I want to explain to my kids the value of a dollar, but I don’t know where to start.

How much is a dollar worth to you? No, I mean, how much is it actually worth to you – personally? Not the intrinsic value of it, but it’s worth.

Do you remember that first paycheck you received? I sure do. I remember the feeling of accomplishment when I earned that first paycheck. It’s something I want to pass on to my children.

So I’ve been trying to explain to my boys the value of a dollar. I have a daughter too, but she thinks anything you can put in your hand should also go in your mouth (she’s 1-year-old).

Before we go too far, I want to recount a conversation I overheard between my two boys a few years ago.

Older Brother Attempts A Con

Older brother: “Hey, is that money you have? – Let me see.”

Younger brother was admiring a bill in his hand – not too sure what to do with it yet.

Younger brother: “It’s mine! NOT yours!” Younger brother was suspicious, and rightly so.

Older brother: “I knoooww-oh, I’m not going to take it. How about we just trade?” He offered as an olive branch.

Younger brother: “Ummmm . . . “ He still wasn’t sure.

Older brother: “Look, I’ll trade you these 4 shiny monies (nickels) for that one piece of paper you have ( 5 dollar bill), ’cause four is more than one, and you can’t use that paper anyways.” It was obvious to me that he was well aware of what you could and couldn’t do with that “paper”.

Younger brother: “Ok.” He seemed nonchalant, as if he trusted his brother completely. Because why wouldn’t he?

They made the trade, and both went away satisfied.

Of course I, as the “Dad”, had to step in and explain the value of a dollar, and why trading 20 cents for 5 dollars was a bad idea. I’m sure the older brother was not as enthusiastic about my explanation, considering that he had to produce the bill and give it back.

That got me to thinking, why is it so hard for a child to grasp the value of a dollar? I wanted to make them understand that feeling of accomplishment that I got from collecting my first paycheck many years ago. And how much I valued the money I received.

Before you go thinking how old I am, just remember I’m still a “millennial”, albeit an older one.

My First Real Paying Job and My First Paycheck

My first real job was as a paperboy. Initially I wasn’t sure what I had signed up for, but I was handed a route of around 80 subscribers that paid $120/month. I was stoked. But what I didn’t realize at first was that I had to get up early in the morning to deliver those newspapers. I mean early. The papers had to be delivered before 6 AM.

Because everyone wants to read the paper with their morning coffee, or so I was told. So I had to wake up at 4:30 AM every day. This was going to be tough. But . . . money.

My Dad graciously offered to help me out – for a portion of the monthly wages. So we ended up doing it together. He and I rode our bikes about 3 miles to deliver the papers, and then 3 miles home – 6 days a week.

Saturdays weren’t any easier. Because although the papers didn’t have to be delivered until 8 AM, they were at least 3 times as big as the weekday papers. That was work.

After the first month of delivering papers 6 days a week, it came time for the first paycheck. What I didn’t realize was that even though most of the subscribers paid through the mail, there were enough of them that didn’t. These folks made up my pay. But I had to “collect” it from them. So the Newspaper got their money in the mail, while I had to go door to door for mine. Which meant more bike riding and more work.

I remember those first few months of delivering and collecting. Some months I was able to collect my entire paycheck, while other months I came up short. A newspaper subscription at the time was only $8.75/month. But some people just couldn’t come up with the cash consistently.

newspaper on table

I remember hearing people’s excuses for why they couldn’t pay yet. “Come back on Saturday, ’cause I get paid on Friday.” they would say. Others complained that they couldn’t find their wallet, or that “she” took all the money, and went shopping. I knew when I came back later that they probably wouldn’t have it then either. But what’s a 15-year-old kid supposed to do?

Then there were the nice ones that always seemed to be ready for me. They would have the money stashed away in an envelope for when I arrived. It was earmarked for “the paperboy”. Those folks were always pleasant to talk to, and usually had a tip for me as well.

After dealing with some of the deadbeats on my paper route, I learned that I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to come up with $9. And I learned how to work hard. Because of that hard work, I appreciated the money I earned. It meant something to me, because I earned it.

Teaching Your Kids About Work and Money

Some of those lessons I learned from that first job could have only been learned that way. Because how do you explain to your kids what living paycheck to paycheck means? It’s easier and it sinks in more if they see with their own eyes, and experience it. But of course I don’t want them to actually live that kind of life.

My boys are 9 and 7. They’re way too young to get up at 4:30 in the morning to deliver papers. So we are trying other things. They are learning about money. How it has value, and how you have to work for it. They already do chores around the house. They receive money from family for birthdays and other holidays.

A few weeks ago, they earned their first “paycheck” for helping my Dad spread mulch around his house. They were beaming with pride as they showed me their earnings – $5 for each of them. It’s a great start. One day soon (too soon) they’ll get “real” jobs.

But for now, we’ll just throw the football around in the yard. And talk about what they can buy with their paychecks. We’ll debate the merits of a Lego set vs a toy water pistol. Or perhaps how much they should save.

And we’ll discuss the value of the money they earned, and they’ll “get it” eventually. But in the meantime, I’ll be there to help them along.

What about you? What did you learn from your first job?


Chris is the original Cash Dad. He's a father of 3 and a mechanical engineer by trade.


  1. I think a good first job is one in which your pay is based on the effort you put in, vs. a set hourly wage. It teaches you to work hard, do better quality work, and learn more efficient ways to make more money in less time.

    I like how the paper route exposed you to different people and excuses they all had about money. Awesome experience.

    • Chris Reply

      Thanks Joel. I’m glad now that I was able to have an experience like that as well. I’ve learned much from it. ?

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