Growing Kids Self-Control For $5 a Week

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4 min read. Investing, Mindfulness.

Marshmallows and smores

When I was a kid, my dad (perhaps accidentally) stumbled on a way to grow my self-control. In addition to my $10 a week allowance which could be spent on whatever I wanted, he gave me $5 a week that I needed to save. This started when I was about 8 years old or so and continued until I went to college. Once I had $100 saved up in my dresser drawer, we went to the bank and opened a savings account for me.

After that, I’d continued getting that $5 a week. Once the amount grew large, he’d say it was time to go to the bank and make a deposit and we’d head over there. These deposits didn’t happen often. At first, it was every few months, then once or twice a year, then every few years. I remember depositing more than $500 at least once – which is 2 full years of savings.

The main thing this taught me was self-control. There was this abundance of money right there that I couldn’t spend on all kinds of cool things — video games, baseball cards, magic cards or even pogs! There were times when I did secretly dip into this fund, but then repaid it back with my own allowance.

For this experiment, my dad didn’t ever chastize me for any behavior with money. It was all a co-learning experience. I think that’s an important part. If done wrong, this experiment could have fractured my relationship with money.

I learned a lot from this endeavor. How bank accounts work, how to write a deposit slip, how to withdraw money and how to not spend money when I have it.

Later On in High School

By high school, this fund was up to over $2,000. My friends and I noticed a number of clubs around the school were selling candy at crazy markups. We thought “Hey, we can buy candy cheap and undercut their prices” – and my first side hustle was born.

Me and 3 friends would take out money from my bank account on Monday, head over to Sams Club and buy hundreds of dollars in candy to sell. We would divvy it up so we all had a variety and even recruited other people to sell for us earning a cut of the profits. At the peak, we were probably selling $300-$400 in candy a day (net) with profits around $75.

One sales technique that was extremely helpful was going to the bank and getting half-dollar coins and 2-dollar bills. People would buy candy just to get that novel currency in return. (who doesn’t love two dollar bills?)

Having the capital to try something like this was only possible because I had that savings handy. There’s no way my dad knew that I was going to grow up and invest it in a sugary enterprise, but having the option allowed it to happen.

Eventually, this money would become my college laptop fund – a Compaq computer I used the hell of back in 2000.

Why Grow Self Control in Kids?

The reasons for growing self-control may be self-evident but it’s important to point out. With increased self-control, you’ll have increased self-preservation, self-assertion and self-fulfillment. An article on SkillsYouNeed puts it well:

The basic premise of self-control is the use of reason to control instinct, whether that instinct is for something bad or against something that is good for us. In an age of instant gratification, it is perhaps an unusual and under-valued quality but, nonetheless, one worth striving for.

The connection between self-control and reason is the important part to me. There’s a core part of self-control in everything from mindfulness to science and everything in between. This can even help grow focus and be more productive by living in the moment. Growing this muscle early can help kids ask “why” and come to their own conclusions.

The Marshmallow Test

One of the most famous studies on self-control is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. The premise was simple: kids were offered a sugary treat now, or two if they waited 15 minutes. During that time the researcher would leave the room and the kid would be alone with for 15 minutes with the marshmallow, cookie or pretzel.

What kids did during this period was actually very entertaining.

When followed up with decades later, the kids that opted for delayed gratification had the best life outcomes – that is they had better SAT scores, more education, lower body mass index and more.

Having self-control as a kid was a jumping off point to many successes in life. In the early retirement community, self-control is a shared cornerstone that’s not just a nice to have, but a necessary requirement.

Adapting This to Adults

Since “becoming an adult” and having more money to spend (or credit), the marshmallow test holds a new meaning for me. It’s no longer the sugary dessert that would be luring me in; it’s the expensive dinner out now, rather than cooking for myself and taking longer. It’s the expensive vacation I could take now rather than using points and planning to take a similar trip for much cheaper. It’s paying to see a movie in theaters rather than waiting for it to come out on Netflix.

When looking through this lens, a great many purchases that I make today are me choosing not to delay gratification. I can try to justify it to myself and say “I have the money but not the time”, but that doesn’t change the choice. This is an area I want to try to improve on in the new year by asking myself:

Can I delay this purchase?

A $100 Challenge

Tim Robbins has mentioned that he keeps $100 (well $300 actually) on him at all times. His reason for this is a little different than mine:

I keep three $100 bills in a money clip. The $100 bill technique was taught to me by my mentor, Jim Rohn. The idea behind it was that even if you don’t have money, seeing the hundred dollar bills would change your psychology and train your brain to think rich instead of poor. As a result, you would attract more money and success.

His focus is around bringing success into his life. He’s looking at it 2 steps down the line. Success is a product of self-control in my eyes, and this is a path that makes sense. If you can hold $100 in your wallet and not spend it for days, weeks or months, you can start to better understand your spending habits.

Self-control has a lot of aspects, but not spending money when you can is a major place of growth if you want to be financially independent.

Did you learn about self-control at an early age? If so what worked? What works today?

Comments (22)

  1. I love your candy-selling hustle! My parents also had me split my money between 4 goals. Spending, Saving, College and Charity. It was exciting to see the jars fill and I could choose to put more from Spending into another jar if I wanted. It helped me to realize the consequences of my decisions (good and bad).

    1. The charity one is an awesome addition to this! That’s one muscle I didn’t exercise enough as a kid, but think with a little tweak to this exercise it could help build self-control and increase empathy as well.

  2. That’s a good trick from your dad. I’ll do the same for my son when he starts getting an allowance. Although, he already have $200+ from various birthday gifts over the years. Kid accounts aren’t that common anymore, though. I need to find a bank that does it.
    The $100 bill trick from Tony Robbins sounds interesting. I wonder if it really works. I have about $20 in my wallet and rarely spend it.

    1. I didn’t realize that kids accounts were that tricky! In my case I opened it with a regional bank, cosigned by my dad. It wasn’t until many years later I realized that I could withdraw funds without him being there.

    2. If you want to use a brick and mortar, which can be easier for younger kids to grasp, most credit unions offer kids accounts. That’s what we did with our four year old. Bonus is they have a coin counting machine which is free for members to use! Helps with all the change he accumulates by being cute. 😉

    1. Glad you like the idea! One other reason why I like it is because I track all money that I spend, and things are muuuuch easier to track if I spend using a credit card. My first thought is: “is it worth it to track this purchase manually by spending cash?”. If the answer is no, that’s a good indicator to not spend it on the card either.

  3. I love this because it is something I try to teach my kids too. They’re always so anxious to go spend all their money on candy and silly stuff they quickly lose interest in. I like the idea of forcing them to keep a portion for savings and only using it for something bigger that they know they will enjoy for a long time.

    1. Glad you like the idea Mike! I’d be curious how it goes for other kids. My small of 1 means the results haven’t yet been reproduced. If you do try something like this, I know I’d love to hear how it goes.

  4. I like the technique that your dad did, and find it hilarious you occasionally “secretly dipped” into it.

    As sad as it may be, I’m surprised the school didn’t shut down your little candy-selling operation, especially since it competed with club sales. I’m glad they didn’t, though!

    1. They eventually did haha. I wound up in the principals office one day with a friend who we had provided candy to sell for a cut. After that we had to move underground, and only sell to people who asked for it.

      The best part though was when we went on a multi-day overnight field trip and we brought about $500 in candy in a cooler large enough to fit a body in. We ended up selling out – including to every teacher there due to lack of competition.

    1. Ah man, that sounds like a scary one. The worst that would happen to me was a slap on the wrist by the school. Smuggling gum into Singapore sounds a lot more scary!

  5. I had no restraint in childhood. I could blow through money in a matter of days. I had pretty gnarly ice cream truck and town pool concession stand habit. I actually got much better in adulthood. My inclinations haven’t changed. However, I figured out ways to work around them so they wouldn’t be a hinderance. That’s why automation and direct deposit were the best things to ever happen to me. I’ve managed to save money, pay off debt, invest, and put myself in a pretty decent position by just understanding how I operate and adjusting my finances to it.
    I guess I’m the exception in this case as age brought more maturity.

    1. Automation is a good way to trick yourself into having self-control. I struggle with eating healthy, but having my meals automated would be a nice way to trick myself into doing that (or preparing meals ahead of time).

  6. I’d wondered what we’d do for our little one to teach about the importance of savings and restraint when the time comes because we’re far better off than we were when I was a child. I thought it was because of that childhood poverty, I always had that sense of needing to save for a rainy day, but my sibling who grew up in the same circumstances was always spendthrift. This may be one of the ways we teach JB when ze gets a bit older!

  7. This is interesting. I’m thinking about giving my kids an allowance, but I want to tie it to chores since I don’t want them to think money comes free. But I do like the idea of forcing them to save.

    1. The way allowance works can probably differ a ton based on the motivation of your kids too. My allowance wasn’t tied to chores, but then I also did every chore that was ever asked of me without talking back. Everyone has different motivations though, but if you know which ones to pull on, that’s a good lever for saving.

  8. I’d save up birthday money and just because money (I didn’t need the $0.50 you from the machine at the grocery store). One day one of my parents needed change for a $100 bill they got at the bank and I was able to break it for them. That was when they set a limit on my stash and we’d top off the bank account. It definitely showed my save tendencies which has turned out ok.

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