Responsible or Dependent: Can Allowance Play a Role?
Allowance is a tricky issue for many families. It is important for our kids to have access to money, in order to learn how to spend, save, donate, and manage money. We also want our kids to help out at home and learn to maintain order. Many times we tie these two ideas together, but that may not be the best solution.
Further complicating this mess, there is some debate on what allowance should be used for. Is it discretionary spending? Should your kids be saving some of it for the future? Should they be donating a certain portion of it? Is it expected to be used for things they really need, like shoes, or should parents buy shoes regardless of their allowance? It is really hard to figure this out and, spoiler alert: I don’t have an easy answer for you. I do want to encourage you to think, or re-think, a few things with me.
When I was growing up, my family wasn’t quite sure how to handle the allowance issue, and we tried a bunch of different approaches. There was a time when my parents just gave us money (I think it was a dollar per year old every two weeks). At another time, they tied our allowance to chores completed. We also tried a bunch of other approaches to chores; at one point we could earn points by completing our chores each day. The points could be used for prizes, like inviting friends over. While I appreciated the free money idea, I am now sure that was not the best approach, and tying it to chores doesn’t seem like a perfect system either.
At our house, the allowance ideas sort of faded away because all of the kids ended up working from an early age. I, starting around age eight, began delivering newspapers. The work then morphed into janitorial work, secretarial work, painting, and maintenance. My siblings and I also learned how to manage our money well, probably because we knew how much work it took to earn it.
The Risks of Allowance
The problem with this story is that—despite my parents’ efforts—I didn’t learn why I should maintain order in some of the small unpaid facets of my life, like making my bed. When I finally did learn this lesson, it was not because of an allowance. I now understand that by doing it, I am reflecting inner organization and setting myself up for being more orderly in all parts of my life, both physical and spiritual. Additionally, I can also appreciate that my small sacrifice may be pleasing to our Lord (and my wife!).
I understand that giving an allowance with nothing expected in return can, perhaps, teach our children about money and give them the ability to get some things that they may or may not need. I also understand tying allowance to chores done can help them learn to get more things done that they should be doing. However, we can probably improve on these two flawed strategies.
When it comes to giving out an allowance, I am not sure exactly what the most successful strategy might be, and it may be different for each child in your house. However, there seem to be two dangers that I think we should all try to avoid. The first is giving away money for nothing: the Universal Basic Income approach. The second would be to tie allowance too closely to chores done at home—using it too much as an incentive to do the right thing.
First, let’s not get our children used to getting something just because it has always come. I think this is part of the reason so many countries are going bankrupt. No one ever complains when Congress gives away more money, but they go berzerk if Congress were to stop giving that money away later; this makes it very hard for Congress to stop giving away money. In addition to bankrupting the state, it makes us dependent on the state and less willing—and eventually less able—to manage our time, money, and even ourselves.
While I do appreciate tying allowance to chores much more than simply giving out allowance, the danger that may manifest itself here is that children will not learn to do something just because it is the right thing to do. We all need to learn to make our bed exactly because it is what should be done and not because of a monetary reward. So how do we best teach this? This is not an easy question to answer, and it will take years, sometimes decades, to help our children in this process.
This is not to say that you should never give your children money. It is a great show of generosity and love to give your son $20 to go to the movies with his friends; but that is exactly what that should be, a great gift of generosity. It should not be the norm on Saturdays, built into the system to the point where he would have a fit if you were to suddenly refuse him the money simply because he doesn’t need to go out with his friends every weekend. Also, if he is old enough to go out with his friends every weekend, he is definitely old enough to get some employment where he can earn his own spending money.
Options to Consider
So, why am I writing an article that is sure to leave you with more questions than answers? Well, I just want us all to reconsider how well our children learn and practice the things they should be doing. Also, I want us to make sure we are not creating the mentality in our children that they deserve allowance just because we have money to give them, like Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov.
So, more questions than answers…Well, here is one way of reconsidering how and when your child gets money: ask him to prove to you why it is good for him to get it.
For example, “Mom and Dad, I would like some money to buy this pair of shoes because they are awesome. I have been working hard, as you can see by my grades in school and because I just earned my new scout badge. If I were to have these shoes, it would really build my self-confidence, and I would be able to earn even better grades in the future.”
And you could decide that he has made a fair point, or you could explain why he doesn’t, in fact, need that money, because of any of the following:
- Your sense of responsibility should be reflected in a higher percentage of chores being done.
- I think you are being responsible, but you also need to learn how to be kinder to your sister.
- I just gave you money last week, and I can’t afford to give you more yet.
- Those shoes cost way more than any shoes should ever cost.
One way to make filter all the bad business plan out would be to inform your son of the upper limit on the amount given each month or quarter. Then you’re encouraging him to you his best business plans. It would also have an additional beneficial side effect of helping him with his speaking and business skills.
I particularly like tying schoolwork into this formula as well. Not strictly a pay-for-grades approach; some kids earn A’s much more easily than others. Perhaps a good place to start would be a few conversations with his teachers. Ask them to evaluate what percent of your child’s potential effort is being used in the classroom.
You could keep your son on his toes and further show your great generosity by giving him some money every once in a while even when he doesn’t ask for it, just because “you’ve really been working hard, and I want you to go have some healthy fun with your friends today”.
Parents, try to find a formula that works well with your family, but give it some good thought, and maybe even have slightly different criteria for each child (after explaining to them why you are not being unfair or showing favoritism by doing this). The most important lesson that our children should take into their adult lives is to do the chores because it is simply the right thing to do. If you can get them to do that, then you win.
Lots of things in life are given to us, whether or not we deserve them: life itself, love from God and family, a better economic start than others have. Some people inherit large sums of money despite not doing anything. We are tasked with learning how to best use these gifts to improve life for others. Money from parents can play a role in figuring this out, but we parents need to be careful to make sure that our kids are learning how to do the right things at all times, whether or not money is on the other side of that transaction.
The rewards, rather than money, might include a happy family, more self-control, and who knows? The sky is the limit. No, Heaven is the limit.
 For more information on managing money, please see my article 7 ways to build wealth and character as a high schooler.