My 7-year-old son, with his Matt Damon face and Tony Robbins enthusiasm, has a special way of getting what he wants from me. Too often, his wants are plastic toys that he pleads for in the aisles of Target, which I sometimes buy, only to be forgotten days later among the dustballs beneath our living room sofa.
My new-age-mommy wisdom fails to discourage his yearning for new plastic. "Dylan, the joy you seek from the purchase of a new toy is actually misplaced on the toy and can be generated other ways. Focus on what you have, not just what you want.”
Silence. Eye roll. But moooooom.
What’s a financially conscious mom to do? Teach my boy to earn, for starters. Value-oriented spending will come next. So last weekend I decided: We’re gathering as many of his (and his sister’s) old toys as we can, schlepping out to the busy avenue by our street and selling them.
By the end of our three-hour journey, we learned some unbelievable lessons in earning. Here’s a recap.
1. Making money is HARD.
We first set up shop on the avenue by our small street. We made a big sign that said “Toy Sale.” Tons of traffic cruising by. Grassy lawn full of kids. We laid the toys out on a blanket: beaded necklaces, a giant Spider-Man figurine, toy cars and trucks and a slew of Elmo DVDs they’d outgrown.
And we sat. And smiled. And watched cars drive by. And smiled. And organized the toys on the blanket. And colored in the sign to make it darker and more easily read by cars driving by.
Finally(!) a friend walks by with his 4-year-old son. Surely he’ll take pity on our already deflated egos and throw us a buck. Nope. “We have enough toys, thanks.”
Next a pack of tweens walk buy chewing gum and giggling. “What’s going on here?” a tenacious girl asks. “Toy sale,” we all say with a gentle smile. “Oh man,” she says, “We don’t really have any money.” (I believe her. They don’t give off any form of the “my parents give me a regular allowance” vibe.) “Can I have anything for free?” she asks. Looking at our massive spread of toys and no sale, I let them all take a beaded necklace. We have about 15 of them and as the day was going, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t sell any.
My son looks at me with giant green eyes. “Mom, have we made any money yet?”
“No,” I tell him, actually glad to be in the middle of this so far really challenging experience.
“Making money requires an extraordinary amount of effort. That’s why it’s so important that we value what we buy.” (Mom: check. Good lesson for the day.)
2. You have to go where the customers are.
I realized that we’d located in the wrong place. Just four blocks south was an area of our residential neighborhood with a coffee shop, a few restaurants and a Wawa (Philadelphia’s brand of 7-Elevens).
Now feel me for a second: Walking, while carrying a giant rolled-up sign, two giant bags of toys, while ushering a 4 year old and 7 year old across busy traffic after one full hour of failed, demoralizing sales, sucks. But I was on a mission to convert those damn toys to dollars. And so we pressed on.
We set up our used toy store (aka blanket) right outside the convenience store, in an alcove of an empty storefront. Suddenly, we had customers! An adorable tattooed man and his spiky-haired lady friend stopped with a huge smile. “We have a 2 year old at home and he would love this toy tractor. How much?” A dollar I said.
My kids erupt with joy. Wow, this making money thing can be fun. (Mommy lesson No. 2.)
3. Being loud helps.
Juiced by our first sale, additional sales seemed imminent. Fortunately, this lesson I didn’t have to teach them: They rebounded to an extreme. “Toy Sale! Toy Sale! TOY SAAAAALE,” my son shouts to the pedestrians across the avenue, only to be joined in pierce pitch harmony by his younger sister. “Kids, there’s a fine line between effective self-promotion and being really grating and annoying,” I kind of mutter. But I bite my tongue.
Cars pull over, scan the loot, point and and throw dollars in our direction, which my kids enthusiastically collect in the exchange. I let them approach all of the strangers walking past us, all of whom were gracious and communicative, even if they didn’t buy. One stranger insisted on giving them each a dollar for their efforts even though she didn’t buy anything. I accepted, but won’t repeat that in the future.
4. Some customers get special deals.
A young man limped past, with a raspberry-blue slurpee in his hand, affected by what appears to be a serious physical disorder. “Toys for sale,” my kids yell enthusiastically in his face. He picks up a DVD still in a wrapper.
One dollar, says my son, already Willie Loman with locked eye contact and sparkle in his teeth. My daughter, who’s losing focus, is doing upside down flips on the bike rack by the curb, but comes running back when she sees we have a customer.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out 10 cents. I explain that it’s a deal. “But it’s a dollar, mom!” I smile and make the exchange. I explain to my kids that not everyone has the same means, but we can still make an exchange we can be happy with. Capitalism meets community engagement meets authentic connection at its finest.
5. Hard work reaps rewards.
By the end of the three hours, we’d made about $20, which I split evenly between their piggy banks. Breaking our first sale was exhausting, demoralizing and almost a complete failure, but we adjusted. We repositioned to be where the customers were. And we worked for hours to make connections with every customer and earn every dollar that came our way. The tweens got their free necklaces, the young man got a cool DVD for 10 cents and my kids made 20 new friends in our urban Philly neighborhood. My crazy idea worked.
I was proud to show my kids that earning money requires incredible effort and constant adjustments, but that success does come to those who are brave enough to shout at traffic.