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My Story: How Monopoly Money Taught Me to Budget

By: Blake T., Brigham Young University - Idaho

Money is a curious thing to a child. As a boy, I watched my dad give dollar bills to the store clerk in exchange for necessities. Even better, mom would swipe a piece of plastic through a machine and get the goods, AND get to keep the card, tucking it away into her purse. The problem was that my parents and I didn’t have the same idea of what “necessities” were. I’d try in vain to make the case that candy, toys, and other forms of temporary entertainment were “necessities.” It’s hard to understand the meaning of “no” since anything could be purchased with the plastic card!

My first lesson in budgeting came before I could even read. The JC Penney Christmas Catalog that arrived by mail became a constant companion, filling hours of my days in December. Armed with a pen, I’d carefully review the offerings on each page, circling all the things that I really needed Santa to bring me. My mom explained that Santa sends a bill to my parents and so I’d have to choose the things I wanted most within a limited budget.

The word “budget” meant nothing to me then, so she drew a rectangle on a sheet of paper. As I told her the things that I wanted, she colored in the portion of the rectangle that represented how much of my allotment I was spending. Time and again, I filled and over-filled that rectangle, because I wanted so many things. Mom patiently drew another blank rectangle and offered suggestions of how I could stretch my budget farther by asking Santa for several less-expensive items, rather than one or two costly gifts. That was my first introduction to money.

When I was older my parents treated me to a lesson in finances using Monopoly money. We began by making a list of all the cool things I wanted to buy. My list of must-have purchases filled quickly, with vacations, trips to local theme parks, exciting video games, new clothes, the latest toys, and an endless supply of candy, among other things.

Then, I was handed the same amount of Monopoly money that my parents earned each month, and was told that after paying for some necessities, I could spend the rest however I pleased. I was RICH and was going to buy everything! My enthusiasm was short-lived as my dad informed me that I had to pay taxes, so I handed over my share. Mom mentioned that I needed a place to live, and I was genuinely upset to hand over a good chunk of my cash for housing. The monetary demands continued from there: car payments, insurance, utilities, etc. and I became thoroughly depressed watching my resources deplete so quickly.

Finally, when left with just a few hundred dollars for “spending” money, I was given the choice of what I wanted to buy using my list from earlier. The things that had - only moments before - elicited such happiness became a depressing list that was now taunting me. I certainly didn’t have enough to buy everything on the list.

My parents suggested that I prioritize my wish list, assigning an estimated cost for each item. From there, I decided which things were important to me, and which I could live without for the short term, and even forever. I was able to determine how many months it would take for me to save my leftover dollars to earn what I wanted. Saving and planning for the future had become the only way that I could achieve bigger goals. I learned that I needed to prioritize my needs AND my wants, and to make a plan for how to obtain all of them.

Now that I’m older, I know that being financially responsible requires much more than just “having” money or a credit card. It turns out that shopping the JC Penney Christmas Catalog and playing with Monopoly money, were both eye-opening exercises in patience and budgeting that I would never forget. These two simple lessons have stuck with me, and have become excellent guidelines to follow as I make financial decisions right now. First, I have to establish and prioritize a list of needs and wants and the associated costs of each. Then, I’m able to develop a sensible budget and financial plan that will best cover both my wants and needs. I’m so glad that my parents used such impactful visuals to teach me my first financial lessons.

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