How an Allowance Can Help Us Teach Our Kids (and Ourselves) to Experience More Gratitude

The Luckiest Man? Really?

When Yankee great Lou Gehrig, who’d just found out he had ALS, said he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” it would have been easy to think his heart wasn’t in his words. He had to be masking the tremendous inner pain he was feeling. Right? He was retiring from the game he loved on terms that certainly appeared not to be his own.

The luckiest man? Really?

In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert describes folks who would seem to have every reason not to be grateful, like a quadriplegic made so by a drunk driver. They claim that they wouldn’t return to their former able-bodied selves. In a discussion with Oprah Winfrey, BJ Miller talks about losing three of his four limbs to electrocution yet feeling grateful that he didn’t go through a “why me” stage because his mom suffered from a progressive form of polio.

Neither BJ nor the people Gilbert studied are desperate to become able-bodied as those of us who are able-bodied might naturally assume. Paradoxically, Gilbert found that these post-tragedy folks were just as happy, if not more happy, about their current lives.

Being is different from Becoming

“Out of more than 150 nurses, emergency medical technicians, and doctors at three trauma centers, only 18% thought they would be glad to be alive if they suffered a spinal-cord injury; just 17% felt their quality of life would be average or above-average after paralysis. But among patients who actually were paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, 92% said they were glad to be alive, and 86% felt their quality of life was average or better. Incredible as it may seem, in the second year after being injured, 1 out of 4 spinal-cord patients will already agree with the statement, “In most ways my life is close to my ideal.”

—from Your Money & Your Brain by Jason Zweig

Our current selves would say “no way” to the notion that our lives could be better after a tragic accident. But before we make this assumption, we would be wise to follow the advice of Atticus Finch.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

—Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Though our resiliency as a species has been well documented, we still have difficulty imagining future selves and how that person might feel, particularly in a state from which our current selves would naturally recoil.  Turns out that future us is as much a stranger as the fellow you saw for the first time in the coffee line this morning.

Your imagination focuses on the moment of becoming rich or paralyzed, not the state of being rich or paralyzed. Being is very different from becoming.

—from Your Money & Your Brain by Jason Zweig

Which brings us to today. We have an endless potential well of gratitude for our situation if we’re able to be present with our current selves. And it’s this gratitude that we want to feel and share with our kids.

Habits Make All the Difference

Still, I often find it difficult to maintain gratitude in the face of mundane pressures. I’m not dealing with a life-altering loss of limbs, but today’s traffic is enough to put me in a foul, less-than-gracious mood.

In short, the habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.


We must actively cultivate a gratitude habit. In Atomic Habits, James Clear says that rather than simply striving for a goal like “I want to be more grateful,” we might think how we can be the kind of person who consistently commits simple acts of gratitude each day. This notion is interesting because it’s both practical and inspiring.

One of the wonderful gifts that writing helps us cultivate is clarity of thought. And with that, often clarity of perspective. Just writing this paragraph (and rewriting it) overwhelmed me with a feeling of gratitude and a desire to make someone’s day better. I decided to employ a gratitude life hack I heard on the Tim Ferriss show, giving a barista an extra-large tip. The hack suggests that you walk away before receiving recognition to allow you to simply enjoy the experience of giving without the intention of basking in that recognition. Try it. It feels good.

Using Allowance to Instill Gratitude

You can use your allowance to help instill values you’d like to see in your kids. I’ve discussed this a few times on the podcast, including with Tom Henske.

Rather than feeling guilty about the Share jar sitting in the background accumulating money on a weekly basis with the allowance you’ve set up, think of this time as an opportunity. It’s like a gratitude tree that is slowly growing in your kids’ Share jar. Discuss it with them at allowance time. Remember, being intentional and having conversations during allowance distributions is a way to maximize its effectiveness. That tree will eventually serve — providing shade or food in the form of charitable donations — someone or something when the time is right.

If you spend [a small windfall of] money on yourself, your happiness doesn’t change. But if you spend the money on others, you actually report becoming significantly happier.

—from Give and Take by Adam Grant

The power of the Share jar is that by having your kids contribute to it automatically week after week, you eliminate opportunity cost at the moment of decision. Rather than forcing him to make a decision between spending that money on himself, he’ll be empowered to choose giving because the choice has already been made. The money in the Share jar can only be used for someone or something other than himself.

The benefits of giving emerge among children before the age of two.

—from Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

She can feel grateful that she has shelter as she gives money to a homeless woman down on her luck. She can feel grateful that her family hasn’t been decimated by a storm as she gives to tornado relief. And any amount will make her feel wealthier.

People who report donating money to charity feel wealthier than those who do not, even controlling for how much money they make. And giving as little as $1 away can cause you to feel wealthier.

—from Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

What’s Good for the Goose…

As is often the case, I find that in our family, we change our own behaviors as we work to raise awareness of money-smart behaviors in our kids. In the midst of writing this article, my wife and I decided to add our own Share sub-account to our main saving account. I’m a little embarrassed that we hadn’t already set this up.

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

— Brene Brown

You’ll be glad to know that there is a scientific benefit to fostering a gratitude habit. Empirical literature shows the influence of gratitude on other virtues. People feeling grateful are more likely to help others who request assistance, to divide their profits in a more egalitarian way, to be loyal even at cost to themselves, to be less materialistic, and even to exercise as opposed to loafing.

Who wouldn’t want to instill more of these values on our kids (and incorporate them into our own lives). If you’d like more ideas about how to help your kids think less materialistically, you’ll love my conversation with Tim Kasser.

Just saying “yes” is a terrific way to show your gratitude for another. Just last night, my daughter asked me to get her one of those delicious mint ice cream sandwiches from Trader Joes. I was tired. “I’m not her servant,” I told myself. But I sucked it up and got her the dang ice cream. And you know what, I felt much better. Particularly when she said, “thank you.” 

Lastly, here are some more ideas that can foster gratitude.

Good luck with your own journey.


Featured Image by Simon Maage on Unsplash