What to say when your child asks for an allowance

The other day, my 8-year-old son asked if he could have an allowance. I told him no.

I don’t think Liam needs one, and I don’t really want him to have one yet. But there are plenty of parents who do give their 8-year-olds an allowance. When I Googled “allowance in kids,” I found various sites advocating starting in kindergarten. They argued that it helps them learn about money, and starts to teach them responsibility at an early age.

It wouldn’t occur to me to give a kindergartener an allowance. Which illustrates an important point about allowances: every family does them differently. That’s as it should be, I think. Every child is different, and every family has different ideas and values about money, as well as different logistics and resources.

Here are some things to think about as you figure out your approach:

When to start. This is going to depend a lot on what you are using allowance for. If you are using it to teach your child about counting money, you might want to start early. There are other ways to teach children about money, though, such as having them help you count coins in the store or using play money.

You also might want to start early if the point is to decrease arguments in stores (i.e. if they have money, they get the candy or toy, if not, they don’t), as these tend to start early. However, those arguments can have value when it comes to teaching kids about worthwhile (and not so worthwhile) purchases.

My husband and I start giving allowance at middle school, when our children are more independent and making purchases without us  – and have had many years of listening to lessons about money and what they should use it for.  That’s what ended up making sense for us.

How much to give. In my Google search, I found a few sites that suggested giving 50 cents to a dollar per year of age. If you are looking for a formula, I think that’s reasonable. But really, there’s no “right” amount. Again, it depends on what you can afford, and what you want your child to be able to buy with the allowance.

When my oldest two children started getting allowances, they needed cash to buy school lunch, so their allowances incorporated that as well (the fact that they needed the money forced us to be sure we gave it to them—consistency is important with allowances but can be tough). If they packed a lunch, they could pocket the cash. My current middle schooler doesn’t need cash for lunch (we have an account with the school), so she gets what we think is a reasonable amount for some small purchases with friends during the week. As you figure out how much your child should get, you’ll need to think about…

Should it be tied to chores? This one is tough. It’s good for children to learn the concept that money is earned, not just handed to you. But you don’t necessarily want to pay them for doing something they should do as a family member, which is why many families don’t like paying for chores.  If you’d like to tie it somehow to chores, there are various options. You can pay for each chore completed, or pay a fixed amount with extra for certain chores or just pay a fixed amount and expect that chores will be done.

We’ve done the last. That’s one of the reasons we chose middle school as the time to start: while all our children started helping out around the house when they were little, by middle school they are more than able to take on more responsibility and bigger chores. The allowance recognizes (and reinforces) its expectation) — but we don’t give extra for bigger jobs. Being part of a family means doing bigger jobs sometimes.

Should some of the allowance be saved? This is one way to teach children to save money, which is an important concept that many grown-ups seem to be fuzzy on. You can use a piggy bank, or open a bank account.  If you want them to save some, you may need to give a bit more to allow for that.

We haven’t done this formally, but we certainly encourage our children to think about what they are using their money for, and to consider putting some aside for something they want to buy rather than buying candy or donuts with their friends.

You don’t have to decide everything up front. As with most challenges of parenting, it’s okay if the way you do allowance changes as you try things out.  Kids aren’t the only ones who get to do some evolving.

But think about it, so that when your 8 -year-old — or 12- year-old or 5-year-old — asks for an allowance, you’ll know what to say.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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  • Suzi Q 38

    I actually paid for grades.
    My friends were appalled.
    We also would go out to dinner and celebrate the good grades as a family.
    Whatever works.

    • GT

      My parents gave us bonuses for good grades, from middle school on up. My dad described them as “performance bonuses.”

      We also had to save 10% of our allowance and bonuses all year, and on our birthday, either give it away to the charity of our choice or spend it on something to give away to someone less fortunate.

      • Suzi Q 38

        What a fantastic idea!

    • SarahJ89

      I’m a former teacher. We all work for money so I’ve never seen a problem with paying a kid for what is essentially their job. I had one kid who never did his homework. I was asked to come up with a behavioural modification program, which I did. The ONLY thing that was a reward for this kid (and I mean only) was money. So the token-based program had payment as the reward.

      It was rejected by the school staff. “We shouldn’t have to pay him to do his homework.” Fine. Then be prepared to live with a student who doesn’t do his homework. There’s behavioural modification and then there’s magic. You really can’t decide for another person what rewards them.

      It actually was a gas to interview my students when I set these programs up. Finding out what rewarded them was most illuminating. Most of the time my “educated” guesses were wrong, wrong, wrong. Even if we were unable to use a particular reward (and the program works only when you use the coin of that particular kid’s inner realm) it gave me a much better handle on what made the student tick. In the case of my money-loving student it showed me what made the staff tick–control.

      • Suzi Q 38

        I figured if I worked and got paid, then their work (school) should have some monetary reward.
        Once they got used to getting A’s it was more of a routine for them….through middle and high school…and on to college.
        Your school does not sound realistic or progressive.
        You knew what was going on, though.

        Good for you.

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