Theme Park of the Day: Disney's Animal Kingdom

Planning your theme park vacation: Teach your kids the power of budgeting

February 12, 2009, 12:28 PM · We've talked before about the importance of saving money in advance for your vacation, and tracking your vacation expenses. People who charge vacation expenses to their credit cards, without giving those charges much though soon find their vacation memories tarred by the months and months of bills that follow.

Today, I want build on that point by talking this week to the parents on the website.

Downtime's great, and vacations are wonderful by themselves. But why miss a great opportunity to teach your kids a lesson or two? Vacation planning's a great time to teach your children the importance of creating and sticking to a budget. Your kids don't have to grow up to be careless with money, and forever in debt. But they need to learn that lesson from you, if they are to avoid what could be the catastrophic expense of learning it on their own.

I'm a big fan of giving kids a set allowance when going to a theme park, with the agreement that the kids will not ask you for any more money, or to buy anything else, once you're on your trip. If you have kids between 10-14, invite them to sit with you as you talk about your vacation plans and set up your vacation budget.

Why 10-14? Kids younger than that typically don't have the skills or patience for the math involved, and kids older than that typically don't have the patience to sit with their parents for more than a moment for any reason. ;-) So you can leave them out of this initial step.

Decide on an amount that you can afford to give each child, then tell them when and where they will get it. Let them know that they are responsible for their own money from that moment forward. If they lose it or spend it on something they don't want, there's no getting more from Mom or Dad.

If the kids want to spend their own money on the trip, too, that's fine. But I don't try to "even it out" by giving more money to a child who has saved less than a brother or sister. That's a lesson, right there, on the value of saving money during the year, and I don't want to undermine that.

It's ultimately up to you how much of an allowance that you can afford to give. Perhaps it's just a child's regular weekly allowance. Perhaps it's something more. But I do think that this is such a potentially valuable life lesson that you should give your child an allowance on a family vacation, so that they can learn this lesson on budgeting their money.

I don't put the kids on the hook for their own meals - meal time is family time in my household. But if kids want a snack between meals (if it's not too close to a mealtime), that's coming out of their money. Same for souvenirs, carnival games and pay-for-play rides. I buy them the ticket, their meals... and that's it.

Of course, simply providing the kids with their own money is just the first half of the lesson. The second comes in the park, the first time your child sees something he or she wants to buy. That's when I remind my kids that they have a limited amount of money, and they ought to spend it well.

I worked one summer in theme park merchandise, and lemme tell you, I don't know of theme park anywhere that's ever run out of a souvenir in the middle of the day. If there's only one left on the shelf, trust me, there's a warehouse with a 100 of 'em out back. You can take the time to make your way around a lap of the park, to see all that's available before you decide to buy. Plus, remind your kids that if they buy something right away, they are on the hook for carrying it around all day. That fact's usually the one that closes the deal on waiting out an impulse purchase.

You're looking for two results. First, your kids stop bugging you for souvenirs, snacks and extras. (No whining! Yes!) Second, you'll see your kids stop to think before reflexively clamoring to buy. Ad I've written throughout this series, the key to financial responsibility is to think before you spend.

Your kids will have a great time on the family's theme park vacation. I hope that this lesson will help them learn how to develop the financial responsibility to have a great time throughout the rest of their lives, as well.

Replies (4)

February 12, 2009 at 2:37 PM · Our son has been earning a weekly allowance since he was about 8 or 9. Vacations have always been in June, so around January is when the family decides where we're going each year. This gives him about 6 months to save his allowance to take with him. As a bonus based on his school performance, I've made a deal with him to match whatever he saves by the time we go on our trip.

Once there, the only thing we pay for is his meals. If he wants some junk toy, candy, etc., he pays for it out of pocket. We've noticed that when it's their own money he's very picky about what he's going to buy, and it's taught him a very valuable lesson that has spilled over to a regular thing at home.

Last year, he even put so much of his vacation money away because there was a pair of tennis shoes he wanted to purchase once he got back hom. The shoes were $49.50 and he gave me $50 to purchase them for him online. Once I purchased it, he asked for his change back. I happily gave it to him.

February 12, 2009 at 4:35 PM · Thats how my parents did it!
February 13, 2009 at 11:20 AM · Our kids have a chore list with points associated. As they perform the chores, the points rack up towards markers where they can cash them out for different things including cash, special events, or shopping. Great for teaching them responsibility and accountability.

We also keep a "change jar" that is really a smaller water cooler tank for stashing change and cash through out the year. So when our kids get an allowance or find money we ask them if they would like to contribute to it. We also empty our pockets each day. We did for 6 months last year and saved $250. We are going on 8 months of saving so far this year and there appears to be double the amount in there althgouh we won't count it until May before we go to Disney in June. We told the kids that outside of their own saved money that we will split up what is in the jar for everyone to take as spending money. They didn't want to work for it at first but I told them I wasn't budgeting spending money so they responsed and it seems to be paying off!

And yes, you have to stand by your boundary of once it's gone, it's GONE! And can't be upset when they ask over and over, it's a great learning opportunity. Just keep explaining it to them and presenting them with their choices and then the results. Easier said than done, right? :)

February 13, 2009 at 3:09 PM · We've been to WDW during various growing stages with our two boys, now 16 and 14.

When they were too small to understand the inflated cost of theme park souvenirs we purchased a few character toys at home at our local discount store and took them with us, wrapped up in colorful paper. Sometimes they received these gifts in the car on the way to the park (especially the first day when they wanted everything they saw the other kids holding), sometimes it was just waiting for them on the bed before they went to sleep. We were able to bypass a lot of eye-candy during the day when we reminded them they had a surprise waiting for them back our hotel.

When they were 12 & 10 they used their own allowance money but could only spend up to $25 for the week. Not only did they have to budget the money, but we asked them to look at their purchase with this in mind: What will I do with it after I get home? We also asked them to walk away from whatever they wanted for one hour and if they still wanted it then they could buy it. Nearly everything in themeparks is strategically placed to guarantee an impulse purchase. I can't tell you how many times they never went back for it after they thought about it! Also, some of the discount stores outside the parks have some great deals and give more bang for your buck.

At 12 & 14 they were more interested in a bag of candy but they still had to pay for it.

We sit down as a family before our vacation and talk about the wonderful things we'll all be doing as well as what is appropriate for everyone to spend, this way there aren't as many bad feelings. We give them a small planner or spare check book register and that helps them keep track of how they've spent their money.

Lastly I believe that a few souvenirs should be part of any memorable vacation. I myself usually come home with a picture frame or holiday ornament, but even if it winds up being something silly or a bag of candy - it's their vacation too. We don't want them to feel bad about their choice. Help your children find opportunities to earn some extra money just for the vacation. Maybe babysitting, washing cars, raking leaves...they'll appreciate their purchases all the more if they've worked and saved for it!

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