The issues of chores and pocket money and whether there should be linkage between the two have always vexed parents. Vernon and I tried many and varied ways of dealing with both. In the end, we found one system for each that worked for the longest amount of time.

Should Chores and Pocket Money be tied together?

The first issue that I would like to deal with is “Is it a good idea that pocket money be tied in with chores?” And the best answer I can come up with for you is “Possibly”.

The advantage of tying them together is that you have a built-in link between cause and effect. You do the chore: you get paid. You don’t do your chore: you don’t get paid. It is an apparently simple learning lesson. It provides incentive and it provides predictable consequences. It teaches children the value of work and it teaches children the value of money. That seems like a good system.

Pitfalls of tying chores to pocket money

The Pitfalls

As with any reward based system, the pitfall is that it depends on the reward being worth the effort. What happens when your child decides that he would rather not dry the dishes and be perfectly willing to forgo the cash? Or that this week he needs the cash, so will do his chores, and next week, he has no particular need for money, so he won’t.

In this day and age, it seems that children believe very strongly that any money that they earn is theirs to do with as they like. So what do we do when our child has legitimately earned his pocket money and wants to spend it on things that we disapprove of? Are we going to be strong enough to say, “Even though you have earned that legitimately, I have the say on how it is used.” I happen to think that is a valid parenting position, but it is much harder to stick to your guns when you are on the shaky ground of “I earned it. It’s mine. I have the right to do what I want with it.”

Another pitfall of tying the two together, is dealing with different ages and competence and time available. It seems natural that the older the child, the more competent they are, the more they can earn – or – it seems fair that everyone has the same number of chores so they have the ability to earn the same amount of money.

And then there is the fairness factor. Some children have more after school commitments or weekend sporting commitments than others. If they are doing things that keep them away from home and that cost the family a great deal of time, effort, transport and finance, should they have to do the same number of chores and/or should they be getting the same amount of pocket money as the child who has fewer outside home commitments – therefore more time to do chores – and has cheaper extra-curricular activities.

Which brings me around to how I learned a useful way of thinking about (think of this phrase in a whiny, child voice) “It’s not fair”

It’s not fair!

Rob and Tanya were respectively nine and eight years old. Rob had got involved in Judo which meant that his parents had to transport him across Auckland two nights a week and wait there while he had two-hour coaching sessions. Judo suits are very expensive.

Tanya went to local ballet classes. She could walk there or we could drop her there. The lessons lasted an hour. The leotard and ballet shoes were not particularly expensive.

One day, Rob declared about something long-forgotten, “It’s not fair.” He caught me at one of those raw-nerve moments and I snapped back, “I’ll tell you what’s fair. Last week I bought Tanya a pair of pink ballet shoes. If you want me to be fair, I go and buy you a pair of pink ballet shoes.”

I’m not particularly proud of that moment. My response was unkind, unfair and nasty. There is nothing fair about buying a boy, who doesn’t do ballet, a pair of pink ballet shoes – just because you buy a pair for his sister. If one child needs a pair of ballet shoes (or any other need, for that matter) I don’t have to make it up to the other child.

However, at that moment I learned a very important lesson. It is impossible (and not particularly useful!) to have fairness between your children in a way that divides up your time and resources equally. The lesson I learned that day was: it is a parent’s job to meet each of their children’s needs as best they possibly can.

That lesson comes in very handy when we think about chores and pocket money.

Keep them separate

After various ill-fated attempts at keeping the two linked, Vernon and I started to use two completely separate systems for pocket-money and chores. Our rationale was that children were entitled to pocket money as a consequence of being part of our family. They were also expected to contribute to the family by doing chores as part of their responsibility as family members.

There was no direct connection between chores and pocket money.

Pocket Money allocation

We were in the privileged position to meet all of our children’s financial needs and most of their financial wants. Whatever pocket money they got was to be divided into three portions: one third for spending, one third for saving and one third for giving to charitable purposes.

One third to spend: Our intention was to give our children the pleasure of getting something they wanted, while living within their means. It also gave them the experience at checking out what they could or could not afford, learning delayed gratification by having to wait till next week if they spent their pocket money on the first day and the experience of buying stuff that they thought that they wanted but, once owned, wasn’t half as exciting as they thought it was going to be. It also gave us an excellent “out” for endless requests for treats.

“Can I have an ice block?”

“Of course you can, darling. Can you afford it?”

One third to save: This gave our children the experience of saving up for something that they really wanted while having to delay gratification until they could afford it. They also learned which things were worth saving for and which turned out to be nothing like the advertisements promised. It also did wonders for their calculation skills.

While we used the saving component to “save up” rather than to bank, it would also be possible to have two components, one for saving up to buy and one to bank for the future. (Our take on this, when grandparents gave gifts of money, was to insist that at least half went into the bank.) Frequently, the grandparents tagged the gift with “to bank” and we thought this was really good for our children – though not necessarily appreciated until years later. We had an unspoken rule that money banked was not to be withdrawn unless for a very responsible purpose.

One third for charitable purposes: This was in the era when one could guarantee that, at least once a week, someone would be knocking on our door asking for a donation. Our children rapidly learned to give to charities of their choice. They also caused much stress to the collectors by demanding to know what proportion of their money would be used in administration and what would go to the cause! It taught our children to give graciously and be aware that there were many people less fortunate than themselves.

Pocket money tips

  • Once you begin a system of pocket money, you need to reliably have the amount on hand, in the correct subdivisions, on the correct day.
  • It is a good idea to supply three jars or moneyboxes – four, if you are going to have a portion to bank.
  • Be prepared to take your child to the bank more-or-less whenever they wish to go. They may feel inclined to bank it today. If you wait till tomorrow, it may have already been spent.
  • One of the things our kids loved to do was to “change up.” They loved to collect enough coins to add up to paper money and then keep changing up to higher denominations. Be like the Monopoly banker and have a variety of coin and note denominations on hand.

And the big question… How much?

We found that there was a careful balance between having so little as to be no use and therefore meaningless and having too much which (a) we couldn’t afford and (b) gave them the ability to spend irresponsibly. For most of their under-ten times, we kept our “to spend” money based on the LII (Latest Ice-cream Index). If they could get a decent quality ice-cream for their “to spend” portion, they could then decide whether to do that or to beak it down into smaller lolly portions.

If you are able to afford to give them the same quantum for saving and spending, it makes life simple. If that tots up to too much for too many children, give them what you can manage. Starting at one dollar for each component at age five and going up fifty cents or a dollar each year.

Chores

As long as your children are reasonably compliant, they are capable of understanding that it takes many, many chores to run a household. Our job, as parents, is to teach our children that doing things for the family is what is expected simply because they are family members.

Let me tell you about the time we had a chore list that lasted over several years. There came a time when I was getting too exhausted doing everything or putting up with asking reluctant individuals to do specific chores. I sat down and made a list of all the things that needed to be done to keep the household running and called a family meeting (not a regular occurrence) and supplied attractive meeting food.

I then put it to the children that it was unfair that I was doing so much and I needed the load to be shared. I presented them with the lists and gave them turns at picking the tasks that they were prepared or able to do. (If your children are varied in age and competence, there is no law that says that every child has to have the same number of chores.) I volunteered that I would take the jobs that no-one wanted to do. The effect of this approach was to give them choice and ownership which upped that chance that they would see through their responsibilities.

Pretty soon we had a list of daily and weekly chores and who would be responsible for what. That one went up on the fridge. I also converted that information into individual daily charts.

What worked, what didn’t and what I could have done better

On the whole, the system worked well because it was transparent, it was fair and the children had ownership in the form of consultation and the ability to choose.

The fact that it was set up as a set of reasonable expectations of family contribution, rather than depending on a reward system, meant that pleasant reminders were usually accepted rather than resisted.

One thing that needed ironing out, was not having one child depend on another child’s chores to do their own. I rapidly learned that having one child’s ability to dry and put away dishes, depending on the other to have first washed them in a timely way was a recipe for disaster. It was far better that I took responsibility for the “first” chore so that the responsible child could easily do the follow-up.

Where circumstances meant that a particular task was not possible because of unplanned interruptions, I left myself with the option of sometimes trading another task and (round things like exams, illnesses or trips away) simply taking it on myself.

Rather than getting into battles about chores not done, I preferred to treat them like any non-compliance with older children. I was banking on the fact that our children always need something from us. So if there was something my child needed from me (like transport) and a task not yet complete even though I had done a polite reminder, I would simply say mildly, “as soon as your task is done, I’ll be happy to give you a lift.” The first few times there was a lot of huffing and puffing, but eventually they got the message that chores were not up for avoidance.

The one thing that I wish I had done better, was to have monthly meetings (with donuts!) to change over chores. The list that emerged on the first round worked well for me so we stuck to it but it would have given my children more ownership and a feeling of more fairness, if I had given them the opportunity to exchange tasks more often.

Staying on Track

Neither the pocket money nor the chore system is particularly easy. It requires a lot of commitment and (I apologise for using the word) consistency, both of which are not the easiest of parenting skills.

The reward for staying faithful to good systems is that it your children learns a lot about commitment, consistency, reliability and contribution and you get to have a relatively peaceful household.

It may not be ideal, but it is a lot better than the alternative of chaos, confusion and lots of arguments.

For more great tips, check out our Pocket money article. Or, check out the expert money advice in our Family finances section.

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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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