When I got divorced last year, my three sons — Chase, 11, Spencer, 10, and Logan, 7 — took it really hard. They're very close with their dad, who's a kid at heart (which, coincidentally, is one of the reasons that our marriage didn't work out), so, for them, it was like losing a friend or a playmate.
The boys were so sad all the time. It broke my heart. I wanted so badly to make it up to them. So I'd say, "What can I do to make you feel better?" And, inevitably, they'd say, "Can you buy me…?" and then they'd ask for a new toy or video game, which I'd purchase, even if I couldn't afford it, because it was a tangible way that I could make them happy. Or so it seemed.
The guilt that got me in trouble
Make no mistake: I was in no financial position to buy my kids' happiness, but that didn't stop me from trying. With every grocery shopping trip to Wal-Mart, the boys would wander over to the games or toy aisle, and into the basket went Super Mario this or G.I. Joe that.
I make $80,000 as a sales rep for a small electronics company, and my ex-husband pays minimal child support because he's been out of work for about five years. Once I take care of rent, utilities, food, transportation and medical bills, I have very little wiggle room for "extras" like movies, sports, or vacations. Yet there I was using paycheck after paycheck to buy small extravagances for my kids.
My guilt spending, in addition to being an attempt to appease my kids, was also my way of keeping up appearances. I thought that my friends and neighbors would think we were doing just fine if they saw that my sons had the latest toys and gadgets.
But the truth was that I was barely staying afloat. It took missing my car payment this January (because I'd run out of money paying for extras for my kids) to make me look more closely at my budget. All those little extra purchases for the boys were adding up to about $400 to $500 a month!
The best advice I can share with other moms — especially single moms — is this: Don't give in to guilt.
And, despite all the money I was shelling out for my kids, things at home were still shaky: Being so financially strapped made me more stressed-out and short-tempered with the boys, which in turn made them feel badly. Then I'd want to buy them something to make them happy again … a vicious cycle if ever there was one. Not to mention that my constant yes-ing to my kids' every request was turning them into spoiled brats.
No more Mrs. Money Mom
After I took a long hard look at the problems that my guilt spending was creating — more stress for me, less discipline for my kids — I decided it was time to make a change.
So … I put my kids on a budget. I called it their "commission," a term that I got both from my experience as a sales rep and from a book by the financial expert Dave Ramsey. I didn't want to call their payment an allowance, because it implies that you're entitled to the money you receive, like you get it no matter what. Whereas with a "commission," you really have to earn it. Working in sales, I am paid on commission. If I don't go above and beyond, putting myself out there, hustling to close those deals — then I don't get paid. I wanted my boys to understand this concept.
I sat the them down and told them they were each going to get $40 a month commission for contributing to the household and participating in what I call acts of kindness (volunteering at a charity fundraiser or doing pro bono yard work for a member of our church). They don't have a list of weekly chores, per se, but they know that if they want their commission, when I ask them to do something like empty the dishwasher or take out the trash, they need to do it the first time I ask — not the fifth.
We also have an 80-10-10 rule: They keep 80 percent of their money, and then they put 10 percent in a savings account and give the other 10 percent to charity.
Of course, instituting the "commission" program wasn't all smooth sailing at first. The kids thought I would eventually give in and still buy them whatever they wanted. But I held out and, soon enough, I'd established a new standard.
The double-whammy benefits
At first, my kids would spend their monthly commission right away. It drove me crazy, but I let them do it. I was trying to teach them that this was their money and they could spend it how they wanted. But now they're learning to save their money for bigger purchases. My oldest son, for example, has been saving for three months to buy an iPod.
As for me, my budget spreadsheet is permanently open on my laptop. I look at it multiple times a day. My thinking used to be that if I ignored where my money was going, I wouldn't have to deal with it. Now I'm 100 percent aware of what's happening in my financial life.
The best advice I can share with other moms — especially single moms — is this: Don't give in to guilt. Your kids won't love you less because you refused to buy them the latest video game. If anything, they'll love you more when they see you as the strong and financially capable woman who keeps a roof over their heads.
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