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Making Kids Menschy About Money

Ron Lieber’s new book ‘The Opposite of Spoiled’ offers help for parents trying to raise kids who know the true value of a dollar

Marjorie Ingall
February 03, 2015
(Tablet Magazine / Shutterstock)
(Tablet Magazine / Shutterstock)

In general, I think I’m a decent parent. My kids don’t set the cats on fire. They impress waiters with their politeness. They have never seen an episode of Dance Moms.

But I’ve fallen down on the job when it comes to teaching them about money. The girls (Josie, 13, and Maxine, 10) have an allowance, but my husband and I have never established what, precisely, the allowance is for, or why it should be a certain amount, and we almost always forget to give it to them anyway. We talk about charity and have a lovely tzedakah box, but when asked, neither of my kids could say where I donate money. (“Probably something Jewish,” Maxine said. “We did that Kiva thing once?” Josie said.) The girls aren’t materialistic (they don’t care about brand names, don’t ask for expensive toys or clothes, and know I’ll never buy anything with a logo on it), but if they do ask for new jeans because their old ones are making them look like Pee-wee Herman, I pay up with no discussion. I get the jeans from Old Navy and Uniqlo, which means they’re affordable … but do the kids know that? Why hadn’t I ever thought, before writing this article, to have a discussion about how much jeans can conceivably cost?

My avoidance of money topics is probably a reflection of my own fears, anxieties, and laziness. My dad mocked me relentlessly when he saw my checkbook my freshman year of college; I’d written “Stuff?” on one entry line. “STUFF!” he’d exclaim. “She bought STUFF!” These days I’m a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and in the short range of my kids’ lives my income has see-sawed wildly. I worry about money all the time: I worry that we live beyond our means; I worry about paying for college; I worry about my husband’s resentment about being the one with the steady gig and the health insurance.

So, I was happy to read The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, by Ron Lieber, personal finance columnist for the New York Times. I liked the chill voice and the mix of practical tips and storytelling. Lieber calls money “a teaching tool that uses the value of a dollar to instill in our children the values we want them to embrace.” And he says that these values—“curiosity, patience, thrift, modesty, generosity, perseverance and perspective”—transcend class and religion … though with a focus on charity and social justice, distress about materialism and unkindness, and an emphasis on not separating yourself from your community, the book seems to have a Jewish sensibility.

Lieber offers a couple of tips I’d heard elsewhere: Don’t use allowance as payment for chores—view it as a given and find other ways (docking media time, removing other privileges) to punish kids for not doing their part around the house. In an interview, Lieber told me, “As much as everyone wants to force their kids to do the chores before they get the money—and 80-90 percent of families operate that way—the fact is that there will come a point when the kids will say, ‘I don’t want to do the chores because I don’t care about the money right now.’ And then what? You’re going to make them do the damn chores anyway!” (Note: Lieber did not say “damn,” but in deference to his employer’s delicate linguistic sensibilities I changed “fucking” to “damn.” You’re welcome, readers with sensitive dispositions!) Lieber feels that chores are something that should be done no matter what, without deference to getting paid. “The point,” he said, “is for them to learn to be responsible members of the household.”

And that means that kids should learn at an early age the value of a dollar, the possible uses for that dollar, and the importance of being responsible for their own spending as well as for the welfare of others. Money has to be attached to meaning. Lieber isn’t the only expert to recommend dividing allowance into three jars—one for spending however the kid wishes, one for saving for a big want or for college, and one destined for charitable giving—but he explains the concept well.

And he advocates teaching kids to use their own money for what will give them the most pleasure over the long run. Lieber calls this notion of return on investment for a purchase “The Fun Ratio,” and attributes the idea to a scientist named Mary Matthiesen. Some expensive toys are only fun for a short time, and some cheap toys (like a deck of cards) offer a huge amount of long-term fun for the buck. Matthiesen told Lieber that her son’s Talking Tigger yielded just 0.08 hours of fun per dollar, while the Fisher Price cash register offered 185.5 hours of fun per dollar. She knew her kids understood the concept when her daughter, walking through a toy store, hit “Press Me” on a talking doll and said, “I just got my five minutes of fun for free!”

As parents, we should evaluate our own Fun Ratio, too. We can look at our yearly spending in pie-chart form with our kids—not necessarily with the actual numbers, just the proportions—and evaluate with them how we spend, save and give. Do our choices reflect who we are and what we stand for? Every family makes different decisions, but when we look at how we’re spending money, do we feel that we’re spending too much on restaurant meals we don’t remember, and not enough going to plays we’ll never forget? Do we wish we spent more on travel and less on décor, or the other way around? Where could we cut back to reflect better what our values are?

To further establish the connection between spending and values, we can talk to our kids about supporting businesses that take good care of their employees or help out in our community—neighborhood farmer’s markets, the card shop that sponsors our Little League team, the tchotchke store that donates gift certificates to the PTA auction. When we travel, instead of buying crappy, unmemorable cookie-cutter souvenirs (probably not even made locally), we can visit the local ice cream parlor or carousel, the thrift store or the used-record shop.

Lieber cites statistics correlating materialism with anxiety, depression, backaches, and drug use, and studies on children showing that being generous makes kids happy. Giving tzedakah, spending on others, and thinking carefully about purchases can all mitigate the negative effects of growing up affluent, as so many American Jewish kids today do. (I think the best lesson I’ve taught my kids is an accidental one: Their elementary school is very diverse, with nearly half the kids qualifying for free lunch, while our shul/Hebrew School is pretty wealthy. Being exposed to a range of lifestyles and values has helped them realize the world is a big place, that privilege exists, and that not everyone is the same, for better and worse.)

I loved learning about a project at Brandeis Hillel, a K-8 Jewish Day School in San Francisco. When some parents there realized they were spending a minimum of $13,000 a year on bar and bat mitzvah gifts, they proposed that instead they pool their money and give the bar or bat mitzvah kid a small check and put the rest into a pool for all the kids to give away to a charity of their choice. The kids met with nonprofit executives and decided how to allocate money and got to experience the joy of giving a big sum away. (When the kids told the director of the local Boys and Girls Club that they were giving her $3,000, she burst into tears.) The school eventually worked the project into the seventh-grade curriculum, talking in a multidisciplinary way about charity as a Jewish value, the systemic causes of poverty, the role of local and national government and more. They made food budgets for fictional families, adapted the shopping lists (pretending, say, a family member lost his job), bought groceries, and donated the food to a local food bank. Today, other schools and shuls have copied the curriculum.

But you don’t have to have institutional involvement to educate your kids about money. Help them research charities for their “give” jar according to their interests—music, animals, reading, cooking. Steer dinner conversation toward values: What kinds of helpful things do members of our family do for others? What do we love most about living in our town? If we were to live on less money, what could we do without? (Lieber took these questions from a conversation-starter card game called Talk About Giving, which is sadly no longer available. The “Family” and “What Would You Do” editions of the card game Tabletopics offer some similar questions, though.)

And to get back to talking about charitable giving with my kids: Both of them knew about the volunteering I do, because I say where I’m going when I leave the house. Duh. Neither of them knew about where I give tzedakah, because I’d never said anything! Josie guessed that I gave to The Heifer Project, because we get so many solicitations from them in the mail. (I gave once, years ago. Bulk mailings live forever.) We talked about why I value Planned Parenthood and how I discovered that the New York Public Library was more than just a place to borrow books. (I used to sneer at people who cared about the library when people were starving. Now I know better.) We ended up having a great conversation about how Mommy was wrong about something (that dimwit!) and educated herself, and why I care so much about charities that help women and work for women’s health and control of their own bodies.

It’s telling that Josie remembers donating to Kiva when she was 6. And it’s shameful that it’s been seven years since I really talked to her about money. My husband is going to read The Opposite of Spoiled after I finish this piece, and we’re going to get disciplined about allowance (and the give/save/spend jars), and we’re going to make sure Josie budgets on her own for lunches out and nonessential purchases. Yesterday she was out with a friend and went to that infernal cronut bakery and spent six dollars on a small pastry. Which is fine, as long as she has the tools to weigh the deliciousness of the choux and the fun of a sophisticated afternoon out with a pal with the need to cut back elsewhere … and of the general price of privilege.


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.