When Is a Child Ready for an Allowance?

This question has been on our minds quite a bit recently, as our three and a half year old son continues to grow and mature. We’ve long planned on giving our children small allowances that are not tied to household chores, and now we’re actually faced with a child that’s nearing the maturity level to understand it.

He understands that money is used to buy things. In order to get an item, you have to exchange some amount of money for it.

Similarly, he understands that there is only a limited supply of money. There is not an infinite amount of money – in fact, in his world, there’s not much money at all. Thus, you can’t simply buy everything you want.

He also understands that different items have different prices. You don’t have to give much money for some things. However, you have to give quite a bit of money for other things. Not all items have the same price. He also understands that saving your money is worthwhile, though this lesson has been guided greatly by Mom and Dad.

Finally, he can count to twenty with ease and count quite a bit higher with some coaxing and concentration. He can not only count abstractly, but he can also count items: coins, chocolate chips, and so on.

From my perspective, this means he’s ready for an allowance (though my wife and I are still discussing it). On the other hand, I know other parents of children as old as six who don’t feel their child is ready for an allowance.

Our goal with giving an allowance is straightforward: we want to teach him the value of saving, charity, and money management through his own experiences.

Questions to Ask When Considering A Child’s Allowance

1. How big should his allowance be?

There’s a fine balance to achieve here. It needs to be enough so that it’s relevant, but not large enough so that he’s spoiled. I’m leaning towards an allowance equal to his age in dollars – so, $3 now, $4 when he turns 4, and so on.

2. What kind of restrictions should we put on it?

From my experience, an allowance given with no restrictions often winds up being spent on bubble gum, which kind of defeats the purpose.

I’m leaning towards the Money Savvy Pig philosophy. To put it simply, it has the child split his or her allowance into four piles: spend, save, donate, and invest.

The “spend” pile is straightforward – that’s his money to do with what he chooses. If he wants to take his money and buy a Hot Wheels car with it, he can. If he wants some bubble gum, he can buy it.

The “save” pile is similar – he can spend it on whatever he wants, but it has to be a defined large goal. Perhaps he wants another track set for his wooden railroad, for example, or maybe he’d like to buy a Christmas present for someone with his own money. This would build up over many weeks, and if he chose, he could contribute more from his “spend” pile towards it.

The “donate” part allows him to choose every so often (once every three months or so) to give the money to a cause of his choosing. This would open the door to a lot of discussion about others in need and allow us to introduce charities to him. I know a child who saved for two or three years and donated a whole heifer via Heifer International, for example.

For his purposes, the “investing” part will be a very long term thing – he can watch it build and build and build, then when he’s older, we can use that money to begin learning how to invest it for the future. I’d love it if he took some of the quarters he saved when he was three, invested it somewhere, and used all of the proceeds to buy a house when he’s a young adult.

If we go down this path, we may start the allowance by giving him such a “savings pig.”

3. What about his younger sister?

There’s also a twenty one month old girl in our home, one who doesn’t have the foggiest idea about money yet. Before long, though, she’ll become aware of it – and she’ll be aware that her big brother is getting an allowance.

We’re not sure how to handle this. Should we give her a very small “spend”-only allowance for now, changing it when she reaches age three or so? Or should we just wait entirely until she’s old enough to understand the ideas? We’re leaning towards no allowance for her for now, making it clear to our son that he’s getting the allowance because he’s older.

Our goal in the end is to teach our children why it’s awesome to save and plan ahead. Your comments and thoughts on this plan are greatly appreciated.