My friend’s daughter was born in the summer, often a tough time for an elementary-aged kid who wants to celebrate with her friends. As we talked about seasonal plans, my friend mentioned how her daughter was asking for a second American Girl doll, and how she was torn about what to do. In her mind, she was weighing the price tag against the guilt over the fact that many of her daughter’s friends wouldn’t be around for birthday festivities.
My friend’s angst is common among mothers of young girls who clutch their wallets around birthdays and holidays in anticipation of the request for these $100 dolls. There’s no question the dolls are well made. It’s just after the abuse you watch your child put their Barbies through, you can’t help but want some solid guarantees that these pricier playthings will do a better job of surviving the endless grooming, wardrobe changes and intricate imaginary adventures.
My own daughter has had an endless fascination with dolls from the time she was 2, so I knew early on my budget would be in trouble. When she entered kindergarten and discovered American Girl, I borrowed from another mom’s playbook the idea of having to earn the privilege of owning the doll. The pricetag was steep in the eyes of my then beginning reader: she would have to prove to me that she could read an entire “chapter book” before we could go to the store.
The assignment had the desired effect: she learned the concept of value, and made an admirable effort at taking special care of her playmate. But it didn’t quench her appetite for more. At Christmas a year later, the request for a second doll was made to my mother, who happily went shopping despite my protests. But when the request for a third came down the pike during the spring of her 8th birthday, I stood firm and banned her from the store. “Absolutely not,” I told her. “No one needs that many.”
She was crushed, but clever in her persistence. She spent the next couple of months demonstrating just how much use she got out of the dolls so that I would see how I was getting my money’s worth, and mentioned that she expected them to last so long her own daughter would someday enjoy them. At the start of last summer, I acquiesced by deciding to take our value exercise to a new level: It was my daughter’s first formal lesson in financial planning.
I explained to my daughter that the only way she was going to get another doll and more accessories was if she earned every penny needed to buy them. She agreed. And so, together we went through her catalog and wrote a list of desired items and their corresponding prices. To practice math, I asked her to total them up and then calculate 7 percent sales tax. When she saw the final figure in the hundreds of dollars, she gasped, and then took it upon herself to edit the list down to one doll and 4 accessories.
Next we opened her wallet to see how much allowance and other birthday money she had saved. I told her that it was a good habit to put away half of what you earn to cover things like savings and taxes. So half of the allowance stayed in the wallet and the remaining amount we deducted from the total price.
To be able to buy her wish list, she would need $150. But since we had agreed that for every dollar earned, 50 percent would need to be put away, her real price was $300. To an eight year old, the amount was mountainous.
But I give her credit. Undaunted, she asked for a list of jobs and related wages. All summer, she collected and counted soda cans; washed dishes; did extra clean up and dog walking duty, and spent a lot of hours working as my “mother’s helper” babysitter for her baby brother. A lot of hours.
During the course of her assignments, I was tickled to watch her figure out how to value a job – according to her, aim for the highest paying job relative to the amount of time, even if it means more responsibility – and see her confidence grow to the point of feeling good about asking for a raise given the quality of her performance. Those were lessons I hadn’t anticipated, but made note of for future use.
At the end of the summer, she was almost there – $250 earned. The balance she finished making during the fall, so that by Christmas she was able to reward herself with a fun trip to the store. The pride she felt as she held that doll was palpable. She has since gotten her money’s worth in playtime – and her appetite for additional dolls, so far at least!, appears to be satiated.
I still have our little strip of paper where we did all the calculations together. I’ve tucked it in among the mementos that mark the milestones of my daughter’s young life. And I shared my little lesson with my friend, whose angst was replaced by a smile as she realized she could refocus her daughter’s energy this summer towards achieving a similar goal.
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