Friday, December 31, 2010

Birthday Gifts that Give and Get

Down with "Junk" Spending
What is the first thing that comes to mind when your kid gets an invitation to a birthday party? If you are like me, then it's the gift. And, if you really are like me, nine times out of ten you don't know much about the birthday boy or girl and can't count on your child for any direction whatsoever.

So, shopping for the right twenty-dollar present usually costs ten dollars in gas and an hour or two of your life that I'm quite sure is not being well-spent. Really, I'm feeling quite done with this whole ritual, the spending for no-good-reason ritual. And yes, I know that we just finished Christmas and that I'm perhaps hyper-tuned in to "junk" spending, but hear me out. I have a great idea that could revolutionize the birthday party as we know it.

Now, those of you who read about my attempt to kibosh chocolates in my daughter's advent calendar are probably cringing at what's about to follow. But I assure you that while I am certainly not a candidate for mother of the year, my daughter has actually found some pleasure in her money-conscious mom's newest crazy idea.

Ten Dollars, Please
For better or worse, my daughter's birthday is just a few days before Christmas and every year we do a big party with between twenty and thirty guests. That means at the end of every party my daughter has a mountain, literally a mountain, of gifts to unwrap. For six years I have allowed her to enjoy the madness. But for her seventh birthday, I wanted to do things differently.

In October, over her mountainous haul of Halloween candy, I suggested that she do a fundraiser for her birthday. She was aghast at the idea so I left it alone for a few weeks and then broached the subject again, this time while we were planning the theme for her party: pets. I suggested that we ask her guests to bring a cash donation, half of which could go to the local animal shelter and half of which she could keep.

She was still reluctant (mountains of presents loomed large in her imagination) until we crunched the numbers: 30 guests times $10 equals $300, of which she could keep $150. Plus, she could buy whatever she wanted with her part of the money. And, when we talked about the not-really-her-thing presents she had received at past parties, the deal was done.

Then it was my time to worry. How would parents react to our request for cold, hard, impersonal cash instead of some lovely toy wrapped in those familiar ribbons and bows? What if some of them still brought gifts?

Getting and Giving
As it turns out, I was worrying about nothing. Many parents appreciated not having to do the gift runaround. Others liked putting ten dollars in a card because it gave them a chance to talk to their kids about what a donation is and why it's important to share your money.

As for my daughter, she was happy too. We had twenty-four generous guests who gave a total of $305, $155 of which my daughter logged, tallied, put in an envelope and delivered to the animal shelter. She was very pleased to find out that the money will go toward paying vet bills for some sick cats.

As for her portion, she is saving $120 and spending $30 (on what yet, I'm not sure). And I should mention that someone from the animal shelter came to the party and did a twenty-minute dog safety program with the kids that was informative and enjoyed by all. This was so much better that the mountain of gifts and my hope is that other families in our circle of friends and classmates will adopt this new ritual of blending giving with getting.

Copyright 2010. Laura Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
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Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy-Meal Toy Angst & MCD Share Price

The Evil Happy Meal Toy
With the hustle and bustle of Christmas making busy parents even busier, the odds are high that at least once during the holidays we will opt for a fast-food dinner. For many of us that means the purchase of a Happy Meal or two.

Yesterday, I read in the National Post that a Sacramento mom of two is suing McDonald's for using Happy-Meal toys to "lure" children into their restaurants.

The mom has teamed up with an organization that is connected with the American "food justice" movement called The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to argue that McDonald's is using unfair marketing practices that violate California's consumer protection law.

This lawsuit is part of a bigger movement that's afoot in San Fransisco to ban restaurants from giving out toys with "low-nutrition" kids' meals. Back in November, when I first started following this story I asked my daughter, a McDonald's shareholder, what she thinks about the idea of banning the Happy Meal toy. She said, "Why are they punishing the kids?" Our discussion has since turned to whether or not the proposed ordinance, and now lawsuit, will influence the stock price and punish her as a shareholder, too.

Are MCD Shareholders Being Punished?
One of the first steps I took when introducing my daughter to the idea of "growing your money" was asking her to name her favourite companies. McDonald's, Tim Horton's and The Children's Place were at the top of her list. We took a look at each company's ten-year stock chart and decided, easily, that McDonald's had the best looking one, a steady climb upward, plus they pay a modest dividend.

MCD 10-Year Share Price - From MSN Money
But will that steady upward climb continue over the next ten years? My daughter and I have been watching the price of McDonald's shares, especially during those weeks when there has been bad press around kids and marketing. So far so good, though the share price has been tracking downward steadily since December 8th, falling from an all-time high of $80.94 USD to today's price of $76.79 USD. That's a bit of a worry as the main US market indexes have been tracking upward during this same period.

However, it's interesting to note that while McDonald's is getting flack from North American consumer groups like the CSPI, the company is expanding rapidly in China and announced on December 15th that the number of restaurants there will double by 2013. It has been fascinating watching this push and pull on the share price and talking about these influences with my daughter, who has decided (rightly, I think) to keep her shares despite the Happy-Meal toy issue.

McDonald's Commitment to the Well-Being of Their Customers
She has faith that the company will be able to adapt to our ever-evolving North American culture as well as to Chinese culture, plus she really enjoys being a shareholder. Our hope is that the company will continue to be profitable and pay her a decent dividend while she realizes some capital gains in the long run.

And healthy or not, she likes that Mom (from time to time) is an McDonald's consumer. As she told me this morning, "I'm still going to have a Happy Meal even if there's no toy." She does love those fries.

Copyright 2010. Laura Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Use an Advent Calendar to Teach Your Kids About Money

Money is NOT Sweeter Than Chocolate
The last evening of November is a big deal at our house. That's the night the advent calendar goes up on the wall. And this year I decided to do things a little differently.

On the morning of December 1st my six-year-old shuffled bleary-eyed, bladder-full into the living room completely focused on one thing: getting the day's sugar fix, and nothing more.

Imagine her surprise when she reached her fingers into that soft felt pocket and pulled out a Loonie. She was not happy. In fact, she looked quite miffed. Now imagine my surprise.

My daughter has been enjoying the fruits of her savings account, stocks and income fund for a few months now. Since she started investing this fall, she has marveled at the fact that her money is growing and paying her every month, and that she doesn't have to do anything other than watch and grow richer.

The monthly inventories of her portfolio's holdings that we record in a lined exercise book left over from grade one have inspired her to habitually save a large chunk of any money that comes her way. Silly me. I thought this money-wise kid would love my new Loonies-in-the-Advent-calendar idea. No chance. "There's no candy, Mom!" is what I got for my creativity plus a sour face all the way to school. It was like I had somehow ripped her off. How ironic.

A Loonie a Day for 24 Days
Sour face aside, I've stuck with my plan: a Loonie a day for twenty-four days, with one little adjustment. I have put a Hershey's kiss in each pouch along with the coin. I have to admit that I was hoping to move away from the chocolates altogether, but I see this as a first step.

It's the eighth day of Advent today and this morning, my money-wise girl reached her fingers into that soft felt pocket and exclaimed, with a bleary-eyed smile, "Hey! Another Loonie!" She ate the Kiss, of course, but it doesn't seem to be the highlight anymore.

Today was also her day to record her portfolio earnings to see how much she has made since last month. She said (and I'm such a proud mom) that she is going to deposit her Advent Loonies in her savings account. She's thinking about buying more stocks.

Maybe money is sweeter than chocolate after all.

Copyright 2010. Laura Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
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