Friday, January 23, 2015

Grocery Shopping on a Budget: Teaching Life Skills to My Older Kids

My older two kids (8 and 6) are old enough now that I've begun to feel I should be teaching them life skills beyond using the toilet and bathing. For several months, they have been responsible for folding and putting away their laundry and their three-year-old brother's laundry. Soon, the three-year-old will be assigned to assist them with it, but he's still more of a hindrance than a help. The oldest recently volunteered to completely take over doing their laundry, now that he's finally tall enough to reach the dryer, which is stacked atop the washing machine.

They also are sometimes tasked with emptying the dishwasher and setting the table. Sometimes they help me cook, by measuring ingredients, stirring pots, or reading recipes.

I have them help me straighten up toys, sometimes do some light organizing, and sweep the floor.

Today, I decided to take the opportunity to teach them a little about budgeting.

I've only recently begun to seriously delve into the nitty gritty of budgeting and managing money more proactively. I started experimenting with a new budget software, and I noticed how many skills there are to build, and these are skills that can be easily taught at a much younger age than my tender 33 years. Managing money, spending and saving wisely, being choosy about where your money goes, these are things even a six and eight-year-old can begin to understand.

So I issued the family a challenge. We went to the grocery store this afternoon and we made a goal of spending no more than $150. The idea was to pick and choose the best deals, be aware of prices, find good value for the products we needed, and know when to give something up and when to insist on something based on our family of six's need to eat 20 or so meals per week (assuming we have brunch on the weekend!). I wanted the kids to see that when they ask for just one more bag of chips or a drink or treat at the end of the shopping trip, or this snack instead of that one, or "can we get this, too, please?", it all adds up and may prevent us from buying something else because it maxes out the budget.

I had made a pretty comprehensive list of things we needed. Uncharacteristically, we were out of basics like coffee and salt, sugar and paper towels, so I knew those would take up space in the budget that might otherwise be allotted to snacks or a treat at the end.

It made for a perfect lesson.

I handed the eight-year-old my phone in calculator mode, and every time we chose an item, he added the cost to a running total. We checked unit prices to see if what looked like a good deal actually was one. We chose one brand over another based on whether something was on special. I was able to show that by purchasing a large volume of nonperishable items that were marked down, it would mean we could go several weeks without having to buy it, and it would save several dollars in the long run. I was able to demonstrate that even though it took a little more space in this week's $150, next week we wouldn't need to buy that item at all, so we could use that same space to buy something else that was on sale another time.

And, we had to forego some items. Butter would have taken us over budget. The kids wanted a treat, but when we clocked in at a little over $148 when I added some bell peppers (on sale $1 each) and carrots ($.99/pound) and bananas ($.79/pound), I said we had to wrap it up.

We could have made some exchanges. Maybe we needed butter more than tortillas? Maybe, but a 24-pack of tortillas goes a long way, even in a family of six. Maybe we could have made do with less bread in favor of some apples? Possibly. This kind of thing takes practice!

After purchasing four bags (because, of course, I always forget to bring bags) and the tax on a few non-food items, the total came to $151.54. I gave us all a pat on the back. We did very well!

After the experiment, I asked them what lessons they could take out of our little game. We talked about choosing what we really need and not just grabbing what looks good. We discussed making choices that would be beneficial in the long run and not just something we want right now. We said how if we had to forego an item this week, if we got to buy it in the future, we would be that much more excited to have it. We learned how to read price tags and figure out what they really are saying and not just go, "Oh, hey, that's on sale!"

Now, if we had gone over by $25 or $50, it would have been okay. Truthfully, we may need to go back sooner than a week from now to fill in some gaps. I hope not, because that would dilute the lesson a little. But I think they enjoyed the game, especially my oldest, who is definitely a numbers guy. And I hope that now they can appreciate a little better when I say, "I don't have the money for that right now," or, "That's not in the budget this month," or "Do you want to spend your money on THIS or THAT?" They need to understand that money is finite and you have to make good choices!

What ways have you tried to help your children understand the value of money and how to budget?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Joy of Not Rushing

One of the things I pride myself on is my ability to estimate how long something will take and plan accordingly. I'm rarely late and usually early for appointments, school drop-offs and pick-ups, get-togethers, and so on.

Having four kids, two of whom are toddlers, has made everything take a little longer. It took me a little while to learn to pad my time estimates, but I'm pretty much on my game these days.

Unfortunately, the more personalities involved and the more you have going on, the likelier it is that things won't go quite according to plan.

It's when things start to derail that I am at my worst as a parent.

A three-year-old does not live his life by the clock. He does not care if you need to be somewhere in 15 minutes. He doesn't know what 15 minutes is. He doesn't understand that if he gets to finish watching this episode of "Blue's Clues," Mommy will be late to pick up his brothers from school. He doesn't understand (or care) that if he doesn't walk just a smidge faster, he'll throw off Mommy's carefully laid-out timetable for the afternoon. And he doesn't realize Just. How. Slowly. He's. Eating.

One recent Tuesday, I had the brilliant idea to go to the bank, then hit Target, then eat dinner, then head off to drop my two older boys at Hebrew school. I worked backward from the Hebrew school start time, estimated how long dinner would take, how long Target would take, what I needed to do at the bank (make a deposit in the ATM), how long it would take to get there, added 10 minutes for security and wiggle room, and set out at the appointed time, after filling everybody in on the plan. Everyone was on board, and my oldest even made it into a game to see if we could really hit all of my timing goals.

We got to the bank exactly when I estimated we would. The ATM gave me trouble, so it took a few minutes longer than I expected, but we were still on our way to Target exactly when I hoped to be. I had left us an hour for Target and knew exactly what I needed to get. Of course, once you actually get to Target, you find many other things you, er, "need," but I would have had plenty of time except for three setbacks: the pharmacy, where I just wanted to ask a quick question, was packed; it turned out the last item I needed was across the store from where I was; and the lines at the checkout were long and slow. Still, we had time to eat dinner. If we rushed.

I tried to rush, except...except I forgot to factor in the time it would take to walk across the parking lot to the car with a pokey toddler, unload the Target purchases, then walk back across the parking lot (with a pokey toddler) to the restaurant, which was right next to Target. I tried to rush, but I was met with resistance. He didn't want to hold my hand, so I had to half drag him, fighting and screaming across the parking lot.

And when I saw the line at the restaurant, I knew my timeline was blown. We were going to be late, and there was nothing I could do about it. Had I known it would then take half an hour to get our food after we ordered it, I would have gone somewhere quicker to begin with, but we all had our hearts set on this particular restaurant.

So obviously the three-year-old decides to eat one tortilla chip at a time, one grain of rice, pick at his food. This is how he always eats, but just this once, just this once, I hoped he would hurry himself a bit. But no amount of cajoling, explaining, or chivvying got him to pick up his pace even a little.

I tried to rush, and in the trying, I became more and more impatient. I yelled. I berated. I sighed heavily. Time stretched out. Every little thing seemed to take three times longer than it really did. I was angry and agitated. And when we finally, finally, all got in the car, we were already 15 minutes late, before even driving away. Did it even matter anymore if we rushed? What was another five minutes at this point?

I was so annoyed. I really dislike being late, and I especially dislike when other people make me late, even if those other people are small persons who live their lives marching to a whole different drummer.

By contrast, the following Friday, I had very little to do. I had work to do, but I had largely given up on doing it, because the baby has been clingy and the three-year-old needed attention. I had one short errand to run that was not time-sensitive, and we had a few hours before we had to pick up the older boys from school. I decided to run my errand and then take the little ones out to lunch at McDonald's.

I ran my errand, which took longer than it needed to, but was enjoyable for the relaxed nature of the thing. Then we got to McDonald's, ordered our food, and ate, slowly, savoring every bite of chicken nugget, every french fry, every dip in the ketchup. I set the three-year-old loose in the Play Place, where he climbed up and down and around, calling, "Look, Mommy!" Every glance at my watch showed plenty of time. Plenty of time. He can play for ages. He can just play.

I was so patient. I enjoyed watching him. I enjoyed just sitting, playing Candy Crush, listening to his imaginative game as he climbed through the play structure, narrating his ascent. "Look, Mommy! I can touch the rocks here. Look at this wall! Hi, Mommy! See?" I enjoyed letting the baby explore a little. We were the only ones there. We had the place to ourselves, and it was quiet and pleasant and lovely.

And when we finally really did have to go, we still had a little wiggle room. It didn't matter if we left McDonald's at 2:10 or 2:20. We'd get to the school in time. The only difference would be whether I was first or last in the car pickup line, and did that really matter? Not really. So we made our way to the car, headed on up to the school, and were early for pickup.

As we sat in the car line (we were the second car), I resolved not to rush so much. I resolved to savor the space to breathe a little, to explore, to toddle slowly along, to eat one chip at a time. I want to be on time, but being on time doesn't mean rushing. It means leaving more time to let things fall as they may. It means letting go of an errand or a bit of work to instead let your kid be a kid. He'll have to live by the clock soon enough. Maybe it's time I ditched the watch and joined him in the play structure.