Summer is the season to learn about money

I love this time of year. School’s out, the days are long, the sunshine is warm. And the kids need cash.

These days, they have jobs. Real jobs. The 18-year-old works at a local coffee shop and babysits. She is accumulating cash for college. The 15-year-old is excited to start work at a local farmstand selling fresh veggies to mini-van-driving suburban moms. It is fun and exciting to see them start their working lives, searching for employment, applying, and then being good drones. Banking their earnings, saving for the expenses they know will come up. Those money-making roots were laid a long time ago, at a lemonade stand on the corner. In October of 2003, when I was roaming the aisles of a major toy retailer, I ended up in the far, far back corner, the ultra-clearance corner, the modern-day retailers’ version of the Island of Misfit Toys. I found a battered box that contained an adorable lemonade stand, bright yellow, with an awning. It was marked down from $39.99 to eight bucks. I bought it, stuck it in the attic for Christmas, and promptly forgot all about it.

The stand missed that Christmas, but I found it in time for my daughter’s sixth birthday that March, and based on the look on her face when she unwrapped it, it was the best $8 I ever spent.

We put it together in May, snapping in place its neon yellow plastic countertop, its jaunty front canvas that proclaimed “Fresh-Squeezed Lemonade,” its brightly colored awning covered with cartoony citrus. We whipped up a pitcher of frozen Minute Maid, walked out to the corner with our plastic cups and our money jar, and set up shop.

Kids running an old-fashioned lemonade stand

Eyeing the competition

I had no idea then what a battery of life lessons the kids would learn from this hunk of plastic. It worked hard for four seasons, as the children approached each summer with new enthusiasm. They learned a lot about marketing, expenses, revenue, charity, competition, frustration, boredom, how heavy a cup full of quarters is, and how you should always wear sunscreen.

I remember:

  • On ‘opening day,’ after the excitement of set up was over, and everyone was just sitting there waiting for business to pull up, my then-5-year-old announced he was bored. “Max,” the 8-year-old said, “it doesn’t happen overnight.” Ka-ching.
  • Cars drove by. “Why doesn’t anyone stop?” he asked. “Max,” the 8-year-old said, “some days you sell lots of lemonade, and some days you just sit here.” Ka-ching.
  • The kid two blocks up also ran a stand. He set up with a card table, a huge homemade sign, and at a busy 4-way stop intersection. Genius. We could see him doing lots of business. We were surprised when he showed up at our stand, quarter in hand. He bought a cup, downed it, pronounced it delicious, and invited us to stop by and sample his product. We did.

    “This isn’t very good,” my daughter whispered to me on the walk back to our stand. “He uses the powdered stuff,” I explained. “We offer a superior product for the same price.” A few weeks later, an older woman stopped at our stand. She drank her lemonade and then remarked to the kids that she noticed we had some competition up the street. “Yes,” my daughter said, “but we offer a superior product for the same price.” Ka-ching.

  • We had the great idea one hot and sunny Sunday to set up shop outside the church after late-morning Mass. Not a single parishioner bought a cup. So much for love thy neighbor. Frustrated, we moved down the block to a shady corner. Shortly after, an enormous Mercedes pulled up and parked across the street. A tall gray-haired gentleman in khakis (cinched by an embroidered whale belt), blue Oxford button-down, and wearing one of those captain’s hats you see on yacht club commodore’s heads, came bounding over. “Enterprise!” he bellowed. “Love it! Love to see this! Excellent job!” He took the offered cup of lemonade, drank it, dropped it in our trash bag and stuffed a $10 bill in the money cup. “Sir,” I said, “this is too much.” “Nonsense!” he bellowed. “Kids are learning the value of hard work! Love to see it! Shake hands there, young fellow.” He shook their hands, bounded back to the car, hopped in and drove off. “Kids,” I said. “You just met Thurston Howell III.” Ka-ching.
  • The kids realized that not only could the stand help them line their own pockets with filthy lucre, they could use it for the greater good. One summer they carefully set aside a percentage of the take so that my daughter could ‘buy’ an acre of coral reef through the Nature Conservancy to protect it. And after Hurricane Katrina, they made a big sign and then lugged the stand over to the youth soccer fields on a Saturday and sold lemonade, apple juice and cookies to the mobs. From that, my kids donated $87 to the American Red Cross. Ka-ching.
  • One day the take was just over $8. When we got back in the house, the 8-year-old carefully divided the money. It ended up where she had an extra nickel.

    “I’m older,” she told her brother. Ka-ching.

How about you? Did your kids learn any lemonade life lessons?

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