My son just turned 5, and though his financial awareness is limited at best, he does understand the role money plays in everyday life. For example, he knows that we need money to buy food, have a home, and drive a car, and he also understands that not everyone has enough money to do these things—hence our weekly tzedakah. But recently, we read a book where the main characters started getting an allowance, and it made him wonder when he’d be getting one. It made me wonder, too.
I ran it by some friends and family members, and the consensus seems to be that 5 is too young for an allowance. But is it? Right now, when my son wants a special treat, I buy it for him. No problem. But is it really a problem to give him a small amount of money each week so that he learns the value and discipline of saving to buy his own treats? (For the record, we’re not talking huge amounts of money by any means. I have no idea what the going rate is these days for an allowance, but chances are we’re not getting close, and I’m fine with that.)
My husband had a different idea—giving him a small amount of money for helping out around the house in ways he normally doesn’t, like cleaning up his sisters’ toys instead of just his own. But I’m conflicted about this too. On one hand, I’m worried that bribing him to pitch in will discourage him from wanting to be helpful for the sake of being helpful. On the other hand, earning money makes more sense to me than simply handing out an allowance for no good reason.
But no matter which avenue we take to give our son some money of his own, I admittedly have a secret agenda at play. My son already has a piggy bank, filled mostly with pennies he’s swiped, with permission, from his grandfather’s pockets. He also has a tzedakah box—the one we share as a family and contribute to every Friday night before lighting candles.
Some time ago, I explained the difference between the two—that the money in my son’s bank is his to keep, while the money in the tzedakah box is for us to give away. When we read about getting an allowance in that book, we talked about it afterward, and he asked what sort of things you can do with allowance money.
“Well,” I replied, “you can spend it on something you want to buy, like a new book or ice cream. You can also save it for something bigger and more expensive, like a new Lego set. Or, you can use some of it to do nice things for other people. For example, you could buy a treat for your sisters, or you could give some of it away to tzedakah so that needy people can buy food, clothing, and other things they might be missing.”
“But isn’t that what the tzedakah box is for?” he then asked.
“Well yes, ” I explained. “But the money in the tzedakah box comes from Mommy and Daddy’s bank account. And we’re happy to share our money. But once you have your own money, you’ll get to decide whether you want to give some away or keep it all for yourself.”
My son thought about it for a minute.
“Is it OK if I keep it for myself?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered. “Right now, it is, because we’ll only be giving you a small amount. But once you start getting more, don’t you think sharing it would be the right thing to do?”
He thought some more.
“How about if I share a little of it?” he asked. “Is that OK?”
“It is,” I answered. “Mommy and Daddy don’t give away most of our money to tzedakah, but we give a little bit here, and a little bit there, and everything helps.”
“OK,” my son replied. “Maybe I’ll share a little bit of my money with my sisters and a little bit with tzedakah and use the rest to buy ice cream.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” I told him.
And to me, there lies the value of giving my son an allowance at an early age, whether it be in the form of a pre-set amount each week or compensation for specific chores. It’s not about giving a 5-year-old more power to buy things. It’s about teaching him not only the value of money, but the value of charity. And if he happens to bone up on some math skills in the process, even better.