A number of years back, I opened a junk mail letter and a $10 bill fell out. When does that ever happen? “Nora,” I called out, “we’re rich!”
To that point, the day was unremarkable. A slate sky. A slug workday. At home, a mountain of junk mail by the door. When was the last time I received a personal hand-written letter? I couldn’t remember. Nothing to do with my not sending any personal hand-written letters, I’m sure.
I always open my junk mail. It’s probably related to my interest in marketing and human psychology. What tactics do they use to appeal to my empathy (non-profits) or my greed/fear (commercial)? How good is the story-telling? How effective is the personalization? How close to real-looking is the machine-printed cursive that is meant to look like a hand note? How good is the call to action in the letter’s P.S. line? I can’t remember the last time I actually bought something based on an unsolicited mailer, but I like to objectively evaluate how close I come to doing it.
I gotta tell you, receiving an Alexander Hamilton in the mail throws my objectivity out the window. Where do I sign up? It’s certainly miles ahead of that repeated Catholic Relief Services mailer with the worthless angel coin that is the death knell of paper shredders across the country.
After some frantic skimming, I determined the letter was from Arbitron, a radio and TV ratings tracking company similar to the better-known Nielsen (which, go figure, has since bought Arbitron). And get this: They wanted us to sign up so they could give us more cash. I love this country!
The deal: For three years, the four of us would have to wear their ‘Portable People Meters’ all our waking hours, then put them in a charging dock at night. That’s it. Their technology would do the rest – listen for what we watch/listen to using inaudible (to humans) signals, and report the media consumption to the mother ship so advertisers could understand audience size. Minimally creepy, and did I mention they would pay us for this? The kids too?
I always imagined we would put the kids to work :), but this accelerated the schedule. What to do with the income? We certainly didn’t want to travel the path well worn by the parents of Gary Coleman, Macaulay Culkin, and LeAnn Rimes, where we siphon the income of our precocious children, leaving them broke, embittered and estranged.
And this gave us the opportunity to teach good money management, free of theoretical artifice – this wasn’t monopoly money. Ok, it wasn’t Hollywood money either – about $20-30 a month each, depending on incentives.
Pretty quickly, we realized there was going to be a lot more to this than just counting bills as they rolled in. Pippa was in 3rd grade and Grey was in 1st and remembering to wear a flip phone-sized meter on their belt every day was clearly not top of mind. Especially for Grey.
Despite lots of reminders and reviewing together Arbitron’s fancy online charts showing meter usage, Grey always scored worst, missing Arbitron’s cash bonuses for remembering to wear your meter every day.
How do you make money real to a 1st grader?
Me: “Grey, do you want a million dollars or a toy dump truck?”
Grey: “A Dump Twuck!!”
We’d been putting their work money in bank accounts in their names. That was easy for us to do, and it felt like we were doing right by them – they’d have the money later when they needed it and knew what to do with it. But the lack of connection between their ‘work’ (wearing their meter) and their income (dump twuck) meant our kids felt no investment or ownership in the program.
We’d have to bring the money into our house to make it real. So we started cashing their checks and discussing what we’d do with it. There were ground rules. They had to put 50% aside for saving and 10% for tithing. The rest they could spend on toys or apps or other charitable giving. I’ve since learned that there is a pretty cool piggy bank that helps kids see how they are contributing to these different saving, donating, and spending buckets.
I’m not gonna lie – Grey still never won “Employee of the Month” in our family work group of four. He was still a 1st grader with all the super cuteness and frustration that parents of early elementary schoolers know all too well. But he did now have the basic understanding that putting on your meter in the morning (and putting it in its charging dock at night) meant that he could be a contributing member of church when the plate is passed, as well as the envy of his playgroup when he was the one with the cool Lego assembly to share that week. Not a bad realization for a little guy.