Pocket money: a balancing act

Jo Bowman

IT'S NICE WORK if you can get it. Make your bed in the mornings and occasionally feed the dog, and get paid hundreds - or even thousands - of dollars each week. Better still, it's tax-free and paid in cash. It's pocket money, and for many children it's their first taste of financial independence.

For parents, it's a balancing act. They want to give enough to allow their junior consumers to buy some of the things they want, but not so much that the idea of budgeting is as far from their young minds as homework during the holidays.

The result is that Hong Kong children are being handed anything from $20 to, in rare cases, $5,000 each month in pocket money - as much as many working adults earn.

One way to teach them the value of money is to encourage teenagers to work part-time, but that's not an option for the younger brigade.

Some parents opt out of the pocket-money question altogether, choosing instead to buy their children everything they need and give them special treats from time to time.

'I don't believe in it. They don't need to be carrying money around. There's so many spoiled kids in Hong Kong,' says one Sai Kung mother of two children aged 12 and seven.

'I just think if they need something they can ask for it. They don't understand money well enough yet to plan how they'll use it and save it. At Lunar New Year both of them get a lot of money in lai see packets - about $1,000 each - but they just put the packets in little places all over the house and they get lost.'

She added that at this age, getting them to concentrate enough to earn their pocket money washing the car or feeding the pets, isn't an option.

Social worker Cindy Leung Yuen-ching, who visits many schools in her work for the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, says that most children start receiving pocket money around the age of nine.

How much they get varies from $50 a week to $5,000 a month, depending on the family's income and whether they're expected to buy meals and pay for transport.

'Giving pocket money to a child is a very positive thing - it can teach them about making decisions and problem-solving,' Leung says.

'But parents have to monitor their children and encourage a healthy attitude towards money.

'The youngsters have to be able to balance their basic needs with special spur-of-the-moment buying,' she says.

One Discovery Bay couple give their children a different amount according to their age and how much they are likely to need: the eldest son, 17, gets $400 a week. His brother, 14, gets $300, and their nine-year-old sister gets $20.

'They definitely learn something from having pocket money. We want them to become aware of the value of money and try to discipline themselves,' their mother, a lawyer, says.

'We expect them to keep their rooms reasonably tidy, but that's just fighting a losing battle, and we ask the 14-year-old to wash the car, but we don't expect them to do jobs for it.

'We talked about it with them and they wanted more, but we just worked out what we thought they really needed. They say their friends get so much more money, and I think they do.'

The boys have a friend who sometimes gets $4,000 a week, she says.

'We didn't want them to have too much money, but it tends not to be enough, especially during the holidays when they're doing a lot. I'm usually handing out $100 here and $200 there for extra things. Our eldest has a very active social life, and when you go to the movies you don't get much change from $100.

'Our daughter obviously doesn't need any money, so it's just for her to buy things for her hair if we're at Stanley Market or whatever,' the mother says.

'She's much more responsible with her money than her older brothers - she'll deny herself something and save up for something she wants, but she has to hide her money from the boys.'

Leung says that while many children are good at saving for something they really want, if they are not supervised, some will go without lunch for a week so they can afford to buy the electronic game that everyone in their class already has. 'But even that has a positive side in a sense, because the children are learning their own ways of achieving what they want. But we have to teach parents that they have to monitor how their children are spending their money.'

The social worker says busy working parents often compensate their children with money when they can't afford to give them time. This, she says, can rub off on the youngsters, who get a skewed view of what money is for and may end up trying to 'buy' friendships.

'If parents don't really have time to spend with the child they feel guilty, or sometimes they're really busy and they give the child more money because they don't want any trouble - they don't want the child to steal or have problems,' Leung says.

'We've seen cases where, for academic reasons or their physical appearance, some children are not welcomed by others. They want to have peer support and they'll buy things for other kids to buy their friendship.'

Leung suggests that parents work out how much their child needs for bus fares, drinks and snacks, then add a bit for entertainment if the child is old enough to go out alone.

'Help them set a goal and save for something they want to buy,' she says.

Instead of giving children money as a reward all the time, offer other treats such as allowing them to choose a family day out.

Leung says giving children money for doing basic chores at home is not a good idea, though it is worthwhile rewarding a child who does something beyond their fair share.

Saying 'you can have $1 or $10 for this household task', or 'you got good examination results so here's some money' is too money-minded and it is not good to talk about money all the time within the home, she says.

'And of course some household jobs should be shared, and it's best to develop the habit of helping tidy up when the child is very small.'

Leung acknowledges that negotiating with children when they will get pocket money, how much they will get - and, of course, what they can spend it on - is sometimes a headache that parents could do without.

But she says the benefits for the child's growth make it worth tackling. 'Parents may think their child's not mature enough, but then they deprive the child of an opportunity to learn some very important lessons and develop autonomy,' Leung says.

'Giving children pocket money is a risk-taking step . . . parenting is a lifelong process and you have to take risks before your child can grow.'