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A few weeks ago, I was biking when I passed by a field where a lot of old guys* were playing soccer. I stopped my bike and asked a teenage girl who was watching the game what was going on.

“They just play here,” she said. I told her my husband loves soccer, because he grew up in Argentina and he’s always talking about wanting to play, etc. It was all true: he loves soccer.

“If he wants to play,” she said, “he just needs to show up around this time on a Sunday morning. Bring $5.”

I rode off. A little later I took four little girls to a toy store (because I am INSANE). Rio spent her carefully saved allowance money on a little wooden plaque for her dad, for a Father’s Day Gift. It’s shaped like a princess crown, and she decorated it with pink glitter and plastic gems and little pink sparkly stickers that spell “Dada”. She insisted he put it on his desk at work.

Me, I kept my pennies and practiced the gift of silence. When I got home, I didn’t tell Martin about the pick-up game at the park. On Father’s Day, I told him I wanted to go for a ride with the kids, maybe take a picnic to this park. I secretly packed a tote bag with a water bottle, his soccer shoes, and a crisp $5 bill. We went to the park. As we approached he broke into a grin and said, “Hey, is that a pick-up soccer game?”

I handed him the tote bag. “Happy Father’s Day.”

He smiled. He might have thanked me, but he was moving pretty fast toward the field. It was raining, and the game was underway, and he didn’t care. He put his cleats on and stood by the goal until one of the players invited him to join in. Invited might be an overstatement. The conversation went like this:

“Who the hell is that?”

“Some guy! Says he wants to play.”

“I guess you can have a red shirt. But if you suck, you’re out.”

Thirty seconds later he scored a goal. They let him stay. He’s planning to make a habit of this.

Best Father’s Day Gift Ever. It’s healthy and fun. Granting a wish he’s had for years but been unable to grant for himself. Possibly lifechanging, if he keeps it up.

And it wound up costing me nothing but time. Turns out the first one is free, just like crack.

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Rio's allowance jars

Rio's allowance jars

This post at the Simple Dollar got me thinking about kid’s allowance money. It got me thinking too much for a blog comment over there, so you get to read all about it.

Kid’s allowances are one of my most regular cash expenses, along with groceries and gas for my car. All the frugal living tactics I know of would tell me to cut them out, just like I’ve canceled all my magazine subscriptions and club memberships. They’re a recurring weekly expense that is not strictly necessary, and they’re not helping me pay down my debts. That’s not a line item I want to see in my budget.

But I keep giving the kids an allowance. Why?

I want my children to share in the wealth of the household. Everyone who lives here gets a bed, clothes to wear, food to eat, time and space to do work they love and to pursue a social life, and the loving support of their family members. Everyone also gets a little pocket money, that comes from the income brought in by the adults in the house. I don’t consider this stuff everyone has a right to, it’s just the contract we’ve made within our family about how we run our household.

There aren’t any restrictions on getting the allowance. It is theirs whether or not they do chores, behave themselves, or spend it wisely. Just like the expectation that they will help clean up after meals and treat everyone in the house with kindness is there whether they’ve had a bad day or the other sibling really started it or they just don’t want to. It’s part of being in this family.

I understand that many people also use allowance money to teach kids about how money works, and if mine learn something from getting theirs, so much the better.

Here is how we do it: everyone over the age of 4 gets a weekly allowance equal to one dollar per year of their age. If you are a child, that allowance is divided into four categories: Savings, Spending, When I’m A Grown Up (this is known as Investing to adults) and Giving. Trent from Simple Dollar calls this approach The Money Savvy Pig Philosophy. I first read about it in a magazine where I think it was simply called “a good idea”.

We started giving an allowance to my older daughter when she started asking me to buy things for her that I did not want to buy – in particular a replacement for a pair of sparkly sequined shoes that had been given to her as a gift, and which she wore till the sequins rubbed off and the soles gave out.

When Rio began getting her allowance, she saved carefully for those sequined shoes, and after about two months was able to buy them. She was thrilled to buy them with her own money, but hasn’t saved up for a big purchase since. She has nearly worn out the new pair by now, and has plenty of money saved up to replace them if she wants to.

I got four glass milk jars from a local dairy and labeled them Spending, Saving, When I’m a Grown Up and Giving. Rio helped by decorating the labels with watercolors. Then I began giving her four dollars a week with the caveat that she needed to put one dollar in each jar. Now that she gets $5 a week she can choose where to put the extra dollar. Mostly she uses it to buy bubblegum.

Like Trent plans to do with his son, I started out giving Rio her allowance in Sacajawea dollars, but stopped when she got upset by that and said she wanted to get paid in “real dollars”. I may start again because someone gave her a Sacajawea dollar for her birthday and now she’s fascinated by them.

My teenage stepson also gets $15 a week, one dollar per year of age. This feels like a lot to me, but is also about what he spends on bus fare and a few trips to the cafe around the corner to get some quiet time away from his sisters. Unlike with the little ones, I don’t restrict how he spends or saves his allowance. I do model what I hope is good behavior with money, and talk openly with him about frugality. The other day we built a bicycle together out of spare parts so he’d have a summer ride, rather than buying him a new bike. I think he learns a lot that way.

Is he too old to just be handed money? I don’t think so. Right now he has perfect grades, a weekly volunteer gig and a heavy load of summer reading for his fall classes. I don’t want him to sacrifice any of those things to a summer job because he feels a want of pocket money, so I give it to him. I worked a lot in high school, and I don’t think it taught me anything useful about managing my own money or helped me build any career skills for my future. My time would have been better spent doing more volunteer work and creative skill-building, so that’s what I want my kids to focus on.

Serena, the toddler, got in on the allowance action when she saw me giving money to the other kids. She wanted to be part of that ritual so badly she actually learned to say the word “Money”, or something like it with fewer consonants and more insistent hand gestures.

For Serena, I created a single allowance jar, also using an old milk bottle. I give her a few coins from my wallet each week. We put the coins in her jar together, and a few times a week when she wants to play with it, we take her jar out and she gets to dump all the coins on the floor and carefully pick them up again and put them back in the jar. She gets real value out of the money I give her – as a toy! And she doesn’t feel left out of the allowance system.

I’m sure our system isn’t perfect, but we haven’t run headlong into any big problems with it so far. Except the recurring expense issue, and I can happily afford $20 a week for my kids’ allowances. Because I’ve learned to live frugally myself in so many other areas.

What do you do with kids and money? Do your kids get an allowance? How much? Under what conditions? Let me know in the comments.

I started doing The Compact about a month ago. The Compact is simple: for one year, buy nothing new.

There are exceptions of course. These things were written into the Compact as exceptions:

  • perishable goods (food, cleaning products, personal care, medicine)
  • underwear and socks

I’m a generous sort, and I think five is a nice number, so I’m giving myself a few others:

  • art and school supplies (another consumable good that we use a lot of and depend on)
  • garden supplies as needed
  • something else I have not thought of yet that will doubtless prove to be Very Important

While part of the goal of the Compact is clearly to live simply, it doesn’t require one to give up all shopping. You can buy things used, you can freecycle to your heart’s content, etc. It’s more about sustainable living and saving the planet than it is about saving your pennies.

I’ve been enjoying it so far. I wasn’t a big shopper anyway, but I’ve several times caught myself thinking, “I need to buy this thing…but wait! I can’t! I’m Compacting!” Only a few times have I been tempted to get someone else from my household to buy it for me as a cheat. 🙂

Benefits of the Compact:

  • It’s kind of a huge relief to me, because every time I think, “Should I buy that book/t-shirt/gadget/toy?” the answer is, “No.” and I don’t have to expend a lot of emotional energy on coming to a decision about each item it occurs to me I might want to buy.
  • It’s inspired me to be more creative. The Compact was in the back of my thoughts when I made Rio’s birthday gift instead of buying something for her.
  • It’s a good check on shopping impulses. It’s not that I can’t buy anything – most of the things I would buy I can get used – but it adds another layer to the process, another checkpoint I have to go through before getting out my wallet. That seems to be a good thing, because I have mysteriously been stockpiling cash for the past two weeks as my spending money goes largely unspent.

I’ve joined the Yahoo group, but it’s high traffic and a lot of the posts are off-topic; I admit to not reading it much. What I do read are a few simple/frugal living blogs that I do get a lot of value from. My favorites are Get Rich Slowly, the Simple Dollar and the Non-Consumer Advocate.

Have you been cutting back on your spending, or shifting towards more second-hand shopping? How’s that going for you? I’d love to hear about it, or answer any questions y’all have, in the comments.

I have continued reading the Tightwad Gazette, mostly while supervising Serena in the bathroom. It’s great for this, because it’s full of short articles that I can read in about 30 seconds, and each page has one or two little cartoon line drawings on it that thrill her no end and make her sit still on the potty. No, I don’t know why that works, but it does. Try it sometime.

The Tightwad Gazette continues to be a very mixed bag, which is not that strange for a collection of self-published newsletters and reader letters. Two very Bad Advice highlights:

1. When you buy a new car, immediately buy yourself a second set of tires and begin a carefully scheduled rotation (which you do yourself) to extend the lives of all 8 tires. Done properly, this will, as the author says, allow you to be “driving on 1990 priced tires in the year 2000.”

DO NOT DO THIS. I do not know enough about cars to know if rotating your own tires every X miles is a good idea or best left in the hands of a capable mechanic. I am a slacker car owner and count myself lucky if I remember to get my oil changed every three months, let alone all the other routine maintenance one is supposed to do.

But I know enough about money to know that investing in tires is a bad investment. If you took the money you would have spent on the second set of tires and put it in a relatively safe investment (bonds? a high interest savings account?) you’d earn a slightly-higher-than-inflation interest rate. Then, when your tires gave out, you could buy new tires at the current price and have money left over. Duh.

Besides this, you lose the opportunity to invest your money in anything else, take the investment risk that something will happen to your shiny new car before you need those tires and they’ll never get used, and sacrifice storage space to keep them in. This is a terrible idea.

2. Strategy #15 for keeping grocery bills low: waste nothing (this includes forcing children to finish all meals).

Do I even need to talk about why this is a bad idea? Not only is it terrible parenting, likely to produce a range of problems ranging from picky eating to eating disorders, but it won’t save you money. Once you’ve prepared and served a meal, you have used those groceries. If at the end, there’s a palatable serving or two left, by all means pack up the leftovers for lunch. But forcing a kid to eat the beets, or eating them yourself, won’t stop the food from being “wasted”. I lost weight when I realized that my kids’ leftovers were as wasted on my waistline as they are in the compost bin. More so, since there they can become next year’s garden soil.

I had a conversation with a friend today about frugal family living. This woman is one of my inspirations when it comes to being responsible with one’s resources, and she had some interesting things to say about children and material desire.

Her daughter is five, about 9 months older than Rio. Their family lives simply, and the daughter is learning to value simple things as well. For the holidays, the only gift she requested was a Jack in the Box. Now here’s the trick: that was the only gift her parents bought her.

I know that as hard as I work at living simply myself, I am constantly wanting things for my kids, or suggesting desires to them. A few examples from this week:

– Rio and I were making the girls beds. They have a gorgeous bedroom set that my mother bought for Rio’s second birthday. Both kids love it to pieces. But it’s a trundle bed, and takes up the whole room. They love this, but it annoys *me*, aesthetically. So I said, “Maybe we should put bunk beds in here when you’re a little older.” Rio looked at me like I was nuts.

– I asked her where she wanted to have her birthday party, suggesting various parks, museums and play places we like to visit. “There are so many places that are the best place, Mom. But the place I really want to have my birthday is at our house.” Duh.

– A new dance school for kids opened up two blocks from our house. “Let’s go check it out and see if you want to take dance classes!” “I don’t.” “They might have ballet!” “I don’t want to. I like playing in the yard.” Duh.

– Serena is playing with a big plastic school bus at church. “Hey! I didn’t know you liked that bus. Maybe we should get one for you at home.” Or maybe she could play with it at church every week and it could be her special thing to do there?

– I’m making a grocery list, and encouraging the kids to add anything they want to it, which of course means all manner of crackers and cereals and treats I would not normally buy, and that we live quite well without.

I’ve been quietly tuning into these patterns for awhile, but after talking with my friend today I realized that I need to do the core of my frugal living work as a parent, not separate from my parenting.

For me, the core of living more simply is not in cutting back on spending, it’s on releasing my desire for Stuff. I’ve started turning down a lot of stuff that’s offered to me as freebies, because I realize that my space and time are resources too, and I don’t want them cluttered with junk we don’t use.

I need to share that with my kids by simply being in abundance with them, instead of constantly encouraging them to look outside our home and family for fullfillment, pleasure and learning.

I grew up fairly poor, and have a personal horror of denying my kids anything or ever making them feel impoverished. But what my friend reminded me of today was that children raised with an abundance of love, who have their basic needs met, tend to feel rich whether they are showered with Stuff or not.

My next big challenge in this area will be Rio’s birthday. We’ll have her party at home, and I’m buying her a cake from the inexpensive, local bakery, which she’s been asking for since last year. She says the only present she wants from me is a pack of bubble gum. Can I resist buying her anything else? I have a LOT of craft supplies on hand at home, and I can make her some cool presents. Can I let that be enough?

I’m reading the Tightwad Gazette, famed classic of thrift. Yes, I thriftily got my copy out of the public library. I had been resoundingly unimpressed for the first 30 pages, which were essentially all suggestions on how to “save” on things I don’t spend on: cigarettes, soda, new clothes, dryer sheets.

But then on page 30, things turned around. First, she offers a rule of thumb I like, that builds on my beloved 30-day list for non-essential spending:

Put something on your “to acquire” list, and then shop around for a freebie, a cheaper version, a bargain, etc…until it costs you not to have that thing.

A real life example: I need a wagon for my homeschool group to go to the park near my house. I have needed this wagon for months, but haven’t bought one yet because I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to acquire through Freecycle or another local barter. Now it is spring, and we are going to the park regularly, and it is a PITA. I will buy a wagon this week, probably from CraigsList.

The next great thing she offers is the concept of a Price Book. This is one of those money things so obvious and elegant I cannot believe I did not think of it. She keeps a book with the prices of all the things she normally buys written in it, for every store she shops at. So she knows, when she sees something on sale, if it’s a good deal or if she’d be better off going to Costco.

Now, that plan is brilliant, but a crazy lot of work. Who has time to run around comparison shopping for staple goods at a dozen different stores? Not me. But what I do have is an internet connection and friends. So, without further ado, I present: the Community Price Book. I’ve created a GoogleDoc spreadsheet for grocery and household items. If you live in my shopping area and want to play, just leave me a comment or e-mail me with the e-mail you want to use and I’ll share it with you. Then we can all add our items as we shop, and anyone with a portable internet or PDA can have the whole index with them at any store.

If you don’t live in my shopping area, please steal this idea and start your own community price book. This is the first thrift tip I’ve run across in awhile that I think can really save me some money, and I’m excited to share it.

That’s the headline of this article in today’s NYT.

But I had an inkling of it this morning when I got the first credit card offer I’ve received in almost a year, and was abruptly reminded that I used to have to throw these things out every day.

Any signs of things looking up in your neighborhood?

I just ganked this idea from Get Rich Slowly, who in turn grabbed it from someone else who grabbed it from Sandor Katz.

The idea: hold a swap night where people exchange hand-made items, ranging from handknits to homebaked bread. Like a Soup Swap you present your goodies to a rapt audience, there’s some method to the madness (described in GRS’s post on the topic). You should expect to leave with roughly similar amounts of stuff as what you arrived with, I think.

I’m intrigued by the concept here, though concerned about the chaos that could well ensue with so many people swapping so much different stuff. It reminds me of trying to coordinate the Valentine’s Day swap, which got totally out of control with specialty requests and offers that I had to coordinate. I guess the control here is that it all happens on one night, in one place.

I think I’ll try to set one up. Anyone want to play?

Credo Mobile has a great offer which ends at midnight March 31. They will a) buy out your current contract and b) give you 10% off your cell phone service for the next two years.

What makes Credo Mobile unique is that they exist to use corporate power to promote social justice. According to their site, they have donated over $60 million dollars to groups like Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace. They also send action alerts with every phone bill, offering customers an opportunity to get involved with the causes they support through letter-writing, phone calls and additional donations.

Their plans and prices are competitive with all the major players. They piggyback on Sprint’s network, so their service will be as good (or bad) as Sprint’s in your area.

I’ve had their service before, and found it wonderful. I’d recommend this deal to anyone not tied to their current carrier for reasons other than a contract (like, say, you have an iPhone, which won’t work on their network).

Even if you don’t want to switch providers, knowing about this deal can help you. When I learned about it this afternoon, I called Verizon and told them about it. They were willing to drop my phone bill 20% to keep me as a customer.

While I read a fair amount of personal finance advice, I limit my sources. This is deliberate. In general, I’m an eclectic reader. I love to read a wide variety of opinions and perspectives on any topic I’m interested in.

But money, especially *my* money (or total lack thereof), makes me very, very nervous. So I limit myself to a few sources that I’m comfortable with; books, websites, magazines and friends I trust. Resources that make me feel like a wise friend is holding my hand through hard times.

My tastes in financial advice are not unusual. I like Get Rich Slowly and Your Money Or Your Life. I listen to my friend at the Fool.

I think today I’ve added a new one to my list of personal favorites: The Simple Dollar. I love that the author is both straightforward and unassuming. And I love that he ranges off-topic from fiscal advice to offer straight talk about time management and other related things. Being bad at organizational skills is expensive; I know from long experience. This blog has more to say than the Ten Tired Tips, and I’m happy to listen.

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A little bird told me…

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