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Pulling money out of a wallet. (Getty Images)
Pulling money out of a wallet. (Getty Images)

Household Finances

Is cash too tacky for a kid's present? Add to ...

Your eight-year-old son has just been invited to a birthday party. You don’t know the child well, you don’t want to buy him something he already has and, let’s be honest, you would like to avoid going to the mall and scouring the stores for the perfect gift. So you slip $20 inside a Transformers-themed birthday card – an easy solution.

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But it is it in good taste?

On parenting blogs and forums, it’s a hotly debated question with no clear-cut answer. Crisp $10, $20 or $50 bills in a birthday card may be a common and socially acceptable present for adults, but when it comes to kids, the etiquette is much murkier.

Canadian parenting expert Alyson Schafer says that giving cash to kids can sometimes be acceptable, depending on who is giving it. “Grandma is going to buy you that knit sweater and you’re gonna have to fake liking it. It would just be easier if she just gave you some money and you could go get a toy of your own,” she says. “For other people, it says, ‘I don’t care for you enough to go out and try to figure out your personality’ and it can feel kind of lazy and not personal.”

Cindy Post, the great-granddaughter of American etiquette expert Emily Post and director of the Emily Post Institute, finds that the obvious value of cash is awkward. “Someone gives five dollars, someone gives 10. The set-up for comparison makes it feel squeamish. It just doesn’t feel comfortable. The whole idea of etiquette is making people feel comfortable.”

Ms. Schafer agrees. “When the socio-economic status of the families is different, that can get uncomfortable,” she says. “It can be uncomfortable for the kids and parent if the cash gift is large and they feel as though they can never give an appropriate gift in return.”

Giving a child a $20 bill may seem blunt, overly convenient and awkward, but some parents say that, as kids continue to want things like video-game systems and sporting equipment, cash may go further than a small wrapped gift.

Emma Waverman, a Toronto-area mother who blogs for MSN at embracethechaos.ca, understands why cash might be preferred. “My son is 11 and, as they get older, they get less into toys. It’s hard to buy a $20 gift for an 11- or 12-year-old when what they want are bigger things. They want video games and stuff like that.”

Other moms think that cash presents can be a great way to kick-start a savings fund for even bigger things, such as education. “I’m a firm believer in saving for education so I had people giving my kids money for their first birthdays,” says Cassandra Knight, a Keswick, Ont., daycare provider and mother of two. “If [my daughter]gets money, she knows it goes straight into her bank account and it goes toward her future. I’m trying to teach my kids the responsibility of money and to not waste your money.”

Ms. Knight says she would give cash gifts only to nieces and nephews; otherwise, she prefers to give gift cards to kids.

It’s an idea Ms. Waverman also prefers. “I’m lazy and, even for me, [cash]is pretty lazy,” she says. “I think, at the very minimum, I would run to Loblaws where they have all those gift-card selections and grab one of those.”

Gift cards may not be the perfect compromise between hard cash and a gift-wrapped toy, however. According to a U.S study, 5 to 7 per cent of gift cards are never redeemed and the cash goes to waste. The cards may get lost or damaged, or the recipient may not shop at the particular retailer. “Sometimes cash leaves it a little more open for a person to be able to get exactly what they like,” Ms. Post says.

One thing that etiquette experts, parenting gurus and mothers can all agree on is that if an adult chooses to give a child cash, there should be some rules in place.

Ms. Schafer says it’s good practice for the giver to indicate to the child or parents what the money should be used for. “Was it meant for a gift, was it meant for savings, was it meant for their education? If you’re going to give them money, in the card you should write, ‘Buy yourself something great’ or ‘Hope you put this in your savings,’ or ‘Go crazy.’ ”

Keeping the money safe is another issue. Ms. Post recommends communicating with the child’s parents. “Do that in conjunction with the parents so that they’re sure that it doesn’t get lost, or spent on something ridiculous, given away. I think kids under 12 may be at varying levels of money management and, as a giver, you might be setting up them for issues or problems.”

Though a cash-stuffed card may be an increasingly popular sight at children’s birthday parties, Ms. Post says the choice of gift ultimately lies with the giver. “The gift you make is the choice you make as the giver. You might have a gazillion reasons why you don’t want to give cash, so don’t give cash.”

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