Whenever I read Schor’s book, The Overspent American, I feel personally convicted to provide my stepson, Cooper, with a better financial education. I’m going to be honest: Cooper is pretty darn spoiled. I don’t think his situation is unique – many children are growing up the same way – but it worries me all the same.
You might remember that I love classic children’s literature – particularly the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her book, Farmer Boy, she tells tales of her husband’s childhood. There is a chapter called “Independence Day” that emphasizes the value of money. In this chapter, Almanzo is at a county fair celebrating the 4th of July. He is nine-years-old.
Excerpt from Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder:
There was a lemonade-stand by the hitching posts. A man sold pink lemonade, a nickel a glass, and a crowd of the town boys were standing around him. Cousin Frank was there. Almanzo had a drink at the town pump, but Frank said he was going to buy lemonade. He had a nickel.
He walked up to the stand and bought a glass of the pink lemonade and drank it slowly. He smacked his lips and rubbed his stomach and said, “Mmmm! Why don’t you buy some?”
“Where’d you get the nickel?” Almanzo asked. He had never had a nickel. Father gave him a penny every Sunday to put in the collection-box in church; he had never had any other money.
“My father gave it to me,” Frank bragged. “My father gives me a nickel every time I ask him.”
“Well, so would my father if I asked him,” said Almanzo.
“Well, why don’t you ask him?” Frank did not believe that father would give Almanzo a nickel. Almanzo did not know whether Father would or not.
“Because I don’t want to,” he said.
“He wouldn’t give you a nickel,” Frank said.
“He would, too.”
“I dare you to ask him,” Frank said. The other boys were listening. Almanzo put his hands in his pockets.
“Yah, you’re scared!” Frank jeered. “Double dare! Double dare!”
Father was a little way down the street, talking to Mr. Paddock, the wagon-maker. Almanzo walked slowly toward them. He was faint-hearted, but he had to go. The nearer he got to Father, the more he dreaded asking for a nickel. He had never before thought of doing such a thing. He was sure Father would not give it to him.
He waited until Father stopped talking and looked at him.
“What is it, son?” Father asked.
Almanzo was scared. “Father,” he said, “would you – would you give me – a nickel?”
He stood there while Father and Mr. Paddock looked at him, and he wished he could run away. Finally Father asked, “What for?”
Almanzo looked down at his moccasins and muttered, “Frank had a nickel. He bought pink lemonade.”
Father looked at him for a long time. Then he took out his wallet and opened it, and slowly he took out a round, big half-dollar.
Father asked, “Do you know what this is?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo answered.
“Yes. But do you know what a half dollar is?”
Almanzo didn’t know it was anything but a half a dollar.
“It’s hard work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”
Father asked, “Do you know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?”
“Yes,” Almanzo said.
“Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?”
“You cut it up,” Almanzo said.
“Go on, son.”
“Then you harrow – first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes, and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice.”
“That’s right, son. And then?”
“Then you dig them and put them down cellar.”
“Yes,” said Father. “Then you pick them over all winter; you throw out all the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a fair price, son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much do you get for a half a bushel of potatoes?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo said.
“Yes,” said Father. “That’s what’s in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised a half bushel of potatoes is in it.”
Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.
“You can have it, Almanzo,” Father said. Almanzo could hardly believe his ears. Father gave him the heavy half-dollar.
“It’s yours,” said Father. “You could buy a sucking pig with it, if you want to. You could raise it, and it would raise a litter of pigs, worth four or five dollars a piece. Or you could trade that half-dollar for lemonade, and drink it up. You do as you want, it’s your money.”
Almanzo forgot to say thank you. He held the half-dollar a minute, then he put his hand in his pocket and went back to the boys by the lemonade-stand.
Frank asked, “Where’s the nickel?”
“He didn’t give me a nickel,” said Almanzo.
Frank yelled, “I told you! I told you he wouldn’t! I told you so!”
“He gave me a half-dollar,” said Almanzo.
The boys wouldn’t believe it until he showed it to them. Then they crowded around, waiting for him to spend it. He put it back in his pocket.
“I’m going to look around,” he said, “and buy me a good little sucking pig.”
OK, this excerpt took waaaay too long to type, but isn’t it a cute story with a powerful message? I think when children understand that money is a reflection of hard work, they are more apt to make good choices about spending. Almanzo could have wasted his half-dollar on lemonade, but once he considered the worth of that half-dollar, he decided to make a better investment by buying a pig.
I worry that Cooper is more similar to Cousin Frank than Almanzo. Cooper gets just about anything he asks for. He’s not a brat about it, but he definitely gets a new toy (usually a Lego set or a new DVD) almost every week. Brian enjoys buying new things for him; he likes to make Cooper happy. And who doesn’t want to make their child happy? But I worry that as a result, Cooper won't grasp the true concept of money at all. I worry that he’s going to grow up and not understand why he doesn’t just get what he wants anymore.
If I’m completely honest, I guess my biggest worry is that he’s going to end up like me. Children today are growing up in an instant-gratification world. If it was hard for me to save up for cute pair of heels, what are the odds that Cooper will be willing to save up for something new? No, I’m afraid that, instead, he’ll do what I did – he’ll put the item on a credit card so he can immediately have it.
I don’t know how to teach him monetary patience when I’ve exhibited so little of it myself, but at least this year I’m providing a better example. He’s 11-years-old right now, and fully aware of my Stopping Spree. I hope that he sees how much joy I have in my life, even without the constant acquisition of new things. I hope that he realizes that everything has a cost, and every debt must be paid. But mostly, I hope he matures to be so much smarter about money than I ever was.
(This post was a bit long-winded - I'm sorry! But I have lots of fun projects planned this week, which means PICTURES! Plus, tomorrow is my March savings reveal! Stay tuned...)