current camera is more than adequate, and she worries her child is simply trying to “keep up” with the latest gadgetry that a friend has rather than make a thoughtful purchase to pursue her passion. “I can see it sitting in her top drawer three months from now, and feeling annoyed at myself for letting her get it,” she says. In the end, she did what’s almost always the smart thing to do—she split the difference. “I said to my daughter, ‘I know it’s your money, but let’s take this hobby a step at a time. Let’s go to the camera store this weekend and find one that’s more reasonable, that will give you better quality than your little camera, but is not as much a commitment as the costly one. Use it for a year or two, and let’s see what happens.’”

In this case, I think the answer lies in your parenting style. I’d say the most important thing is consistency: If you tell your kids they can buy whatever they want, you better be ready to stick with it. That means giant hot pink stuffed bears, every shade of lip gloss and a cell phone that can do everything including your kid’s homework. Come to think of it, that last one wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

What do you think? Do you let the kids spend their own money freely or watch over them like a hawk? Is it simply the price of things that get you to say no, or where it lands on your own value scale?

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

Should chores be tied to allowance?

Since money is my game, so to speak, you’d think I’d have the rules of allowance down cold. But you’d be wrong. Allowance is a topic that creates a bit of a chill at the family dinner table. And I know we’re not unique. In fact, this is one of those topics that no one is truly an expert on, really. It’s very personal and surprisingly complex since it raises the issue of not just how much but how you believe money ought to be spent. And in the end, no one knows that better than you.

One of the biggest questions most people ask: Should I pay my kids for doing chores? I firmly believe the answer to that one is no. Of course money is a known motivator (and truth be told, I’ve been known to hand over a buck or two for a fast-table-setting job when guests are ringing the doorbell, the kitchen’s in disarray and I’m racing to blow-dry my hair…) But really, family chores are more about the responsibility of being part of a community, not about hitting up Mom or Dad every time the dishwasher needs emptying. And it’s not just my inner “Kum Ba Yah” speaking. It’s practical. An authorized dollars-for-domestic duties arrangement can lead to cash chaos. Where do you draw the line? A quarter to make a bed? 50 cents to iron a a blouse? And Oh Lord knows how much for taking out the trash.

The other quandary: can allowance be taken away for bad behavior? I think it can, but I tend not to. Listening to your iPod when you’re supposed to be doing your homework? You lose iPod privileges for the week. (Eye-pod for an eye-pod rules the day in our home.) Texting instead of bathing? No cell phone tomorrow. (But definitely a required shower!) In that way, discipline is like a new outfit: punishments should be nicely matched to fit the crime. While a civil suit may be the way grown ups punish each other, in my humble opinion, withholding money for bad behavior isn’t direct enough for kids.

Some people say the allowance amount should equal their children’s age; others say double that. Some think a lot less. What’s important to decide is exactly what the allowance is for: are the kids using it to pay for entertainment, like going to a movie with friends? Or for their own clothes? Or for a friend’s birthday gift? Or are you paying for those things and the allowance is strictly for extras or saving for something special? Once you define this for yourself and your children, then the amount becomes clearer. It’s an interesting exercise-it forces us, the parents, to have to make the rules and stick to them.

In the end, we’ve settled on $5 a week. Enough to spend on extras or put toward savings. And the fact is, two of my three kids (names not mentioned to protect their lack of innocence) are hoarders who don’t like to ever spend their own funds (but that’s another story…) Not sure if it’s right or wrong, but it’s our family choice, at least for now.

What about you? What is your child required to spend the money on? Do you give them a lot, say $20 a week, and make that count for a friend’s birthday gift? Where do clothes fall into the allowance equation?

Pleather vs. leather

A scary side effect of being a personal finance writer is that I’m way more likely to nag my daughter about her spending habits than her outfit choices. (In my defense, I’ve spent years talking to people whose financial lives were ruined by overspending.) I try to teach Becca, who is 14, to make her own decisions. But sometimes it’s hard.

Case in point: We were at Urban Outfitters last month, when Becca reached for a leather jacket that was—to use her word—perfect. Everything from the cut to the feel was beautiful, I had to agree. The only not-perfect-thing was the price, which was $128. Despite what you’ve seen on Gossip Girl, a leather jacket is not a necessity for a 14-year-old New Yorker. At least not in our family.

Plus, Becca and I had just been to Forever 21, where they had an almost identical jacket—in pleather—for a third the cost.

Pleather versus leather?

I’m often torn in these moments when shopping with my children, and I imagine other parents go through the same thing: Keds or Nike? Juicy versus JC Penney? Sometimes it’s easy. Others are more weighted. You know the feeling… I never got name brands as a kid so maybe one pair of True Religions wouldn’t be harmful… Of course you may or may not be able to afford the item, but it’s not only about that. (In some ways, having it be just about money would make the solution simpler: Sorry! We can’t afford that right now.) What I’m really talking about now is the values we’re imparting to our kids. If we’re spending more money than we normally would, is it for something that our children will cherish and respect—or is it just one more way to create closet clutter?

I cycled through my mental pre-purchase checklist: Does she love it? (Definitely.) Does she need it? (Not really. A leather jacket’s not exactly a substitute for a winter coat here in NYC.) Will she get so much use out of it that if you add up the cost-per-wear, it would come to pennies? (Probably, but what if it gets torn? Or she loses it? Although it’s in fashion now, next year who knows?) Will she grow out of it in twelve months? (Hard to say…)

I took a deep breath. As much as I wanted Becca to make the prudent choice, I wanted it to be her choice. I say no a lot, and this time it was a fairly close call—one I wanted her to make.

“It’s a nice jacket,” I said, as neutrally as possible. “Do you like this or the one at Forever 21?” I added, reminding her of the less-expensive option.

“This one’s way nicer,” Becca said, touching the leather. She paused thoughtfully. “But I don’t need a leather jacket. That other one for $38 is just fine.”

I smiled, thinking I’d clearly taught her something … this time.

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About Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner is a personal finance expert, magazine columnist, and commentator who offers practical advice and insight on a wide range of economic and financial matters. She is author of the New York Times bestseller, "Get A Financial Life: Personal Finance In Your Twenties and Thirties." A graduate of Brown University, she lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Beth Kobliner

"Get A Financial Life." Beth Kobliner’s New York Times bestseller. Get more info or visit Beth Kobliner's Web site.