Friday, August 30, 2013

Not Paying For Popcorn: Elementary School Economics

2006 Quarter Proof, public domain, United States Mint
Here in sweltering Hoosierland, we've already been back in school a few weeks.

The parent-teacher group at Ranger's elementary school sells 25 cent treats every Wednesday. Last year, I would put quarters in his backpack once a month. Sometimes he ran out before I remembered to replenish them, and those days were disappointments.

This year, the parent-teacher organization offered a new option. Prepay $7 to cover a year's treats and your student will be put on a prepaid list. Every week, your child can get in line and avoid the inconvenience of weekly payment. The only drawback is that no refunds are issued for missed days. At only a quarter an incident, that didn't seem unreasonable.

It sounded easy. I started looking for my checkbook so I could send a check to his teacher who would add him to the list. He would hardly notice the process.

That made me pause.

Do I want the economics of his weekly treat to be invisible?

So I gave Ranger some options.

I could send a check. He would breeze through the prepaid line, and I would forfeit quarters should he miss or not want his weekly treat.


I could give him 28 quarters immediately. They would be his for weekly treats. If they are lost, stolen or misappropriated, they will not be replaced. Should he miss a week or not want a treat, he can keep the quarter.

His eyes lit up, and I didn't have to say any more (though I never let that stop me). He chose the quarters.

We found a jar where he could keep 24 of the quarters at home, and he put 4 in his backpack, just like last year.

"So you're going to remind me when a month's passed?" he asked.


We talked about methods of refilling the quarter pocket. He can put four in when the first ones were gone or he can top off to 4 each week. He can put in all seven dollars' worth and incur greater risk of loss. It is his choice.

The prepaid form is now in our recycling bin. Our approach is more complicated than prepayment, but it gives him the opportunity to fail when the stakes are incredibly low. Lose four quarters and miss a month. Spend them on something else and miss school treat day.

It also gives him the power to decide each week whether he prefers a quarter or a treat. Our kids do not get much money, so this will present a real decision. Being on the prepaid list costs him nothing and teaches him very little.

I'm wishing him the best with this small responsibility.

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