By Shaun Kempston ’04
Illustrations by Annie Bratko ’14
Growing up, I was a greedy little kid. Not your average “whadya bring me?” type either. I was born in 1981 and family members called me Alex P. Keaton (after Michael J. Fox’s character on “Family Ties”) because I was so money-focused. It was cute, until it wasn’t.
I’ll prove it to you in five ridiculous anecdotes:
1. I learned how to swim in garbage for profit.
I saved up for my first Nintendo by dumpster diving—at age 5. We lived in Monterey, Calif., where they printed the magic words “CA REDEMPTION VALUE” on cans and bottles. My dad would take me to the park by our house and chuck me over the side of a big green metal container. Miraculously, I was never stabbed by unmentionables sticking out from the garbage. I loved it. It was free money from the trash. I now have a 6-year-old boy. My wife would kill me if I did this with him.
2. Fiscal sanctions worked on me by age 7.
Once my parents figured out that money was a pain point, my punishments shifted from “go to your room” to “I’m going to fine you 10 cents.” And this worked. Really well. The threat of a deduction from my tiny allowance sent me into a flurry of apologizing and correcting of wrongdoings. It was a new terrible power they had over me. My parents were/are smart.
3. International deals and border crossings by age 8.
We traveled to England when I was 8. We were there six weeks, did a home exchange (a different cool story), and had a great time. I knew the daily exchange rate EVERY DAY. Yes, that’s weird. Anyway, I converted all my dollars to pounds and then back again at just the right times at the exchanges, turning my $50 into $70—a seemingly infinite amount of money. I rejoiced in the Nintendo games I was able to buy.
4. I didn’t deal drugs, but I did sling Now and Laters.
I would ask my mom to buy bulk-sized candy at the giant wholesale store, and then I’d resell pieces of it to the kids at school whose parents wouldn’t let them eat candy. My mom thought I ate a lot of candy. My “clients” thought four Now and Later pieces for 50 cents was reasonable given their circumstances.
5. My greed reached all the way to outer space.
I became an expert on the push and pull of the moon in eighth grade. Studying the tide tables allowed me to excel at my used-golf-ball business. We lived close to the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, which runs right along the Pacific Ocean, and my dad and I knew a secret street you could park on close to the 18th hole. There was a path and some rocks you could jump down to where the normally crashing waves would recede perfectly, allowing you to scoop up 50 to 200 errant golf balls on a good run. The frustrated golfers’ hook shot became my financial boon. I’d wash the golf balls in my bathtub and resell the nice ones for $20 a dozen to Dad’s friends, and the bad ones for 10 cents each to a driving range. This perfect job ended only because my dad slipped on some algae and kissed the uncompromising rocks with his back. Hey, he knew the risks.
All this to say, as a parent of two boys today, I think the biggest advantage to this greedy trait is that your children may be more open to bribery, making it easier to potty train, take long car rides, and survive airport security. Because we all know that a child impervious to bribes is a scary proposition to take out in public. But you don’t want to take it too far.
So how do I teach my kids not to be greedy about money?
Don’t worry, my parents tried to teach me. It was my fault, not theirs. But aware that I might be passing on my uniquely strong, greedy genes to my sons, I started thinking more about how to talk to them about money.
But teaching your kids about finances is a tough one. Sure, you can go out there and read all the books and mommy blogs on the subject—but every kid, parent and situation is unique. Plus, your kids will conjure up curveballs when you are too tired to want to answer constructively. And they can sense the right time to strike.
My 6-year-old son has an incredible memory, so I’m regretting the time he was 4 and I told him my credit card was “magic money.” That’s led to fun conversations like this:
“Daddy, how much dollars do you have?”
“Enough for more toys?”
“Enough for food and gas and the roof. Your dollars are for more toys.”
“But I don’t have enough dollars.”
“Exactly. That’s pretty much how everyone feels.”
And then he’ll ask 500 more questions. That’s because it’s hard to just tell your child about money. You have to show them. Usually this happens when they break something expensive—like what happened to my friend Matt:
When my son was 4, he climbed our television stand and pushed the TV off. We wanted to replace it but didn’t want him to think “money grows on trees” and anything broken was easily replaceable. In order for him to experience losing something valuable and the satisfaction of working to buy something nice, we told him he was going to have to buy us a new TV. We gave him age-appropriate chores (brushing his teeth, cleaning up his blocks, etc.) and paid him in nickels, dimes and quarters.
We went two months without television, and every time he asked to watch a show, we reminded him that we didn’t have a TV. When his piggy bank was full, we took him to the CoinStar and got $20. We then went to Costco and he “bought” us a TV with his $20 bill.
I have to hand it to Matt; I would’ve bought a secret TV. And before you say, “He was only 4?!” realize that in this instance, his son was able to grasp the concept. Your situation may look different. Either way, kudos to Matt and his wife for being intentional.
Another way of being intentional about money is to show your child how to give it away. This teaches two things God cares about:
1. Helping others is important.
2. Money shouldn’t control you.
Plus, it sets a good example when they see you giving to those in need.
One fun and practical idea I’ve had was this—go grab your kiddo and cruise a charitable microfinance site where you can help people in developing countries. Ask your child what kind of business they would start if they could. If they are little, like mine, ask questions like:
“Would you rather work with animals, run a lemonade stand, do arts and crafts, or help daddy fix stuff?”
If I asked this, my kid would be curious what I ever fixed around the house, but you get the idea. Anyhow, depending on what they pick, choose to help a person in a similar business.
Animals = Agriculture
Lemonade stand = Stores
Arts and crafts = People who make things
Fix or clean stuff = Anything service-industry related
Let your kid pick out who you want to help and then check back occasionally to see what’s been happening with the person you’ve helped. Consider it a creative alternative to the old-school method of picking pretend stocks and following them over a few months. It’s cool that it naturally opens up many conversations about loans, banks, savings accounts, basic money principles, and what God wants us to do with our money.
And for me, it is all about the money. I get it. I preach it (as you’re experiencing now). Wanting to buy stupid video games motivated my little-kid business ventures. How much more motivated is a dad trying to send his kids to school? A mom trying to feed her family? A parent who says, “My child will have a better life than I?” These are real people and real situations in which you are helping. Give hardworking people access to money and cool things happen.
As a former greedy-kid-turned-dad who lives to provide for his children, microfinance hits me right where I care the most, and hopefully it will shape my kids’ hearts, too.
A story about that one time I gave one dollar away.
Before last Christmas, our pastor gave a sermon about giving. Pretty typical, you think. But he never talks about money. Our church doesn’t even pass the offering plate (a fact that surprises a lot of people). So it stood out that week, and he addressed it upfront. “I’m going to ask you all to do something at the end of the service.” And I was thinking this was not going to go well but should be entertaining.
The end of his message comes, and he holds up a $100 bill and says, “I’m going to give you money today. No, not $100, I’m just holding that up so I have your attention.” The gist of it was this: during communion a basket of $1 bills had been placed next to the bread. We were all to take one and keep it with us to find a certain time to give it away. Or we could keep it or forget about it and be that guy.
I loved the idea. I had never heard about anyone doing this before, although I’m sure they have. Our pastor had everyone sweating that he was going to ask them to give, but then he asked them to give in this unique way, and they were all excited. (Jesus was really good at that, turning things upside-down for good. “The last shall be first, the first shall be last” and so on.) And when I put the dollar in my wallet, I could feel it in there. Sure it was just a buck, but the lesson was worth a lot more than that.
Call me cold-hearted, but I am notorious for staring down Girl Scouts at the front of the grocery store and saying, “No thanks, but good luck today!” I get terrible looks from people when I tell them this. I am also immune to Boy Scouts selling popcorn. I know, I know, as soon as my kids hit that stage, I will be a marshmallow on this one. (Or if they ever figure out that I can’t say “no” to hot wings, I will be in trouble and broke in a short time).
But for now I think this saying “no” is some kind of super power. But probably the same super power Pharaoh had in the story of Moses, so not one you particularly want to have. Wait, that makes me the villain.
Anyway, my kids and I are often confronted by various people outside of Albertson’s asking us for money for good things. Most of the time I just want to shop and use that as an excuse to exercise my super power. But now that I had this dollar I was mandated to give away, I needed to use it where at least one of my children could see.
So one day I was with my older son at the grocery store, and I gave him the dollar and prepped him to give it to the Christmas bell-ringer. He was really excited and ran up to the older man, who was actually a grandpa there with his whole family. My son put it in the container, but it didn’t go in all the way, so the man gave him a wooden stick to shove it in there. I told my son to say thanks and we were on our way, but he still had the stick in his hand. I asked him to give it to the man, but he misheard me.
Instead, he ran up to the guy and gave him the biggest, gangly little-kid hug, the kind with no abandon. It really caught the grandpa and his whole family off guard, but in a good way. (I was just glad my son didn’t hurt the guy.)
They laughed and Awwwwwed and I was completely unprepared for this and got a little teary-eyed. But I was in public so I just nodded to them and ducked into the store with my son. I was really proud of him, but at the same time I didn’t want him hugging any more random men, so I phrased my praise carefully. “Doesn’t it feel good to give to others?”
Now obviously, our kids need to see us give away more than just one dollar, but it’s the moral of the story here. They need a lifetime of lessons and examples, but each one starts with just one dollar and how we let God use it in our hands.
So what happened to that one greedy kid (me)?
Well, one day he grew up into a cheap husband—or as I like to spin, a “Maximizer.”
The tale of the maximizer: On a whim on Christmas Eve, my wife and I threw together a last-minute present for each of our boys. The “gifts” had been sitting in my trunk after living in my parents’ storage closet for decades.
Gift 1: 30+-year-old Star Wars figures I either inherited or stole from my older brother. (I don’t know if he knew I had them, so if he’s reading this now: You can’t take them back, because you’ll make my kids cry. Or you can wait until they’re older and ignore the tears. Your choice.)
Gift 2: Legitimately-acquired G.I. Joe vehicles I got at a garage sale in 1989.
As epic battles ensued in a cross-genre collision of plastic and nostalgia, my wife and I high-fived each other, pleasantly surprised to have made such a success of Christmas morning.
Now before you call us cheap, I should add that she (the smart one) had also bought them a regular number of new toys, which they also enjoyed. But this example is just one of many that have earned me a special nickname: “Maximizer.”
This title is usually uttered by my wife in a tone that blends sarcasm and praise, because it’s my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I have to get every last drop out of everything. It’s a quality that both saves money and is incredibly annoying at times.
The origin of the nickname was a professional strengths test that I took at work. I was the only one out of about 50 people who fell into the “Maximizer” category: someone who “capitalizes on the gifts with which you are blessed.”
When I asked my wife her thoughts about this trait of mine, she was nice about it, “It’s a very good quality, even though it can be frustrating, because it has really saved us money over the years.” These three examples of maximizing will show you why I’m grateful that she is so kind and patient toward me in this area.
Good—keeping my car alive against its will: My hand-me-down 1998 Honda Accord (nicknamed “The Ubiquitous White Honda” because I often try and open other peoples’ cars that I think are mine) has passed 200,000 miles—a feat I share with everyone, including total strangers. I love that car so much that I bought it a new timing belt as a reward.
One day it will break down on the interstate, and it will be like one of those scenes in a movie where someone has to put down an old animal they love. I’ll return to the spot of the breakdown once a year and pour out a little drop of coffee for my dead roadie homie.
On the other hand, part of me is so scared of it breaking down that I carry extra food, clothes, and blankets in case it’s snowing when it finally dies. I could just light it on fire for warmth, but I like not going to jail, so I probably won’t do that.
Bad—my obsession with free heat: When we first got married, I would burn all our newspapers, junk mail, flammable trash, etc., in our fireplace, calling it “free heat” and telling my wife not to turn up the thermostat.
One day our condo association decides to have a chimney sweep (yes, they still exist) clean the fireplaces of all the units. I was at work, so my wife got the earful from the guy. “Do you guys use your fireplace a lot? Yeah, I can tell, this is a fire hazard.” Anyhow, I don’t blame her, but my wife served me up on a platter to this guy, and my days of free heat were over. On the plus side, our place never burned down.
More good than bad—my unique eating disorder: I eat all the leftovers in the fridge, no matter their age or if I even like them or not. This may have resulted in a sick day or two, but it saves on lunch expenses.
My secret? Throw leftovers in a tortilla so it is taco-shaped, that always makes food taste better. The positive side is that I’ve discovered some really weird food combos that are actually really good. Tortillas with cream cheese and smashed Doritos. Chopped up old chicken nuggets and lettuce for semi-real tacos—I’ll stop there.
Another area I have to maximize is in giving to charity. My brain hurts if I don’t make my dollar go absolutely as far as it’s able to. Working at a charity, I know exactly how great the need is and how important it is that the dollars do what they are supposed to do. I agonize over whom to give to and check them out thoroughly beforehand.
But then I find the return of that greedy kid inside me, because the selfish part of me knows donations can lower my taxes. That’s not my main reason to give, but it’s sure a nice incentive. And we greedy kids/Maximizers love our incentives as much as we love our super-old used cars.
Maybe there’s hope for my children despite me. One thing my older son can hope for is the day I hand him the keys to his first car: my 1998 Honda. Okay, I’m lying, that’s my hope. But that car would keep the handsome devil away from the girls. I think. But that’s another story for another day.