Should You Pay Kids to Shovel Snow?

Whether (and how much) you compensate neighborhood kids for their help depends on the circumstances.

I recently got a call from a New York Times reporter, who asked me a very timely question: Should children be paid for helping their neighbors shovel snow? Or should shoveling be considered a neighborly gesture for which no compensation is asked or expected? And if kids are paid, what’s the going rate?

The answer, I said, depends on the circumstances. If your kids have already set up a small business -- mowing lawns in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, watering plants and picking up newspapers when neighbors are on vacation --then they ought to be paid for their work. But if it’s a matter of doing a good turn by helping the elderly couple across the street dig out from a blizzard, no payment is necessary.

What if your kids decide on the spur of the moment to go door to door and offer to shovel neighbors’ sidewalks? Should they charge everyone along the route? That would be fine (but I’d still make an exception for the elderly folks across the street).

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How much to pay. Of course, circumstances aren’t always straightforward, and any situation that involves money can be awkward for both children and adults. Sometimes, for example, kids are reluctant to set a fee for their services, and adults often end up over- or underpaying.

It’s better to agree on both the fee and the job upfront. I’d say that for shoveling snow, $10 to $20 makes sense as a starting point for most jobs. But be prepared to adjust from there depending on your expectations. Do you want the kids to shovel your driveway as well as the sidewalk? And do you want them to shovel to the corner or just to the end of your property line?

If the kids next door do offer to work for free, you can always treat them to cookies and hot chocolate afterward. Alina Tugend, the Times reporter who interviewed me, told me that one of her neighbors later gave Tugend’s son a gift card to a sporting-goods store in return for his shoveling efforts. That wasn’t necessary, but it was a nice gesture.

Two key lessons. The point is to draw a balance between teaching kids two important lessons: how to earn money and when to be generous. Several winters ago my husband took our son Peter with him to shovel out our neighbors across the street. At the time, Peter wondered why he wasn’t being paid. But the broader lesson of lending a helping hand must have stuck. Last month, when an electrical fire drove another set of neighbors into the street in the middle of the night, Peter saw what happened and went outside to invite them to spend the night with us. “I thought that’s what you would have wanted me to do,” he told us.

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.