A Genius Solution That Teaches My Kid about Financial Responsibility

published Dec 13, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

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If ABBA was correct in stating that this is a rich man’s world, then I should move to a different planet. I curse my parents every day for not being fabulously wealthy. I should be living a completely vacuous, empty life, ’Gramming pics of myself in front of cars that cost more than most people’s homes and complaining that my $10,000 sneakers won’t stay tied. But alas, that is not my fate. And so I have to work to make money to buy extravagant things like food and heat.

Assuming that you are in a similar predicament and that you have kids, you probably want your precious offspring to appreciate the lengths you go through to be able to buy them a new phone or PlayStation. (Side note: Hey Big Tech? Can we have a moratorium on new upgrades for, let’s say, 20? I think we’re all fine with the supercomputers we have in our pockets now, please and thank you.)  

So it is one thing to explain the value of a dollar (“Daddy had to stay awake through a three-hour meeting to get a paycheck to buy this pizza”), but it is another to have your child learn firsthand what it means to do work in exchange for cold, hard cash. For most people, that lesson is learned via chores, with a chart that hangs in the kitchen with check marks or star stickers added every time Timmy takes out the garbage.

This approach hasn’t worked for us, because besides not being rich, we are also very much not organized. The chart was never made, stickers were never distributed, and no one ever got paid. I got tired of my kids forgetting to take out the garbage, and they got tired of me forgetting to pay them when they actually did. It was lose-lose all around.

This summer, my 14-year-old son Gus took it upon himself to start his own dog walking business to put some reliable funds in his pocket. My wife and I were truly amazed at his initiative. He posted his services on the NextDoor app and within hours booked a ton of gigs. (Hey, someone has to walk all of these pandemic puppies and it certainly isn’t going to be the lazy people who bought them.)

As the weeks ticked by, Gus watched with glee as his Venmo account balance clicked into triple digits and got dangerously close to four. (If anyone reading this works for the IRS, I am kidding. He actually made 11 cents.) And we saw that all that walking, watering, and poop scooping suddenly made Gus think twice about in-app purchases he would have begged me for just weeks before. Do I really want to spend 10 real dollars on a new hat for my make-believe elf gaming character?

Having Venmo was key to Gus fully grasping the concept of money coming in and money going out of his life. I don’t know about your kids, but mine tend to instantly forget that paper money exists as soon as they cram it into the Darth Vader piggy bank they’ve had since they were 5. I watched him check his Venmo account balance like a day trader, and have to admit that his excitement was contagious.

I heard about a platform called Greenlight, which is a kind of debit card for kids that has all kinds of cool bells and whistles. At its most basic, parents fund it as chores are completed, and then kids can use it to make purchases on Amazon, and brick-and-mortar stores as well. And they can use the card at ATMs. Parents have full access to the account, so they can monitor how the money is being spent, and add more funds when an emergency slice of pizza is needed. With an upgrade, the kids can get into investing this money in stocks, so it really puts them on the path of learning how money works in the world.

It sounded pretty cool, so I signed Gus up and after weeks of begging him, he finally downloaded the app and set up his account. A few days later, his Greenlight card came in the mail and I loaded it up with $20 for chores back pay.

I want to say that he grabbed it out of my hand and we launched into a new phase of financial education, organization and independence. But the truth is that two weeks later, the Greenlight card sat unused on his dresser. 

Just a few days ago, Gus ordered himself a new basketball on Amazon and used funds via his Venmo account. I reminded him about the Greenlight card and the $20 balance, but he shrugged it off. “I want to buy this with my money,” he explained.

I countered that the Greenlight balance was indeed his money, for him to spend however he wanted. He eventually accepted this — I mean, I didn’t raise my children to turn their nose up at any amount of cash — but didn’t seem to be able to get past the idea that this was basically a gift card. That’s not a slight at Greenlight; I think Venmo just got him first, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Unless you are broke.) But for a parent with slightly younger kids? I think Greenlight would be just swell.

This whole adventure in dollars did reteach me that there really is nothing like the satisfaction and empowerment that comes from buying something you want with money that you genuinely earned. Whether you use Venmo or Greenlight or any of the other apps out there, in the end, to understand what the true value of your balance is, you have to invest time and effort in building it up. And let me tell you, I’ve tagged along on some of Gus’s dog walking excursions, and when Boomer the golden-doodle has had a little too much people-food the night before? That kid earns every penny.