6 steps to help kids spend gift cards (without tears!) and learn lifelong money lessons in the process.
I enjoy helping my kids redeem gift cards because they think of the shopping trip as getting to spend their own money, but I know they are learning valuable lessons throughout the process. For example, they learn to stay within a budget, to be selective in their choices and to walk away if they can’t find exactly what they want. Since a kid with a gift card can literally be like the proverbial “kid in a candy store,” the shopping trip can sometimes be frustrating. I have found, however, that taking the time to help kids spend their gift cards wisely will ultimately help them become better shoppers overall. Below are the steps I take to help kids redeem gift cards without meltdowns.
1. Plan Ahead
On a routine shopping trip, it seems nearly everything in the store is something my kids really (REALLY!) need. With their own money, however, they become much more discriminating. To help them make good choices, we talk before entering the store and discuss items they’ve recently asked me to buy—new shoes, hair accessories, music, video games and so forth. Not surprisingly, when faced with the choice to buy these items themselves, most of the things they want are suddenly not worth buying. Anything left on the list is what we look for when we go into the store. Having a mental shopping list helps the kids stay focused and avoid impulse buys.
2. Explain the Limit
My kids used to think that the plastic cards in my wallet could buy anything. Because I pulled the cards out to pay for groceries, school supplies, clothes, fast food and more without saying anything about the family finances, their little minds did not understand that my mind had to calculate whether or not we could afford to make each purchase. I remember my son asking, “how come you say we cannot afford that toy but then you buy groceries at the same time?” Despite explaining how debit and credit cards work on many occasions, my kids did not fully understand that plastic payment has to be within a limit until they started to spend their own gift cards.
When I take my kids shopping to redeem their gift cards, I strictly enforce the limits. They can always choose to spend their own money if they want something that costs more than the value of their cards, but I won’t subsidize purchases. My cards have a limit and so do theirs. (Read here for a list of the best gift cards for kids.)
3. Allow for Mistakes
My son once blew through a gift card buying an armful of junk toys. A couple of days later, when the toys broke, stopped working and otherwise proved to be poor choices, he cried and begged me to take him back to the store to buy something else. I wouldn’t budge. As hard as it was to watch him suffer, the next time he received a gift card, he picked out one durable toy instead of several cheap thrills. I don’t place too many restrictions on what the kids buy with their gift cards because they learn valuable lessons either way. They are proud of themselves when they make wise choices on their own and learn from their mistakes when they don’t.
4. Let Them Do the Math
Shopping helps kids learn practical math lessons as well. When my kids were little, they would simply ask, “If I buy this, do I have money left over for something else?” Now they are old enough to calculate the cost of desired items plus sales tax and figure out if their gift cards will cover their purchases.
5. Encourage Saving
If the kids cannot find something they really want, I encourage them to save their gift cards for later instead of anxiously buying something to avoid leaving the store empty-handed. Responsible spenders know when to refrain from hasty purchases in order to save their money for a future, better buy. I can’t say they always take this advice, but sometimes they do. Once we are out of the store and away from the merchandise, they typically rebound from the disappointment and start thinking of what they’ll look for on our next trip.
6. Be Patient
Do not take kids to spend their gift cards unless you have ample time for meandering the aisles. It’s not fair to rush them when they finally get a chance to shop for themselves–to buy something without begging for it. So get plenty of rest and stay hydrated because you might be in for a retail marathon. If your child really can’t decide, try my method for narrowing choices. From the cart full of possibilities, I pull out just two items and ask, “Of these two, which would you rather have?” Hold onto the winner and get the losing item out of sight as quickly as possible. Pull out the next item and compare it to the first winner. Repeat until a selection has been made.
I’ve helped my kids spend gift cards for years and, as a result, they have become increasingly savvy shoppers. They have also made some surprisingly mature gift card purchases such as new church pants, school shoes and sometimes even choosing to save a portion of their gift cards for later. Though helping kids spend gift cards may require a longer shopping trip and an extra measure of patience, they will develop skills needed to later shop with other (less-forgiving) forms of plastic.
If you have other gift card questions or need gift card help, add a note in the comments below or leave a message for @GCGirlfriend on Twitter.
Happy Gift Carding!
~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend