Husband vs. Wife: Break Back to Fill Piggy Bank?

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Lori and Marek Fuchs have never fought in their 16 years of marriage—except over money. In this column, Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs, a real-life married couple with three kids (ages 12, 7 and 5), articulate their very different approaches to personal finance.

This round, he says allowance should just be doled out, like alms. She says no way, Jay. Kids should get some automatically, but work for the rest.

Mrs. Fuchs: Well, they are off ... to school.  And that means only one thing.

Mr. Fuchs: Jumping around clicking our heels?

Mrs. Fuchs: That too.

Mr. Fuchs: Wait, let me guess? With the summer ending, family rules, which turned lax over the summer, are normally reset and here’s the most important: How high should allowance fly and—this is the key—should it be contingent upon chores?

Mrs. Fuchs: Did the kids hire you as their mouthpiece? I’ve been followed around for days by kids making the case for bigger allowances, to blow on everything from more Abercrombie (Stock Quote: ANF) to iTunes (Stock Quote: AAPL). Some have even tried to convince me they would do chores to get more money!

Mr. Fuchs: Well, of all our financial planning struggles and mess-ups, allowance is right up—or down—there. It’s hard to figure out how much to pay and we’ve gone through jags where we’ve forgotten to pay altogether, running up big-time debts to knee-high people.

Mrs. Fuchs: Since that article ran at the beginning of the summer, we’ve been better about ponying up. And we’ve never made allowance (when we’ve managed to pay it) contingent upon chores. Chores just seem to be something kids should do to contribute to the household. As the school year begins, though, and we refigure the division of labor around the house, I’m wondering if we should re-think that. Would they be less grumpy about helping out if their financial well-being is dependent upon it? Could it lighten our load a bit, while giving them extra money they want to spend on Aeropostale (Stock Quote: ARO)?  Is feeding the dog worth a buck a week bump and does it teach kids about personal finance—or just set them up for failure? Or simply to be mercenaries?

Mr. Fuchs: Those are interesting conceptual questions, thank God. I get a little glassy-eyed these days thinking family finance, as it’s all about lame money-saving tips. Here’s Oprah.com recently preaching reusing stale bread and refurbishing a hand-me-down double breast pump.

Mrs. Fuchs: Don’t tease Oprah. That’s sacrilegious. Just answer my question. And stay focused.

Mr. Fuchs: I really don’t know. I guess make allowance contingent upon a laundry list of chores and withhold unless every item is checked off.

Mrs. Fuchs: Wrong.

Mr. Fuchs: Wrong? Why?

Mrs. Fuchs: Well, my parents had a system like that when I was a kid.  I did my chores and got my allowance. My sister, however, decided that allowance wasn’t worth the hassle of doing chores. She rarely did chores and didn’t seem to miss the money. Or the chores. It definitely caused arguments and resentment. I don’t think it worked.

Mr. Fuchs: So what’s your alternative to this tried and true American tradition of learning to argue and resent others over money?

Mrs. Fuchs: Well, kids should get allowance to teach them to budget money. Separately, though, they should do chores to learn that from a young age that consistent work begets consistent money. We should give them a base allowance. At the same time, we should give them the opportunity to earn regular money over their base allowance by taking on extra jobs around the house.

Mr. Fuchs: Holy nuanced thought, Batman! Most articles (like this one and this one) and experts recommend just doling out allowance, without linking it to chores. But that doesn’t sound right to me either. Giving a baseline amount without lifting a finger is OK, I guess, but what if the kid is enterprising? They can add a consistent chore and, if it’s actually done, earn a regular weekly bonus. If not, the money burns a hole in my pocket.

Mrs. Fuchs: Well, mine. But you are right about the rest. The key is consistency. In other words, if they want to take the new chore, which is above and beyond the call of normal duty, that’s fine. But they have to do it on an ongoing basis. That’s teaching them work skills. If it’s a one time thing, we’re just as well handing the money out like alms. Now who’s going to run the family meeting to present it to them?

Mr. Fuchs: My pleasure. I like the idea of linking money to the children’s ongoing efforts. Speaking of linking money to effort, I’m feeling a little tapped out here. Think it’s time to hit send and get paid.

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