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As the oldest girl of seven siblings and the mother of three children (plus two step-children), I’ve changed about a million diapers, been the emergency contact on school forms for nearly 30 years, and helped multiple kids learn to roller skate, ride bikes, and drive cars. Some of my brothers and sisters even call me “Mom No. 2”(though not always lovingly).

I state these credentials so you’ll believe me when I say that teaching kids the value of money requires the same patience and practice required to achieve any developmental milestone. Children need to experience buying things for themselves, feeling regretful over poor choices, and feeling satisfied with good ones in order to become lifelong, savvy shoppers. But unlike learning to ride a bike, buying smart is a skill that has to be relearned multiple times in order to stick. For this reason, I like when my kids receive gift cards instead of presents. Though they see the gift cards purely as a fun shopping trip ahead, I see the gift cards as another chance to learn how to spend money wisely.

Here are the steps I take to ensure we all get what we want when the kids redeem their gift cards.

Plan Ahead. Before entering the store, I suggest my kids write a list of the things they’ve been wanting. Like any excited shopper, it’s hard for kids to stay focused once they enter a store full of options they hadn’t previously considered.

Be Patient. Allot plenty of time for the excursion so kids can comparison-shop at leisure. If you rush them, they’re likely to grab something in a panic to avoid leaving the store empty-handed.

Stick to the Budget. Make sure the kids understand exactly how much money is on each gift card and that they must use their own money (not yours) if the purchase exceeds the value. Older kids (say fifth grade and above), should be expected to calculate and leave room in their budget for any applicable sales tax.

Butt Out! Whether you paid for the gift cards yourself or they were received as gifts, the money is for the recipients to spend. You can advise, suggest, and help compare options, but the kids won’t learn how to shop wisely unless they’re allowed to make their own purchasing decisions. Some of the best “quantity versus quality” lessons my kids have learned came through buyer’s remorse over silly items they “had to have” from the toy store.

Though some of my contemporaries have lingering fears that gift cards may be considered impersonal, I can assure you that kids don’t care. Growing up in a plastic-money world, they see gift cards as good times ahead. And though letting your children make ill-advised purchases is nearly as painful as taking your hands off the back of their bikes when the training wheels come off, they will be better buyers in the end.

Shelley Hunter, a.k.a. Gift Card Girlfriend, is your consumer guide to gift cards. As the founder of GiftCardGirlfriend.com, Shelley created a strong following and become an authority on all things gift cards. She is currently the Content Manager and company spokesperson for GiftCards.com.

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