Sweeter words a mother never heard: “Mom, can I have underwear for my birthday?”
When I laughed, she said, “I’m serious!”
And she was.
A year earlier, upon entering eigth grade, my 13-year-old requested a lump sum allowance of 100 dollars for the entire school year. She announced that, with this vast amount of cash, she wouldn’t need a dime more – for anything. She giddily wrote out the contract herself, and after much discussion, parents and daughter signed on the dotted line.
She was rich for exactly eight weeks, and poor for exactly eight months.
But her eight months of poverty were not all bad. In fact, they were very, very good.
Here’s what she learned:
1. To hustle. My daughter began to work. Never before was she so quick to accept a babysitting job and so anxious for the next opportunity to come along.
2. Creativity. With friends, she opted for free activities over those that cost money. At Christmas time, she made her own gifts for friends and family or bought them second-hand. We enjoyed them just as much or more.
3. Frugality. My daughter didn’t want to buy a yearbook because it was too expensive. She stopped buying fast food on athletic trips and ate at home instead. She didn’t even want to go on her eighth grade trip to New York City because it would wipe out her cash reserve. In the end, she took a babysitting job with me, and we watched three children all weekend. (We both earned the trip, but only she got to spend two days on a bus with 26 other eighth graders. I suppose it all worked out?). She brought little spending money on the trip, something I felt conflicted about. The upside, though, was that she didn’t buy any junk food. The downside was that there were no cheap plastic souvenirs we could throw away a year later. Or maybe that was a plus, too? She did, however, create some pretty superb memories.
4. Independence. Gleeful to be responsible for her own finances, my daughter even looks more confident. Earning that New York City trip was hard work, but there were times during the babysitting weekend that she asked me to go home so she could “be in charge” and “earn her own trip.” I liked that.
5. Gratitude. The change began immediately. Whenever I bought something for my daughter – even if it was just her favorite can of soup at the grocery store – she was elated. For Christmas, she asked for running shoes and some tall brown boots. Before the allowance, these were items I would have bought her anyway, but since she was now the one responsible, she was thrilled on Christmas morning with two basic items.
6. Peace. Our clothing arguments stopped. When at the mall, she didn’t beg for the cute dress or plead for that perfect pair of earrings to match her favorite pair of skinny jeans. At times, she would hint that I would look “really good” in that American Eagle top she could immediately inherit, but absent was the debate, the cajoling, the pouting, the extreme disappointment when mom said “no.” Shopping was actually a pleasure as we browsed together, weighing the pros and cons of a purchase. Upon occasion, she still tests me, just to keep things interesting. “Please, Mommy, please, please, please–I’ll pay you back!” It’s hard to resist. My husband often bolsters me with two words: “Stay strong.”
7. The Budget Queen? “Queen” might be overstating it, but there is a ledger. My daughter hand-writes what is coming in and what is going out: 10% goes to charity, 20% goes to college savings, and 70% is hers to spend. (www.themint.org is just one on-line website that helps kids and parents monitor cash flow.)
The $100 dollar allowance changed to a bigger sum when my daughter started high school. Even with the amount she was given, we still had to help out with the required ipad, athletic expenses, and unexpected trips and fees. There are costs like team sweatshirts that she can’t cover by herself, so we often pay half. But there is still more peace and gratitude than before. When she absolutely needs or wants something, she requests rather than demands.
The darling dress and matching shoes she bought for semi-formal wiped out all of her hard-earned cash, but it was worth it to her – and that’s what matters. She used her own judgment to purchase something she wanted.
This weekend she’s babysitting after a long week of school and sports and she recently lined up a summer job because she needs the money. I sometimes worry that she works too hard, that she’s become too responsible, too independent. I worry that my 14-year-old should be lounging more, sleeping in, traveling to summer soccer and lacrosse camps like she’d prefer. Then I wonder if this is just the very strange lament of the American mother?
Our family life is far from smooth all the time. Routines and systems are constantly implemented, then revamped or dumped. But the $100 allowance worked for two reasons: My daughter came up with the idea, and she wholeheartedly bought into it. Literally.
P.S. Yes, did get that underwear for her birthday. And she was happy.
This article was originally published on