How a surgeon taught his kids the value of money

When our kids were in the 5 to 9 age range, we used to buy each of them a souvenir on our vacations. They always wanted the most expensive item in the store, a great big teddy bear that cost $400. We would tell them no, they needed to pick something less expensive. They weren’t happy about not getting their first choice. It was then that we decided that we needed a way for them to learn the value of money when we were on vacation.

We came up with a plan for our future vacations. Every time we would leave on a trip, we would give them $20. They could participate in everything we were doing as a family, but if they wanted something else, like some ice-cream when the whole family wasn’t getting it or a souvenir, they could buy it themselves. They could use the $20 we gave them or add some of their own money to buy a more expensive item.

Giving them the amount of money we were willing to spend changed everything. We no longer were asked to buy them things, because they knew they were to buy it themselves. They started asking how much the items they liked cost. They realized that many items cost more than the amount they had to spend. One of my kids asked what would happen if they didn’t spend all of the money? Do they get to keep the rest? We told them the money was theirs from the moment we gave it to them and they could spend it or keep it.

That got them thinking about the options the money gives them. They could buy $20 worth of trinkets that will be broken shortly, or they could keep the $20. They began to get creative.

They realized it didn’t take any of their money to get souvenirs on the trip. That collector’s mug their drink came in makes a fine souvenir, and they didn’t have to pay anything for it. The ticket stub was a souvenir.

One of them bought something, and I said “That doesn’t look like it is made very well. I think it will break too easy and will be in the garbage soon.” It turned out I was right, and that trinket didn’t last to the end of the day. That child realized he just wasted his money on some junk.

After that episode, every time they wanted to buy something, they would ask if we thought it was a good item. They wanted the things they spent their own money on to last. What a turnaround from asking us for trinkets every two hours to carefully evaluating their purchases for quality.

They began getting really nice stuff from our vacations. I remember one trip they each purchased a fanny pack with the theme park logo. Now they had a souvenir that was also a useful item. Many of those souvenirs they still have today, twenty years later.

After the first trip, we haven’t had a problem with them asking for stuff on vacation. They knew they had their $20 if they found something they really liked. We were very pleased with the outcome of that little experiment. One son tended to spend the $20 and get good value for his money. My other son wanted to keep the $20 and found ways to get free souvenirs.

It was fun to see him come up with free stuff. When he discovered something that was free that he liked he acted like he found a buried treasure. They were both thoughtful and did a good job handling their $20 after they learned some valuable lessons about money during our first trip.

Many people do not learn by just being told; they need to learn the lesson for themselves. Our kids did just that. It is way better for them to learn these lessons on $20 souvenirs than for them to learn it for the first time when they purchase a $10,000 car.

Another time, my oldest son wanted a camera to take on a trip so he could take pictures. We gave him an inexpensive camera and told him he was responsible for paying for the film development. This was before digital cameras.

I warned him that the film was expensive and not to waste his shots taking a bunch of pictures of his brother in the house. He needed to learn himself. Within an hour, all the pictures on that roll of film had been shot around the house. We hadn’t even gone on the trip yet.

When we took that roll of film for developing he was quite upset that paying to develop the film and buying a new roll took all of his money. When we looked at the pictures, only a couple were any good. He had essentially wasted all that money.

He then asked me what my first roll of film looked like. I told him I still had those picture, so we got them out to look at. My first roll of film was as bad as his. Then he asked me how to take good pictures. We talked about how to get the good shots, and he was ready to take pictures of the trip.

When he would get ready to take a picture of something, he would look in the viewfinder and say something like “that picture will be from too far away and will not be good.” Then he would not take the picture and waste his money on a bad shot. His ability to get good pictures went way up. He was now getting value for his money.

That lasted until digital cameras came out. Then I asked him to get a picture of me and his brother as we went up in the parasail on a Mexico adventure. I came back to find a full memory card with hundreds of pictures of us leaving the beach and going up in the parasail. I guess that will be another lesson in time management. It takes a long time to delete all those pictures and get down to the one we want to keep.

Today our kids seek value for their money. One still wants to keep all his money, saving for the future, and the other still wants to buy nice things of good value. Some things never change.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice RightThe Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt, and The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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