Four Financial Lessons from School Book Fairs

When I was a kid, I loved to read. And that love of reading has passed itself to my children. Now that I’ve been through eight years of book fairs with one child and four years with the other, I consider myself somewhat of a book fair expert. I love being able to take the opportunity of a book fair to teach my kids about using resources wisely – and saving money.

As a family of readers, we frequent our local library and the library of adjacent towns every few weeks. Side note – if you pay attention to all my book reviews, you’ll notice that almost all of them are from the library. The exception being the four books that changed my financial lifeWe always come home with a huge stack of books. We also visit used book stores, the library’s book sales, trading in old books for credit, as well as shop tag sales for books. Especially when it comes to children’s books the selection in the used book market is HUGE. We all love hunting for great bargains – books in our favorite series for only $1! A classic children’s book for 50 cents! You can easily build up a huge library for your children for not much money. And lets not forget about Christmas and birthdays. Especially when my kids were small, a lot of what I would request people get was clothes and books. So my kids have built up quite the library well before they go to school, and continue to get books as gifts. For gifts we always shop Amazon for books, and occasionally Barnes and Noble has a 25% or 40% off coupon we can use.

Beautiful home library
Whenever I see pictures of beautiful home libraries online or in magazines, I wish I lived there

So our love of reading is what causes me to look on in horror at the yearly school book fair.  The teachers all take the kids to shop the fair during class, making a huge list of full priced books (totaling $50! Or more!). And then the kids expect to get everything on their list. Highway robbery, I say! And wasteful – many of the books they’ll pick for themselves will just sit on their shelf. When a new book is $6.99 and I can get seven used books of equal quality for that much, I just can’t bring myself to spend that kind of money.

What’s the easy way out of this situation? To tell my kids we can’t afford to get all those new books. But that wouldn’t be true – I can afford it. I just don’t choose to spend my money that way. I think it’s important that we pay attention to how we communicate our financial choices to our children – we need to take ownership of the choice we’re making and explain (at a kid level) why we’re making that choice. There’s a subtle but important difference between these phrases:

  • “We can’t afford that” – Tells your child that something is out of reach financially for your family. If they see other kids getting 20 books at the book fair and they don’t get any, they’ll feel that the other family must have money because they obviously can afford it. As an adult, you know that might not be true. The other family may be deep in debt, or this is the one time per year they buy books, or some other situation. They don’t necessarily have more money than you.
  • “Those books aren’t a good bargain – we don’t choose to spend lots of money on them” – Tells your child that you’ve thought about it and made a conscious choice not to spend money on them. Here’s where you need to tell them why you’ve made that choice. Explain how you can get seven used books for the price of one of those new books-and used books help the environment, because you’re practicing the “re-use” concept of reduce/re-use/recycle. Or suggest that you take the book out of the library to see if they like it, before spending money on it. Or put it on their Christmas or birthday list for them to get later as a gift (at a significantly less cost).

My personal philosophy is that each kid can get one book from the book fair that costs under $10. Any other books we will look for at the used book stores, take out from the library, or put on their wish lists for special occasions. I could refuse to get any, but I want my kids to still get excited about the book fair and have the fun of picking up a new book. The important thing here is that I’ve set a limit that works for my family, and I consistently stick with it.

Four Family Financial Lessons – A Teachable Moment

Often, we struggle with how to teach our kids about money. Maybe you didn’t have the best financial upbringing, and you want to do better with your kids, but you’re not sure quite how to do that. I try to use “teachable moments” in ordinary everyday activities, like book fairs, to teach my kids how to handle money. So what kinds of financial lessons can you teach at a book fair? I’ve thought of four:

  1. Financial Choices are Important

    Kids need to understand that financial resources are limited, and you need to make choices with how you spend your money.  No matter how much money you take in, if you spend it all you won’t have anything left over. It’s not that you can’t afford something – it’s that you’re choosing not to buy it.

  2. Priorities

    I explain to my kids that we have more important things that we need the money for, like their college or for them after school activities. If I choose to buy $100 of books, then that’s $100 we can’t spend on Boy Scouts/swim lessons/whatever activity they’re doing. Again this is reiterating that we’re making a choice, and showing that you need to keep your priorities in mind when making spending decisions

  3. Bargain Hunting

    The school book fair is a great time to teach your kids how to get what they want – for less. I always do a Google search for the books on their list and show them how much cheaper they are online. Especially when my kids were younger they were often amazed at how much you could save by getting the books online! I also remind them that we get books for free at the library, and at the used book store the same $10 gets them ten books instead of one. I let them know we get coupons in email about once a month for money off Barnes and Noble books, which makes them cost a lot less.

  4. Delayed Gratification

    Waiting is the hardest part…for kids. Delayed gratification is an important life skill that you can start in kindergarten with that first book fair. Explain how you’re only choosing to get one book (or two, or whatever you’ve picked – if your kids are like mine their list will far exceed what you choose to get) and you’ll put the rest on their list for Santa or for their birthday. Have them sit next to you while you add the books to the list, and show them how much less they cost through other sources. This not only reinforces bargain hunting, but also teaches them that they’ll need to wait for what they want.

Note – This post was inspired by a post on the Bogleheads forum, which reminded me of my personal book fair philosophy.

When teaching kids about money, it can be tricky to find the right opportunities to share financial lessons. Lessons like making financial choices, setting priorities, bargain hunting, and delayed gratification are important to learn as kids (and also as adults!). As an adult, our kids financial choices will have much larger consequences than wasting $50 at a book fair on books they won’t read. Use book fairs, or other events in your children’s life as an opportunity to share your financial philosophy without a boring lecture.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to book fairs? Do you also use them to teach financial lessons? Let me know in the comments or send me an email.

Want to learn more about teaching kids about money? Check out this great page with my top articles and resources I’ve found from around the web.

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7 thoughts on “Four Financial Lessons from School Book Fairs”

  1. Haven’t been to a book fair in a loooooong time, but all Four of those lessons we will definetely pass down to our kids.

    I especially like the bargain hunting one, showing people there is another way to get what you want vs paying full price retail is a great skill to learn young. (I say “people” because this lesson is lost on the bulk of the population and not just kids 🙂 )

  2. I fortunately have not had to go to a book fair yet. My son is only one so all of our books have been given as gifts or bargain bin finds.

    I still remember when I was growing up that my parents would say we can’t afford it. Although I knew this wasn’t the truth I just accepted it.

    As I got older it switched from we can’t afford it to go outside and water the money tree, which was code for we’re not buying it but you can.

    Anyway…I really enjoyed reading the article!!!

    1. I like that phrase, “go outside and water the money tree” – I may need to borrow that. Glad you enjoyed it! I like trying to find little ways to teach my kids about money so it’s not boring 🙂

  3. We do the same for JuggerBaby – we only asked for (used) clothes (though my favorite people who are favorite for *other* reasons insist on buying zir at least a few new outfits a year and books as gifts.

    And this week, the book fair mobile rolled up to the daycare. I was a little shocked at how it brought back memories of being a little kid who wanted ALL of those books and we legitimately couldn’t afford any of them, so book fair time was always just sad for me. JuggerBaby loves perusing the shelves right now but doesn’t ask for anything yet. Once ze is 4 or 5, we may use your 1-item-under-$10 idea, I like fostering that excitement for books without taking for granted that they can just be bought like magic.

    1. I know my kids love to make a long list and would try to get all the books in the fair if I let them! 😀 I try to find the balance of keeping some of the fun of the book fair while not going crazy. After all, if they got everything they wanted it wouldn’t be as exciting anymore

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