The Price Of Everything
“Ten, thirty, thirty-two, thirty-seven….”
My son counts painstakingly as he sits in front of a pile of coins and notes. Beside him, his older sister is drawing elaborate columns and rows in neon ink – a tween’s version of a ledger. She fills in the money she holds, that which is owed to her and what she must forfeit. She is meticulous in her account keeping – especially when it comes to tracking debits from her brother’s books into hers, penalities for various transgressions. This scene plays out in our home every Saturday, when my children are handed their allowance. They turn into disturbingly close versions of what I imagine Shylock must look like counting his shekels.
My husband and I worked hard to create the life we now have. Fortunately, by the time our children came along, we were comfortable. While we are glad they have not seen any real hardship, we have worried over how to instill a value for money, delayed gratification, and the hard work that makes their creature comforts possible. We wondered if they would develop good savings and philanthropic habits without a guiding hand. And yes, in case you are wondering, there was a trigger for this: an embarrassing tantrum that my son threw when I refused to get him his own iPad. We decided right there and then to institute a weekly allowance and fix this constant refrain of ‘give-me’s.’
At the outset, it all worked out rather well. Our children kept detailed accounts, and their arithmetic skills grew exponentially as they calculated and recalculated their changing fortunes. Having to use their own funds for treats meant that the weekly consumption of Kurkure and chewing gum reduced dramatically. My daughter began to take notice of prices on restaurant menus and thought twice before asking me to download useless apps. Of course, every visit to the grocery store now involved an excruciatingly lengthy weighing of options, but it also got them to explore pooled purchases and even develop an interest-based lending scheme between themselves. All in all, our children seemed to be understanding that things cost effort and money and that choices had to be made continuously.
Soon enough, though, this obsession with the price of everything began to take over our lives. My son declared that it was unfair that he was not compensated for clearing the table and making his bed; he now wanted to be paid for his regular chores. My daughter asked me how much money I’d give her if she got an A on her Hindi test. Apparently, her decision on how much to study was based on how much knowledge money she stood to gain. At Diwali last year, when an older relative lovingly handed them an envelope, they furiously ripped it apart and immediately began their ledger computations while I nudged them desperately to do pranaam and say thank you.
This parenting failure — played out in full view of extended family — drove my husband and me into another huddle. As soon as we finished blaming each other for The Situation (of course), we scoured the Internet for real answers. It seemed our messaging had not been sufficiently comprehensive: We forgot to explain that money is merely an enabler and warn them against letting it become a driver. We scheduled another meeting with the juniors and told them how it was most important to do what they love. About how love and friendship could not be bought with cold cash. We instituted a policy of forced savings and mandated giving/sharing to let them actually experience these joys.
Our children listened balefully. I suspect they had their own little huddle afterwards on how confused their parents are. But to their credit, they have stuck to the new rules. Each week, they put some of their allowance aside into a savings jar. My daughter is apparently saving for a ticket to New York, and my son, for college. This Christmas, they made a contribution from their allowance to the family’s annual charitable giving pool. And they used some of their savings to take their mum out for cake and coffee on her birthday. (Seems like such a sweet gesture, no? I will not get into how they tried gently to nudge me toward the cheapest treat. Next lesson: financial planning to provide for mum properly in old age. But one thing at a time.)
Developing a healthy attitude to money is still a work-in-process in our home. Yet, we’re giving ourselves credit (hah) for having begun it. They’re good kids, my two monkeys, and I intend to actively discuss and mandate certain habits, so that they develop a mature relationship with money, so that they are willing to work hard to create the life that they want. Or at the very least, so they understand they need to be very nice to their ageing mum if they want to be mentioned in her will.