As we make the final preparations for our first ever camping trip next weekend, we had to make a stop at the local WalMart yesterday. My boys don’t typically enjoy stops at WalMart, but last week when we went for a quick trip for some camping gear, they noticed that silly stuffed-animal crane machine in the lobby.

Now, I’m pretty much 100% against them wasting their money. How much more of a waste of money could they find than THAT?! But this is exactly why I had to let them do it. And yes, it was pretty painful.

Our oldest brought exactly 50 cents with him, knowing that’s all the game cost. Our middle child brought his wallet with $7 from his Spend jar. He planned to play the game but wanted the option to buy something else, as well.

On the five minute drive over to WalMart, I explained that I’m not a big fan of these types of machines because they’re put there to take money away from kids and give them to the store. That putting money in the machine gives you the chance to play, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get anything. I wasn’t about to try to explain gambling to a seven and five year old, but helping them understand that there might not be a reward, at least I hoped, would help lower the expectation and make the inevitable disappointment a little less painful.

We get into WalMart, Alana and I look at each other and exchange a simultaneous eyeroll as they both head straight for the crane.

There’s two sides of the machine – a 50 cent side and a dollar side. The oldest boy goes to the left and the middle son to the right. In goes a collective $1.50. I was NOT expecting what happened next.

NOTHING happened. That’s right…the machine completely ate up the entire $1.50. No flashing lights, no stuffed animal, no addicting sounds, no thrill of the game. Nothing.

They were completely confused. Even my subtle messages on the way over couldn’t have prepared them for this. Luckily our middle son had a bit extra money and knew he could buy something inside the store. This fact in the back of his mind allowed him to quickly get over the disappointment.

No such luck for our oldest. The poor guy was devastated. The look on his face was similar to the one when he got three teeth knocked out on the playground last year. He’s a fairly emotional kid as it is, but this one hit him pretty hard.

Alana tried to console him like the wonderful mom she is, but I asked her to pull back a bit. I sensed a great learning moment. Normally that request wouldn’t have gone over well…but in this instance, I think she saw where I was going.

Frankly, this crappy game just played perfectly into this blog post’s theme. I had planned to write this one even before the kick to the poor boy’s gut, but the machine having eaten up all the money actually lends itself to the lessons even better than I had hoped.




1. If allocated in a “Save, Spend, Share” fashion (future post coming!) then spending all of their spending money, even if a complete waste, isn’t spending ALL their money.

The very act of pulling the money out of the jar is something that allows us to have a small conversation about money. “Boys, we’re heading to WalMart in a few minutes. If you’d like to bring some spending money with you, you’re welcome to go get it.”

We’ve had this conversation enough times now that they no longer ask, “Why can’t I spend all my money?” They get it. They know that the sole purpose of money is NOT to spend it all. If only us adults could grasp this!


2. It gets them in the habit of spending their own money on silly items instead of asking you to do it.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If they’re going to waste money – wouldn’t you rather your kids waste THEIR money and not YOUR money?


3. When they decide to spend the money on something ridiculous, it’s an opportunity to eventually have a discussion about quality and delayed gratification (when it inevitably breaks or gets lost).

Yeah, this is one that is going to have to keep coming up. They’re kids after all, and we’re not paying them a ton of money. They can’t really afford to go for great quality. That leaves the stuff they buy inevitably getting broken.

When you buy something off of Amazon or Target and it breaks within a few weeks, doesn’t that just annoy you? But the difference between us and them is that we can return it and/or leave a bad review. They generally can’t. We’re buying something for $50 ot $100 and it’s breaking. They’re buying something for $0.50 or $1.00. Their stuff is pretty much guaranteed to break.

This lets us have conversations with them about saving up for the $2 or $3 version of the toy that will last a bit longer. Wouldn’t you rather they learn this lesson on $3 instead of $3,000?


4. It’s an opportunity for you to show compassion and empathy to your kids.

We consoled him. We validated his feelings of frustration and hurt. I held his hand around the store.

He’s almost seven – he won’t want that from me forever. I won’t turn down an opportunity to give my boy a big bear hug when he’s down.

5. If it’s a complete waste immediately, they’ll feel the pain and mentally connect wasting money with pain.

And this is the best part of the story for me. We finish our shopping trip and start heading toward the parking lot. I purposely go the long way through the store so we have to pass the crane again…just to see what he says.

My daughter (almost 3) waves to the crane and says, “Bye bye animals!”

The middle child pretty much ignores the machine.

Our oldest looks at it, looks at mom, looks at it again, and then looks me dead in the eye. “I’m never wasting my money on a machine like that again.”