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How to Handle Allowances

Janet Bodnar responds to readers' conflicting points of view about whether to pay kids for doing chores.

A recent column on allowances generated a lively batch of comments that illustrate perfectly the great divide on this subject: parents who think that an allowance should be tied to doing chores around the house, and parents who think kids should do chores without pay because they’re members of the family.

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A couple of readers were vehemently in the first camp. “The point of the allowance is and always has been to show kids that work has rewards,” wrote one. “Of course, money should be tied to chores,” wrote another. “That’s an important life lesson that everyone, not only kids, needs to learn.”

But not everyone agreed. “Do you get paid for cleaning your room or taking out the trash?” challenged another reader. “I think kids should have to contribute to the running of the household. Nobody’s going to pay them to wash their dishes when they leave home.”

My own solution to this conundrum (as explained in my column) is a two-tier allowance system: The basic allowance isn’t tied to chores, which children do without pay, but it does come with financial responsibilities. If kids want to earn more money, they can get paid on a chore-by-chore basis for doing extra work.

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One reader wrote that his parents had figured out a similar system when he was 4 years old, back in 1950: “I started getting a 25-cent allowance, but I was expected to buy my own routine goodies. Comics cost 10 cents, and a nice, simple toy was 25 or 50 cents. Money and chores were never connected. Somehow my dad managed to convince me that washing the car was fun.”

A couple of readers offered ideas of their own. Fred suggested that when children are old enough to earn their own money, they should have to put it into an IRA, and parents can give them a matching amount of cash for spending. Brandi uses an old-fashioned chore chart. “If the boys do chores, they write their initials next to what they did and when. Some chores are worth more than others. If they don’t do them, they don’t get paid.”

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In a poignant note, one reader took me to task for recommending that older kids could be responsible for using their allowance to buy their own clothes (see Should You Buy Your Kids LeBron X Sneakers?). “My father did this to me and I still resent him for it 30 years later. He was trying to teach me to budget, but all it did was stress me out and, quite honestly, make me feel uncared for. Making kids pay for their own clothes goes too far -- unless it’s some special, expensive item the kid wants.”

Wow. I’d like to think that such an unintended consequence is rare. But, as the reader suggests, one way for parents to avoid it is to cover wardrobe basics but give kids the responsibility for buying discretionary items -- and present it as a privilege, not a burden.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, J.D. gets the last word with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek (I think): “Kids should be learning that money comes from an authority figure for free regardless of personal responsibility. This is the lesson they’ll need to function in the adult world."

Follow Janet's updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.

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