Money and Work: Real-world lessons from an evolving family

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A warning: this post is all about money-- a topic many shy away from-- it is the first of a two-part story on where we are as a family, and the lessons we are getting along the way. 

Way back in my college days, I understood the value of pure socialism.  The kind that has never worked, the kind that, when applied to society ends in corruption and oppression.  I never would have thought I would become a person who would value raising capitalist kids.  We evolve in odd ways I suppose, and one of the things I love about the society we live in is that we get to choose to use our money to take care of others.   We can argue the pros and cons of such a society in another forum, we live in capitalism though, and part of my role as a mother setting her children up to fly the coop sooner than I might like at this point, is to teach them to thrive in the economic realities they have at hand.  

My background, you should understand, is in housing people who don’t have a lot of money.  When I was just 21 years old I learned to read other people’s credit scores on housing applications, and with steely conviction I determined I never wanted to be in debt for anything other than my home.  I have stuck to that conviction with one exception:  the car I bought when I got divorced (a five year loan paid off in one).  I’ve learned a tremendous amount from working with the “poor,” who are rarely poor in anything other than money, by the way.  They taught me that having money is cheaper than not having any, that there are many things in life that are both free and enjoyable, and that there are ways to take care of people which involve everything but spending money.  Because the living conditions of really good, hard-working people plagued me, I became a student of helping  people climb out of poverty.  That’s a complicated answer I’ve only begun to uncover, but living a life outside of debt is one I’ve mastered quite well, and the base I wanted to lay for my children.  I wanted them to value money as a tool for living, but one of many they would be able to access to succeed.

My kids’ understanding of money started as mine did, with allowance.  I wanted my children to learn the value of saving, spending and giving, and in order to do that, they needed money.  That came in the form of allowance.  I was giving my children money (not much, mind you) for doing nothing.  I'm not sure what I expected them to learn from that, but they got the lesson I didn't intend-- money comes, just because.  Eventually, I realized the error of my ways, and withdrew the allowance letting them know that there would be ways to earn money, but nobody, including me, was going to give them money for doing nothing.  That is called a gift, which we get only at Christmas and on birthdays.   

Rather than offering them money just for existing, I started paying them only if their “chores” were done during the week.  We went through several iterations before finally landing on our current system(after blending our family and getting two bonus kids with yet another construct of money).  

The principle is rather matter of fact:  there is a certain amount of work needed to run a family, it should be divided among the people in that family according to ability.  We don’t pay for that work.  My husband and I differ a bit on the intricacies of this principle, and as with any system it is still a work in progress.  In practice, this means that the dishes get washed, the dogs cared for, the basic weekly cleaning done, and the groceries fill the fridge and shelves— all just because we are humans who have work to do in order to live.  For the most part, once there is an agreement about exactly what a job entails and the schedule for doing it, there is very little complaining about accomplishing it.  We each get to schedule our own time to do these things, as long as our schedule doesn’t cause problems for others (vacuuming at 6 am, for instance).  

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There was a period of adjustment which included a great deal of negotiating and training, and initially took more time than doing the jobs ourselves.  Now though, we are seeing the major wins of this system:  our children have learned additional time management, they take care of our home better than your average child (if you have had to wipe that pee off the seat at the end of the week and sanitize it, you think twice about your careless aim), and there is a sense that we are a team— there is work that we accomplish which contributes to all of our comfort and successes in life.  These jobs are a way to contribute to the whole, to gift something of value to the people you love even at the very young age of 4 or 5.  We all need to be needed, and this is one of the most basic ways we can offer that belonging and importance to our children.  

There are times when we do pay our children for jobs— those are the special jobs like washing windows or raking leaves, and they are jobs that others may not have time for.  They get paid for some things, but never get paid for doing nothing.  They’ve learned the value of work, and they understand how much of that it takes to run a home.  When you have to work for your money, it becomes more precious.  Our children used to think that money just comes out of those machines we drive up to, and didn’t have a real understanding of our conversations about budget and choices.  Now they know that the movie they are begging to go see would cost them 2 weeks worth of vacuuming, and it really is a special treat when we go.  There are other wins, too.  They are saving better, there is a fairness in financial decisions which is based solely on math (just like in real life!)-- I'm hoping we are taking a lot of the emotion out of money and allowing it to be just another resource.  As I’ll discuss in the next post, our kids are becoming great business minds as well.  The system isn’t perfect— but it is a real-world simulation in a supportive environment.     

As I watch these teachings unfold, I’ve been wondering how others teach their kids about money, and the value of hard work.  What are you doing that works?  What do you wish you had implemented in your life or parenting that we can learn from?