01/27/2007 08:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Small Lessons, Big Wisdom

When my kids were younger, to curb the "I Wants" and "GIMME" meltdowns, I would hand them one dollar as we entered the grocery store. They were allowed to purchase one item. You know how that goes. Aisle 3 equals "I want Pop Tarts!" until we round the corner onto Aisle 4 and that equals "I want ice cream!" Forget the toy aisle or the little packs of knick knacks at the check out counter. The rule was they could get just one thing that wasn't on our grocery list by giving me back that one dollar or they could keep the dollar and save it. By the time we checked out, we would have exchanged 20 different items throughout the trip, but lucky me, I only had to purchase one for each child.

It didn't matter how much it cost, within reason of course, but they needed to learn the basics of exchanging money for goods.

It occurred to me recently that neither child understands the value behind that one dollar bill that they hold. To them, money is something that just pours magically out of the ATM machine. If I tell them that Mommy doesn't have enough money to get something, they both just tell me to run by the bank. In a child's eyes, the bank is the magical place where money really does in fact grow on trees. You just pull up and the tellers are more than happy to go pick it from the tree. To top it off, they shoot it to you through that really cool tube thingy along with two purple suckers in the drive thru line.

I began to wonder, how do you teach your children the real value of just one dollar? Should I establish an allowance? Should I refuse to let them make their own decisions and demand that they save for something that they want to purchase but don't need? Do I ask them to plan small budgets for saving, spending and tithing?

We don't have an allowance plan in my home simply because as organized as I like to think I am, getting through the week and having the cash around that is necessary to dole out the allowance doesn't seem to work well for me. I constantly forget to stop by the bank to pick it up. But, whenever Mairin or Liam want to earn money, there are plenty of opportunities. They pitch in around the house doing small chores. We log it in a book.

We struck a deal years ago. They do not receive compensation for the things that they are expected to do like make their beds, clear their dishes from the table, put away all their toys or feed the cat - the cat that they just had to have, the cat that they would love forever and ever, play with constantly and feed and water each and every day without fail - that cat. However, they do receive compensation when they notice that I am pulling my hair out while multi-tasking after a hard day's work and they volunteer to empty the dishwasher or fold the laundry.

Mairin is beginning to learn the importance of saving your money but is still impulsive enough that she can't hang onto those big bills she gets from the tooth fairy for very long. She lost a tooth on Tuesday night and has had $5 burning a hole in her pocket all week.

After the first of the year, with Christmas expenses and playing catch up with bills, I decided to trim our budget where we could. One of the first things to go was hot lunch at school. Mairin loves to get hot lunch at school. She lives for it. She begs and pleads not to have to brown bag it. The interesting thing to note is that when she brown bags it, she eats everything she packs. When she gets school lunches, she eats the roll and drinks the chocolate milk.

I will admit that coming from a wheat free, gluten free home, those hot, fat yeast rolls served with butter and that yummy peel-able brown toasty crust on top are incredibly appealing. But they aren't worth $3.25.

Last Saturday, we invested in a nice lunch box and discussed several items the cool kids pack in their lunch. As always, a negotiation ensued. Organic fruit to make me feel better. Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies to make her feel better.

As we were snuggled up on the couch together this Wednesday night watching American Idol, the only show that we break the "It is a school night...NO TV" rule for, it occurred to me that she hadn't packed her lunch yet. When I inquired as to why, her inner diva possessed her once again and she stated dramatically that she just NEEDED to have a hot lunch once a week. She had a hot lunch on Tuesday because she doesn't brown bag it from her dad's house. I called her on that and tossed that argument right out the window. She came back with how nutritious tacos and tater tots actually were.

It was clear that she was having roll withdrawals.

So I said that was fine. No problem. A huge smile appeared on her face with her victory and she plopped back onto the couch. Then I looked over and said, "During the next commercial go upstairs and get me $3.25 from your piggy bank."


"Because Mairin, that is how much your hot lunch costs."

"No it doesn't. It doesn't cost us any money. We just put our little lunch card in the holder for hot lunches at school. We don't have to pay."

"Well, they send me a bill for every time you drop that little lunch card in the holder for hot lunches. I have plenty of food that we picked out together in the pantry that you can eat for free. Or you can decide to go upstairs and get $3.25 out of your piggy bank and you can buy hot lunch tomorrow."

She went upstairs during the next commercial break, assessed her financial situation and informed me from the top of the stairs that if she paid for it she would only have $1.75 left. From the comfort of the couch, I hollered back that $3.25 was a lot to pay for a roll and chocolate milk but if she thought it was worth her investment, I didn't mind her spending her money on it.

It is amazing how one convicted little eight year old can sound like a herd of charging elephants when you are sitting on the first floor.

At the next commercial break, she reluctantly packed her lunch with a PBJ, chips, an organically grown apple, granola bar and cranberry juice.

When she sat back down, I asked her what she was saving her money for. Turns out she is interested in something she didn't have enough money for last week when we were at Barnes and Noble.

The next night, after a particularly grueling day at work, Mairin eagerly pitched in with some extra opportunities around the house. She cleaned her room and helped her brother pick up his. She folded 3 loads worth of laundry without complaint. She made sure all the pets were fed, including the fish, and the all the trash was emptied. She emptied the dishwasher, helped reload it after dinner and packed not only her own lunch but her brother's lunch as well. When she was finished, I handed her the balance of what she would need to get the item she wanted at Barnes and Noble. Then I asked her if sacrificing that roll and chocolate milk and saving her money to get something she really, really wanted that would last longer was a good idea. She agreed that it was and then ran upstairs to stuff her money in her piggy bank.

In a world where instant gratification is the name of the game, you don't have to search hard to find the opportunities to teach your children that immediate isn't always best and that patience truly is a virtue. You just have to seize the moment and coach them through it. It takes more time on the front end but what they learn is the significant differences between wants and needs. Opportunities to learn responsibility arise even when your children are very young. Teaching them how to be responsible begins with small lessons that build wisdom and discernment for the times they inevitably will have to face difficult decisions later on in life.