WASHINGTON — I went to live with my maternal grandmother, Big Mama, when I was 4. And at 4, I stepped into her financial class.

“Big Mama, can we go to McDonald’s?”

This question and every other similar request to buy me anything that wasn’t a necessity were met with a money lesson. Every. Single. Time.

That’s how I learned to be a good money manager. Big Mama talked incessantly about saving, spending wisely and staying out of debt.

I watched her manage on so little and still pay all her bills on time. Big Mama was so tight with her money that if she held a penny, Lincoln would scream.

Hands down, this woman taught me more about money management than any financial expert I’ve ever met or interviewed. And she did this without ever giving my siblings or me an allowance. Big Mama couldn’t afford to have us on her payroll.

So, whenever parents ask me if they should give their child an allowance, my answer is: It’s not really necessary. I’m not saying it doesn’t help, but the absence of an allowance doesn’t produce spendthrift children either.

During a recent online discussion, the question came up about whether an allowance is the key to teaching children to be financially responsible.

A lot of people swear by the power of the allowance.

“In my opinion, the most important aspect about allowances is it teaches young children about choices and empowers them to make choices,” one reader wrote.

Folks believe an allowance teaches kids about natural consequences.

“If your teen doesn’t have money of her own and you are giving it to her as she needs it, then she is not learning how to delay gratification and save,” another reader wrote. “Give your teen an allowance and when they spend it all, it’s gone until the next allowance. I gave my teen an allowance once a month. At first, it was difficult because she wasn’t used to budgeting, but a few months of spending it all too soon cured that. Now she is really great with her money.”

What’s the common denominator in the comments from the parents? They were talking to their children about money. You use an allowance as an opportunity to have financial discussions and relay your family values. But the talks can occur without the tool.

My husband and I gave our three children allowances sometimes, but mostly we didn’t. Whenever our children, who are still young enough to rely on our support, need or want money, we talk. Sometimes, it’s a quick conversation. Other times, it’s a, “why don’t you sit down” type of dialogue. They groan, of course, but our money comes with a teachable moment. Every. Single. Time.

There’s no power in an allowance alone. You raise money-smart children by constantly engaging them in discussions about how to save and spend the money you give them. And by modeling financial responsibility yourself.

Give an allowance, don’t give one – it’s really up to you. But in either case, it’s your interactions that make the difference.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may contact her at:

[email protected]


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