Allowance: When to do It and How to do It

About a year ago, when my son was 3 1/2, he got a case of the “gimmies.” Every time we went to the store, he wanted something, and he had a hard time understanding why we just couldn’t buy him things all the time. What did I do? I started him on an allowance–he had to make his bed, put away his toys without complaining and take his dishes to the sink. If he did this every day, I would give him one dollar a week. Did it work? No, it failed miserably. He hardly did his chores, resulting in no allowance, so when he would ask for something, I would tell him he needed to start doing his chores to earn money. He would go right then and there to make his bed and then come straight to me, with his hand out, stating, “Allowance please.” Clearly, the concept of money and saving wasn’t getting to him. So, when Breezy Mama turned to Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions for help, I found out that I was going about it in the wrong way. Read on to see what the RIGHT way is to instill respect of money, as well as household contributions in your children. –Alex

What age is appropriate to start allowance?
You know it’s time to begin allowance when your kids start asking for “stuff” when you go to the store.  They may not yet understand the value of a quarter or a dollar – but it’s time to start giving them an allowance.

For example when you go to Target and they ask for a new Barbie – you can say… “Did you bring your wallet?” or “Do you have enough allowance money saved?”

For kids who don’t understand the value of money, you can draw 12 rectangles to represent 12 dollars.  Each time they get another dollar – they can check off one of the rectangles.  This puts the ownership on the child, teaches the importance of saving for something special and avoids the in-the-toy-aisle negotiation.

What chores are appropriate? Should we expect the chores to be done everyday or is this too much?
All kids (as young as 18 months) should have daily jobs that contribute to the family.  In fact, I strongly encourage parents to ditch the word “chores” from their vocabulary and replace it with “family contributions.”

It may sound like semantics – but the distinction is important.  “Chores” are just that – a chore!  Using the term “family contributions” reminds kids that while they may not love doing the tasks, their contributions truly make a difference in the family.

Kids should have jobs that they’re responsible for every day.  The jobs may include making the bed, tidying the room, putting their dirty laundry in the basket, etc.  In addition to taking care of their own room, they should also have one or two other household tasks (family contributions) that they are responsible for doing each day.  Toddlers can be responsible for folding washcloths, unloading spoons and forks from the dishwasher, feeding pets, sorting laundry, etc.  Older kids can have family contributions that require more skill – meal preparation, folding laundry, etc.

So, you’re saying that we should give our child(ren) a set amount of money each week–and we should tell them that they are receiving the money as a result of their family contributions?
Kids should get allowance each week to learn about how to use money – to spend, save, give, etc.  This is totally separate from their family contributions.  They do family contributions because they are part of the family.  You can position allowance by saying… “You are really growing up and it’s time that you have your own money so you can buy things that are important to you.”

Again, family contributions are a separate issue.  If kids don’t do their family contributions – we want to use appropriate consequences – not withhold allowance.

When parents link allowance and family jobs – it creates a whole host of problems.  What would you do if only some of the jobs are completed?  What if the job is only sub-standard?  Do you pay ½ of the allowance?  Do they lose it all together?  Parents are on a slippery slope when allowance and chores are connected.

How much should we start with for a 4- 6 year old? What about 7 – 11? (After this, I’m assuming children are already getting allowance in their homes.)
Some parents use the $1 per year rule for allowance, however, I believe a more helpful formula is to begin by figuring out what you want them to buy with that allowance.  Is it just fun money or do you expect them to buy their lunch, pay for going to the movies, cell phone bill, etc.  Do you want them to donate a portion of it?  Figure out what you want them to use their money for and then determine how much it will take to do that.  Also keep in mind if they regularly get money from relatives, you don’t have to give as much for allowance.  Don’t make them too comfortable!  For example, we have an extended family and my kids get money from many of the relatives.  As a result, their allowance has always been very meager – they have money from other sources, so they don’t need as much for allowance.  We don’t want kids to be too flush with cash!

When I was trying to instill a sense of “money” with my son, I told him he’d be getting an allowance and then he could use that money to buy the things he wanted. Since he was 3 1/2, I had said he had to do easy chores, like make his bed and help pick up his toys without complaining. I did this without consulting my husband, so when he came home to find the new situation, he thought that our son shouldn’t be paid for something that he, as a member of the family, should do anyways. What are your thoughts?
Sorry, but hubby is right!  Every member of the family must contribute for the family to function.  This is the #1 problem associated with connecting allowance to family “chores.”  It fosters that mindset that kids only have to help out if they’re getting paid.  We don’t want kids that ask how much they’re going to get paid before they agree to take out the trash.

Instead – use allowance to teach your child how to save for a special toy.  Use family contributions to teach him important life skills and foster his sense of responsibility and pride in knowing that he’s contributing to the family.

What reward is appropriate? Money vs. Toys? And how much money, or what monetary value should be given for the toy?
Allowance should not be used as a “reward.”  Allowance is a training tool to teach kids about saving, charitable giving, budgeting, investing and delaying gratification.  If allowance is used for punishment and reward, the results will be negative for parent and child.

Most parents think that rewarding a behavior (with money or toys) will motivate the child to continue that behavior.  However, the research is very clear that rewards have the opposite effect.  In research studies, kids who are rewarded for specific tasks show less interest in continuing those desirable activities.

Allowance should be used as a training tool.  If parents struggle to get kids to help around the house, they can use appropriate consequences and other Positive Discipline strategies to ensure that the jobs are completed.

When I was growing up, I had a set allowance, but could also earn extra money by doing other things around the house (like pulling weeds–ugh!). Can you recommend “extra” chores that a preschooler would be good at?
We’re not going to pay kids to their normal, daily family contributions – they do these things because they’re part of the family.  However, if they want to earn money by doing extra jobs – outside of their normal responsibilities – that’s great.  Identify age appropriate tasks that your child can do to contribute.  For example, preschoolers can learn to dust baseboards, polish simple silver (with gloves), Swiffer the stairs and more. Take time to train your child on “grown up” jobs and encourage their progress as they become more and more capable.  You love watching them beam with the pride of accomplishment!

Should we use a chart to keep track of what chores have been done for the day?
A chart can be a helpful “self management” tool for your child.  It provides a visual reminder of what has to be done so you don’t have to remind or nag.  Give your child a clipboard and pencil or crayon and let him check things off the list as he finishes.

The chart should not be used for rewards and punishment. Again, while parents may see some short-term excitement about the rewards, research shows that rewards consistently backfire in motivating interest in a particular task over the long term.

Instead, give plenty of encouragement when your child completes the tasks.  Try, “Wow, you are really growing up.  When you do _____, that’s a big job that I don’t have to do and I really appreciate your help!”  Encouragement will do far more to motivate the behavior in the future than a sticker or other reward.  If parents have trouble getting kids to do their family contributions, they can implement appropriate consequences.  (Parents can learn more about the 5 R’s of fair and effective consequences in free training webinars from Positive Parenting Solutions.)

Do you recommend allowing them to spend their money or take some/all to the bank?
Begin early teaching your child how to spend, save and give.  You can purchase banks with spend/save/give compartments or you can use three envelopes. Begin early by encouraging them to give to others in need and save for the future.

I read that some families give a high allowance–say $50–but some of that is used to invest, to donate, and then the rest the child can use how they want. This seems like a pretty advanced concept–what age would this be appropriate for?
Teaching the concept of spend/save/give can begin as early as 4 years old.

However, some families give a large amount and require the child (usually a tween or teen) to purchase his or her own clothes, pay for entertainment, cell phone bill, etc.  – as well as save for the future and invest.  This is a wonderful way to teach fiscal responsibility but requires training.  We can’t expect a child to know how to make wise financial decisions unless we provide training along the way.

One mother asked, “Is it appropriate to do a “punishment” chart? i.e. Should we keep track of when he/she does not listen, do what they are told etc and deduct from their reward chart???”
NO, NO, NO to punishment and reward charts!!!!!  See comments above about rewards and punishments.

Should the reward chart be used for just extra good behavior or for “everyday” things like getting dressed by themselves etc?
NO REWARD CHARTS!  Giving kids a “check list” as a self-management tool in the morning or in the evening can be a great way for parents to get out of the nagging and reminding business.  However, let it be a checklist only.  Tying rewards to everyday tasks fosters the “what’s in it for me” mentality and the perception that kids only have to help out if there’s a reward or payoff in it for them.

The bottom line… rewards create a slippery slope that most parents regret down the road.  Instead, use appropriate Positive Discipline strategies to encourage the behaviors you want to see – cooperation, independence and responsibility and diffuse the behaviors you don’t want to see – power struggles, helplessness and entitlement.

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Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 14. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors permanently without nagging, reminding or yelling. For more information on allowance and for free training resources, visit:

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*Photo taken from Alexander Amatosi, Flikr

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  1. Good info. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for doing this article!! This totally helps me-I was doing it all wrong. Will change to family contributions tonight!

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