What if instead, you could inspire your friends and family to do something more meaningful for your youngsters' celebrations: to pitch in and grow their nest eggs, help them improve the world and spur them to explore the cooler sides of money.
Money may make the world go ‘round, but where you’re from (and where your parents and grandparents are from) plays a huge role in your comfort level with gifting money. Whether you’ve just passed out festive red cash-filled envelopes for the Chinese New Year or you cringe when the bride and groom strike up a dollar dance at a Polish wedding, remember that what seems gauche to you may be someone’s favorite tradition. Here are five common customs across the globe that may inspire you to re-envision the money mindset you’re passing on to your kids.
The Culture: Chinese
Red envelopes—symbolizing good luck and thought to ward off evil spirits—filled with crisp new bills are traditionally passed from adults to children during the Lunar New Year as well as to newlyweds at Chinese weddings. It’s typically considered impolite to open the so-called Lei See or “lucky money” in front of the gift giver. The amount is usually an even digit not including the number four, which is associated with death and bad luck.
Global inspiration: Chinese culture values love, frugality, and generosity. While showering kids with cash can seem extravagant, for many Chinese youth—including those interviewed for a recent episode of Marketplace Money on NPR—the gifts translate to saving for big expenses like college. It’s no surprise that Chinese households saved 30% of their income in 2006, compared with negative 0.4% for U.S. households.
The Culture: Polish
The “money dance” at weddings, which hails from Poland and has been assimilated into a variety of other cultures as well, is quite possibly the most hotly contested nuptial tradition on wedding websites since cake smashing. While the technique varies from pinning bills to the bride’s dress to dropping it into a purse or apron pocket, the gist is the same: guests take turns dancing with either the bride or groom as they contribute to a kitty to help the couple set up their home or pay for their honeymoon.
Global inspiration: Emily Post may not approve, but given studies suggesting that excessive fighting over finances can raise a couple’s risk of divorce, taking a fat wallet home after the wedding might be the best blessing monetary gifts can offer. After all, parents want their child’s marriage to start on the right foot and be financially stable. The newlyweds are going to need that wedding money to buy their first home or for another big goal like starting a business.
The Culture: African
Even before the recent trend in microfinance, people all over the world have participated in a similar cultural trend known in English as ROSCA (Revolving Savings and Credit Association). Called susu in Ghana, xitique in Mozambique, and djanggis in Cameroon, the idea is that friends and family contribute to a joint pot of money to build a more substantial savings as a group than any individual member could on their own. The members then take turns borrowing the money when they need it. Knowing that your neighbors are relying on your savings too helps keep everybody on track.
Global inspiration: While banks are convenient for saving in the modern world, a community-based practice like this one forms mutual trust and social commitments. The benefits of joining with neighbors to help everyone get a leg up can’t be matched by an ATM on every corner. This can inspire kids to team up to raise money for a charity they want to help, or help neighbors or friends in need.
The Culture: Judaism
If you’ve ever been to a bat or bar mitzvah, you know that Jewish customs include bestowing generous cash gifts—traditionally in multiples of 18—on coming-of-age children. The number 18 represents good luck and is the symbol of “Chai,” the Hebrew word for life.
Global inspiration: Most bat and bar mitzvah monetary gifts are put away for long-term savings and often a percentage is given to charity. “When my two sons had their bar mitzvahs, we used their gifts to buy a zero-coupon municipal bond in a trust account with a maturity far out in the future so it will mature when they are in their mid 20s, when they may want to buy a first apartment,” said Bonnie Shulman, who lives in New Jersey.
Her oldest son (age 16) is now talking about using the money saved from his summer job at the library to buy stocks.
The Culture: The American South
On TV shows like Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl, the debutante balls are a flashy show of wealth where the daughters of “old money” families make prom-goers look like schlubs. But among the true debutante balls of Dixie, few topics are more off limits than money. “We really don’t talk about money much, and it isn’t typically given as a gift outside families,” said Alabama native Hannah Dow. “Maybe since we don’t talk about it, people don’t give it because then people would know what you spent on them!” Rather than bestowing cash gifts on the guests of honor, the balls are more often thrown to gather funds for a charity.
Global inspiration: While the economic turmoil of the last five years has made many of us very comfortable discussing the contents of our retirement accounts, there’s something to be said for zipping your lips and letting your conscience speak for itself. No matter where you’re from or your culture, parents can show kids that it’s impolite to flaunt their wealth. And if parents make charitable giving and volunteering in their communities a family tradition, kids are likely to follow in their footsteps.