Teaching Kids How to Shop Around

Frugality is a toolset that anyone can use to squeeze more out of their dollars, and shopping around is just one of those tools. One of my biggest projects as a parent is to make my children intimately familiar with those tools, not just in terms of “seeing how Dad does it,” but finding ways where they can apply it in their own lives for the things they care about.

As I’ve mentioned before on The Simple Dollar, we give our children a small allowance that’s not tied to any chores at all. (The chores are a household expectation and other consequences result from not doing them.) It’s really a tiny amount – we give them $0.50 per year old they are, so our oldest child only gets $3.50 a week.

Of that, they have to save some of it for other causes. They put aside $0.50 per week for investing and another $0.50 per week for charity, which leaves them a pretty small amount with which to spend.

At first, we split the remainder up between saving for specific goals and spending on whatever they wanted at the moment, but they honestly never spend it on impulse buys. Instead of spending that allowance money on candy, they are just very careful with the candy they receive at holidays and make it last. Instead of spending it on silly little toys, they all have sense enough to recognize that patience will get them much more enjoyable things.

So, we’re left with kids that save up $2 to $3 a week for expensive items that they might want, like video games for their Nintendo DS or LEGO kits or nice dolls.

The next step, then, is teaching them how to get the most for their dollar when they’re buying a particular item. I’ll give you a specific example.

Our oldest child decided that he was saving for a particular item that costs $39.99 MSRP. That would mean, given his current rate of accumulation via allowance, he’d have to save sixteen weeks to acquire it. We know in the past that he has the patience to do this, as he’s saved up well over $50 to purchase items.

So, when he established that goal and realized that it would cost $40, I told him that if we shop around carefully while you’re saving for it, you might be able to get it for substantially less. This obviously intrigued him.

So, in the ensuing weeks, we looked for the item at various places. We checked several used video game stores when we happened to be nearby to see if they had it in stock. We checked several different retailers when we happened to be near them. We also started looking around online for the game.

It didn’t take us long to start finding prices that were much lower than the $39.99 MSRP. On our first few checks, we found the item for $34.99, and on our first glance online, we found it for $33.

My son recently reached the $30 mark with his savings and was getting excited, so we spent some more time shopping around. We found the item for $28.

So, now he’s looking to save up for the LEGO City Cargo Train, which is a very expensive LEGO kit. Since our best success was with Amazon, we started there… where it listed for $250(!). We started shopping around and pretty quickly, we found it for $70 less.

At this point, my son seems to believe that shopping around is incredibly powerful and well worth doing for every single purchase.

My daughter, who is a bit younger, is beginning to appreciate it as well. She’s been saving for a LEGO horse barn which was $49.99 at the store, but which we found elsewhere for $39.99 after a few stops – and now we’ve found it for $34.

For them, shopping around just means that they get the item they want faster and they can start saving for something else sooner. Their focus is on the toys and other things that interest them, which is understandable.

To them, listening to Dad shop around for the best price on bread is boring. They don’t really care about hearing how I can get trash bags at this other store for $0.03 per bag cheaper, thus saving our family $5. It doesn’t interest or impact them.

What they do see now, though, is that shopping around actually works – and my goal with my own shopping around is to relate it to what they’ve learned about shopping around for their own toys. Just like my son learned how to save $12 on his video game purchase and my daughter is about to save $16 on her LEGO barn thanks to shopping around, I save $5 on trash bags and $3 on dishwasher soap.

All I’m doing here is taking a very basic concept of frugality and making it as applicable to their life as I possibly can. Rather than just taking them to the store when they have spending money, it’s all about defining a goal first and then figuring out the most efficient way of getting there. It’s something they can do with their toys right now until doing it becomes so natural that they simply apply it to everything else as they grow older.

Just yesterday, I was with my two oldest children at a store and they independently found things they were interested in. Independently, they each put the item back on the shelf and said that they should look for it elsewhere because it might save them some money.

Lesson learned (for now, at least).

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