When my son was in elementary school I would buy the entire year’s worth of lunches for $330 which seemed like a good deal at the time. That’s 180 days of lunches for $1.83 each. When he entered Middle School he couldn’t wait to order off the big kids concessions scattered about the quad – Chinese, pizza, mystery meat in the box lunch, maybe a cookie for snack or chips with his lunch and a fizzy drink, soda or chocolate milk. By the end of 6th grade I started tallying up the costs. What started as his $5 lunch crept up to $6.75 by the eight-month mark.
For 7th grade, I decided to use the daily lunch costs as an opportunity to teach him a little about economics. “Alex, I will give you a choice for your lunches,” I said. “You can continue buying your lunches at school – OR – you can pack your own lunch and make some money. I will charge you $1 for the ingredients, so if you make your own lunch to take to school, you can pocket $5.50 per day. If I make your lunch you will have to pay for my labor, which will cost you another $1 per day, dropping your take-home amount to $4.50 per day.” That was a no brainer for Alex. He immediately decided I would make his lunch and he would happily forgo standing in line for lunch and eat whatever I provided him. Most months had 20 school days, give or take and that was $90 in his pocket. At 13–16 years old, there are not too many ways to make that kind of money. It was an easy decision for a boy who wanted things, mostly expensive Apple products – iMacs, iPhones, musical instruments, fancy cameras for making videos – and no real way to get his hands on money with the exception of birthdays and holidays and Grandma’s $20 for Valentine’s Day, Halloween, etc.
He did get an allowance of $10 per week. The money was not for keeping his room clean, walking the dog or even doing other household chores. We don’t believe in paying him for being part of our family or for things that no one will pay you for when you grow up and become an adult. In fact, adults have to pay others to clean their rooms or walk their dogs. We only pay for his current job – going to school and getting good grades. When he grows up and works, compensation is equivalent to a job well done. He had a regular flip phone, however, when we bought a smart phone, we got another one for free. He wanted it and was willing to use his weekly (allowance) paycheck to pay for the additional cost of the data plan, so now he has a smartphone, but no more allowance. Occasionally I need some heavy yard work done and I am willing to pay him what I would pay the gardener to do things I am not able to do. Still, that is not enough for a fancy camera.
Packing his lunch accomplished many things: first, I could make sure the food he took was healthy and good for his fast growing body; secondly, he could learn how to manage his money (because with this plan he would actually have money to manage); and finally, he would learn that when he got older, it was much, much cheaper to make his own food than to go out to eat.
I realize that I don’t need to pay my son to take his lunch from home. I also know that some kids are lucky to get a healthy lunch to take to school and would be thankful for that alone. To many, what I am doing may seem highly controversial. However, where we live it is not unusual for kids to buy their lunch at school every day and not think one more thought about the cost of the food, the quality of the food or even the amount of soda they drink each day. (We don’t allow soda in our house; he only has the choice of taking water or vitamin water to school).
So what do you think? Would you pay your child to take lunch from home instead of getting to buy it at school? Would you do this in middle school? Or just in high school? Or neither?
Do you give your child an allowance? For what? How much? At what age would you start giving your child an allowance?
Does it empower or motivate your child to get money for grades? Being kind? Keeping their room clean? Helping around the house?
Rebecca Jarus lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with her husband, Scott, and son, Alex.