Money Lessons From a Happy Meal

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Happy Meal

Why is it that kids seem to come out of the womb loving McDonald’s? I mean seriously, most children can sniff out the Golden Arches from miles away. While Mrs. Frugal Rules and I would normally prefer to go hungry than to throw down a Quarter Pounder, we do indulge the little Frugal Rules and let them get a Happy Meal once in a blue moon. I know some may scoff at that, but one of the ways we show our kids we love them is by giving them what they consider to be a special treat a couple of times per year.

Anyway, as a parent who is committed to working on teaching our kids about financial literacy we look for unique ways to do so. Children, especially younger ones, are very concrete learners and tangible teaching times are great at getting through to them. It helps bring things down to their level and allows them begin to grasp things so the lesson can take root and grow. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of a conversation I had with the oldest Frugal Rule recently over a lunch at McDonald’s.

Daddy, Why Can’t We Eat Here All the Time?

I absolutely love watching how our kids think. Sometimes it’s something crazy that I’d rather not see like our boys using their hair as napkins, but I can’t have everything I guess. 😉

Anyhoo, our daughter asked why we couldn’t eat at McDonald’s ‘all the time’ as in, every day. It’s a simple question really, especially from a six year old. I could’ve let it slide by and come up with some silly Dad answer, but these are the opportunities I cherish.

What my daughter was communicating was that she likes Happy Meals so why shouldn’t be able to enjoy more of them. More is good…right?! Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, in this situation ‘more’ means a number of things:

  • More money is spent
  • Long term it’s not good for your health
  • Life isn’t always about what you want

I’m sure there are many other things to draw out of this but the point is to deal with the desire for things. We want our children to understand that it’s fine to have things in life that you want, but that comes with a price. It means saving for it while also taking care of your other responsibilities. Essentially, this means that while living in the moment can be fun that shouldn’t be done at the expense of the future.

Daddy, Why Didn’t We Go Out For Steak?

I know this is so the opposite of her other question, but it reveals her sweet heart. She knows that I love a good steak and even more so going out for a nice meal. However, we do it very rarely as we simply don’t eat out much and prioritize other things in life.

When I answered her question, I wanted to communicate that simple pleasures are almost always the best. Sure, I could’ve taken the family out for a nice steak dinner for her birthday that would’ve cost significantly more than the simple Happy Meal and wouldn’t have been what she wanted anyway.

So often in life we think that we need to spend, spend, spend to enjoy ourselves and feel fulfilled. We see that everywhere in our culture and marketers (I know, I am one) do a great job of convincing us that we “need” to spend like crazy to be fulfilled. The crazy thing is that we don’t. Case in point, our kids LOVE water and they love swimming. We could take them to the water park several times this summer and spend hundreds of dollars doing so. I have no doubt that they’d have a blast. However, we can accomplish much of the same fun by putting out the slip and slide and breaking out a few water guns. They get much of the same fun without the crazy price tag attached. As an aside, we do take them to the water park, we just save for it and involve the family so it’s something we’re all mindful of and looking forward to. 🙂

Financial Literacy Includes Behavior Too

I’ve often said that I believe financial literacy should be taught in schools. It’s incredibly important for a number of reasons, but it only tackles half the problem. The other half is dealing with behavior.

We could just teach our children about money and leave behavior out and it would be all for naught. I believe that behavior puts meat on the bones that the education aspect establishes. We want them to be able to have the knowledge required to budget, handle credit cards, avoid debt and provide for their future children but also be able to counteract what consumerist culture preaches to them as important to living a fulfilling life. They can only have this knowledge if we live it out in front of them, so not only must we talk the talk, but we must also walk the walk. If we don’t then we’d be nothing more than hypocrites. Who knew…all that out of a $4 Happy Meal! 🙂


How much of a role do you believe behavior plays into financial literacy? What are some simple things you do to enjoy life so you don’t spend tons of money on another option? When was the last time you had a Happy Meal?


Photo courtesy of: Calgary Reviews

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • Income Surfer says:

    I actually ate at McDonalds in December, for the first time in 10 years. I was pleasantly surprised with several of their healthier options including some kind of a yogurt fruit thing and their new salads. I’m still not going to eat their greasy burger, but my homemade burgers are awesome.

    I think behavior is tremendously important. Getting in the habit of making good decisions helps save money and leads to a balanced life. Thanks for your post John

    • John says:

      I think they have added a lot of healthier options, though I believe you need to steer clear of a lot of the dressings and sauces as that is where the calories come in. That said, there’s no comparison with a “burger” from McD’s and one of the grill at our house.

      I could not agree more on the importance of behavior – it’s vital to have down.

  • Brian @ Luke1428 says:

    It’s proven that more behavior is caught than is taught. I can say 1,000 times to a child “Don’t do that!” but if I’m doing that thing I’m preaching for them to avoid, they won’t listen to me…they will do what I do.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Great post, John, and I definitely want to take advantage of ‘teaching moments’ like this when I have children. I think behavior and financial literacy go hand-in-hand. Financial literacy should impact your behavior. I would say I forgo coffee at Starbucks and Caribou so that I have money for other things in life.

  • Michael Solari says:

    Behavior is the foundation of why we do things in life. When it comes to finance it can really affect how our decisions are made. Often times in negative outcomes. Great post! Haven’t had a happy meal in years but it does bring back some great memories.

    • John says:

      I agree Michael, it can determine the decisions we make yet so few even realize that. We can try to do something right, but that behavior can betray our desires at every turn if we don’t watch it.

  • Kay says:

    Behavior, or teaching by example, has a very powerful influence over our children. We try to tell and show our son how to live our financial lifestyle. With kids it’s easy to have fun and not spend money anyway, We went on a family hike this weekend and my son had the best time just chucking rocks into a stream.

    He hasn’t had a happy meal yet, I don’t take him to fast food places at this point.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Kay. We have a huge influence over our kids and if we betray it with not teaching the behavioral issues then it’s largely all for naught. I love those teachable moments, especially when they come naturally through something fun like a lunch out or a hike.

  • jefferson @See Debt Run says:

    There is no doubt that the Micky-D marketing machine truly is designed to resonate with our kids, and get them wanting to come back for more and more.. But you are correct.. If we never took our kids there, they wouldn’t even know about the place..

    Luckily.. I have my kids trained to beg for Panera instead ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    My kids are obsessed with McDonalds and I honestly cannot figure out how that happened. I think it’s because my mom takes them!

    • John says:

      I know! It’s the same for us. I swear every time my Mom comes to visit that’s like the first place they want to take the kids.

  • MMD says:

    Very cute! We’re trying something like this now with our kids. We’ve been asking them to buy us lunch or popcorn when we go to the movies. They are starting to put together just how expensive everything is.

    • John says:

      That’s a great way to do it MMD! They’re just as much, if not more than the movie. I think having kids begin to see how things do add up is a great approach to take.

  • Dee @ Color Me Frugal says:

    I think that behavior plays an enormous role in financial literacy. Children learn by watching their parents, and they are much more likely to learn from what you do than what you say! Great post. And I haven’t had a happy meal in probably 25 years thank goodness. I don’t think I’ve even eaten at McDs in probably at least 2-3 years.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Dee! You can say all you want, but if your actions don’t match up to it then it’s pointless.

  • Jon @ Money Smart Guides says:

    Nice post. I saw another article recently that backed up once again that happiness isn’t from buying things, it’s from experiences. I realized this lesson after college and after getting myself into debt. I now prioritize experiences over spending money on things that will only provide temporary happiness.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jon! I’d much rather have the experience as opposed to things. Things just usually break down over time, the experiences you can take with you for as long as your memory holds up that is. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    Yeah, you’re so right on this one, John. We teach our kids these lessons often, and although on occasion they’re annoyed at our financial situation, mostly they are happy that we’re choosing to model and teach good financial decisions that will provide a better future for our family. And bonus, now that we don’t do Mc Donald’s much anymore, the greasy food makes them quite nauseous. Bonus for the pocketbook, but in a way, it kinda makes me sad. That greasy junk tastes awesome. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • John says:

      I think they’re going to find, over time, that while they might experience annoyance in the short term, you’re teaching them invaluable lessons that’ll help them in the long term. I know, once we clear your diet of that crap it’s funny how it impacts you when you do have it.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    I think we approach McDonald’s a little differently here in Canada, lol! In any case, I do think it’s important for parents to role model and teach positive financial behaviour to children. I did learn a bit about personal finance in school through an elective that I took called “family studies” which showed us how to make a budget.

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    I laughed when you said kids can sniff out the golden arches miles away. So crazy but so true. I had McDonalds (a biscuit) last year for the first time in YEARS. I forgot how much the McDonald’s smell stays on you…you skin, hair, clothes. Yucky grease! Anyway, I think delayed gratification is an excellent discipline to master, so yes behavior is important when it comes to financial literacy. We are prone to instant gratification these days it seems which makes it harder to say no. I’ve gotten better in some areas and still working on other areas. One area I have done well with though is social plans. I have an easier time saying no when it doesn’t fit in my budget.

    • John says:

      I know, but it’s so true! It doesn’t help matters either that there’s one literally less than 1/4 mile from our house. You’re so right about the smell to – it has a stench to it.

  • Kim says:

    I’m not sure how kids just know about McDonalds. I blame Grandma. I try all the time to teach financial lessons from kid examples. For our daughter’s birthday, we bought her 4 cheap balloons and one nicer one. The cheapo’s were dead in like 2 days, but the nicer one is still floating around, so it was a good experience to teach that you can get a better quality product or many cheap products for the same price and it depends on what you value, etc. Then I start to think that I’m really weird to think that way about balloons. Glad I’m not the only one!

    • John says:

      “Then I start to think that Iโ€™m really weird to think that way about balloons.” Lol! If you’re weird then I am too because I’ve had the same thoughts myself. ๐Ÿ™‚ I blame Grandma as well – it’s like the first place she wants to take the kids to when she comes to visit.

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    Amen, John! Love this post. I always smile when parents tell them they don’t have any opportunities to talk to their kids about money. You just have to look for the opportunities and use them. So many parents wouldn’t have taken the time to really explain to their daughter why you can’t eat McDonalds every day. It’s completely understandable that a child would love too and helping her see that you have other priorities is lesson you want to teach and have her observe and mimic versus “we can’t afford it” or “it’s not healthy” because it goes much deeper than that.

    • John says:

      Thanks Shannon! I agree, you do have to look for the opportunities as they can be found in the most mundane or strange places. You just need to be aware of them and work to bring it down to their level so they can understand it more clearly.

  • Grayson Bell says:

    Good post John. I haven’t eaten at the golden arches for some time. I don’t eat a lot of fast food, but I don’t pick McD when I do.

    We are finding the behavior thing right now. My son is a freaking sponge. He is picking up on things that my wife and I are doing that we don’t even realize. When I tell him not to do it, he doesn’t get it. Why can mommy and daddy do it, but not me?

    • John says:

      Thanks Grayson! I’m the same way – there are many other things I’d choose to put in my body before McD’s.

      Yep, those are fun times. It can be pretty scary to see some of the things they pick up, but it helps you see that they’re watching everything you do.

  • Matt Becker says:

    Good stuff, but I’ve got a slight twist on your third point “Life isnโ€™t always about what you want”. I would actually say that it’s pretty much ALWAYS about what you want, but it’s really about knowing which things you want more than other things. Maybe you do want to each McDonald’s every day. But do you want that more than good health? Do you want that more than money in the bank? In the end, it’s really hard when you’re just trying to suppress desire. I think it’s more productive to think about it instead as focusing intently on the things you want most.

    • John says:

      Thanks Matt! Though, to be fair, that’s basically what I was saying throughout the post. ๐Ÿ™‚ I wasn’t meaning to communicate that you should or need to suppress desire, but the importance of prioritizing things and trying to shape that behavior so you’re not always giving in to what you feel that you may want as it could derail what your true goals are.

      In regards to life not always being about what you want I think you’re reading a bit in to what I was saying. What I was meaning there was there is generally going to be things in life that you want but you just won’t have for whatever reason. It may be unattainable for you, you may have other obligations, etc. I may want a mansion, but if I’m not making anywhere near the money to make that possible or saving nothing then it’s not very realistic that I’ll achieve it.

  • Michelle says:

    Great teaching moment with “more is not always best.” We always tell my 3 year old nephew that it’s like when he eats too much ice cream and gets sick. Sometimes having too much makes us worse off than before.

    • John says:

      Thanks Michelle! Yea, it’s easy for kids to think more of whatever it is will mean better, but as we know, that’s simply not the case. The ice cream idea is another easy one to handle that way.

  • NZ Muse says:

    Marketing, man. I used to want to get Happy Meals so bad and the only reason I can put that down to is marketing.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    I love these lessons John, and I absolutely don’t judge you on the McDonald’s trip, and I totally hear you on the napkin issue! My son definitely thinks his shirt or pants are a good napkin substitute at any given moment. I have literally said, “You need to wash your hands” just to see him automatically wipe them on his shirt. I like to use eating out lessons with my son. We have actually talked about how we can create amazing cheap meals and home and he is into any meal we can “figure out” for less than $10 aka McDonalds.

    • John says:

      Thanks Shannon! Yea, I have to admit that I’m a bit guilty of laughing at it when first done so of course that just encouraged it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think eating out lessons are great for kids because it’s generally going to involve something they’re going to want and you get to work in how being able to enjoy it comes about.

  • Carlos @ TheFrugalWeds says:

    The wife and I don’t eat fast food to often, but damn those fries are delicious when we do eat them! I think literacy and behavior are both important. When I was younger I think I absorbed more of the behavior of my parents without really understanding why yet. As I got older the literacy reinforced what had been subconsciously instilled in me over childhood.

    • John says:

      I think that’s the case for many of us Carlos. We absorb more than we think and habits and tendencies develop over that time.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    My last happy meal must’ve been in elementary school. My last McDonald’s meal was well over 5 years ago. I now avoid fast food at all costs, even though I was once as obsessed as your daughter ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Andy@artofbeingcheap says:

    I think the easily recognizable logo has a lot to do with it. I remember my youngest kid when he was just learning to talk when he saw the golden arches would get all excited and yell “‘donalds!” just because he was excited he saw something he could identify. Plus, you know, toys.

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