- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Put a gift shop at the dullest of dull destinations, and most children will beg to explore. This is one of the unwritten rules of parenthood, as I learned on a recent trip to Philadelphia with my children.
They loved their outing, which we made by train (no gift shop but a pricey menu of junk food). We went to Philadelphia's Franklin Institute Science Museum, a wonderful museum that lets children learn the basic principles of engineering, physics and aerospace. It is a place that encourages experimentation there are buttons to push, pulleys to tug and a room-size heart to explore. This place does not need a gift shop.
But like most museums, it has gift shops galore, all equipped with overpriced junk and quasi-educational stuff. I could have maneuvered through the gift-shop trap more easily were it not for my traveling companion a gift-shop addict whose ordinary good sense disappears when she sees snow globes and refrigerator magnets.
"She thinks she's being careful by limiting herself to 17 items," scoffed her mother, who expressed no surprise that her daughter made purchases in every store.
My friend's generous approach with her 7-year-old daughter put a serious crimp into my one-item-only rule with my sons.
Before I knew it, my 5-year-old was holding up $35 airplane models for me to buy. "You're messing me up," I muttered to my friend at one point after she had caved in to a plea for another item her daughter wanted.
My rule on souvenir purchases is that the children can select one item that must be useful and cost less than $5. This amount can buy plenty of pencils, polished stones, postcards and erasers to satisfy their desires.
But faced with a mom who was willing to make multiple purchases, I definitely was not winning popularity contests. Of course, I caved in and bent the rules, even though my upbringing makes it hard for me to justify frivolous purchases.
I grew up in a family in which gift-shop purchases were regarded as things only truly foolish people made the same people dumb enough to buy popcorn and candy at a movie theater.
My father loved to point out how overpriced gift-shop selections were. "Junk," he would say scornfully, predicting that the trinkets I wanted would make me cry because they would fall apart five feet out of the store. I don't suppose I agreed with him until adulthood.
Children seem to know intuitively when they have the upper hand with parents. Precisely when parents are too exhausted to say "no," children make their most outrageous requests.
Another friend of mine experienced this phenomenon recently at Nordstrom when she was buying her son what appeared to be an ordinary pair of running shoes. Poised to sign the charge slip as her 6-year-old bounded up and down the aisle, she was horrified to discover the shoes cost $99. Should she force her son to take off the shoes and face a tantrum? Of course not it was dinner time.
For budget-conscious parents, unplanned purchases such as souvenirs and overpriced shoes can eat a huge hole into savings. One way to avoid this is to set ground rules before leaving home. Here are some ideas for putting a limit on how much money flies away on such occasions:
When planning a trip that will require a lunch or dinner break, decide ahead of time whether to bring food or eat out. Then set a budget. One money-saving strategy is to bring sandwiches and snacks from home but buy cold drinks on the road. This limits the out-of-pocket expense and gives children a taste of something special.
Give children a budget for buying souvenirs before walking into a gift shop. If the children receive an allowance, it is a good lesson to require that souvenir purchases come out of their savings.
Many museums offer special programs for children that include guidebooks that can serve as souvenirs.
Purchase a disposable camera and allow the child to take photographs of the outing. Then get a small photo album or scrapbook in which the pictures, ticket stubs and other memorabilia can be stored.
Buy postcards of the destination and have the children write a few sentences about what they most enjoyed. These can be kept in a postcard box that serves as a reminder of the outing. Be sure to write the date on the card and include other details that will be fun to recall in years to come.
Have a question on work or family finances? Get in touch with Anne Veigle at 202/636-3014 or by e-mail (evie1@infi.net).

More information

Books

• "Saving on a Shoestring," by Barbara O'Neill, Dearborn Financial Publishing, 1995. This book includes easy ideas for saving that can add up when invested properly.

• "Kids and Money: Giving Them the Savvy to Succeed Financially," by Jayne A. Pearl, Bloomberg Press, 1999. This book covers awide range of financial issues affecting children from birth to college.

• "40 Ways to Teach Your Child Values: Honesty, Managing Money and Making Good Choices," Zondervan Publishing House, 1997. The book includes a chart for tracking a child's progress in learning about money.

On line

• The American Savings Education Council maintains a Web site (www.asec.org) that offers ideas for saving money.

• The National Center for Financial Education provides family-oriented financial management books and videos (www.ncfe.org).

• Zillions, PO Box 54861, Boulder, Colo. 80322-4861. Telephone: 800/234-2078. Published by Consumer Reports, this magazine is an excellent tool for opening children's eyes to financial issues. Visit the Zillions education center (www.zillionsedcenter.org).

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