What on earth are travel bucks?

We were touring around Urubamba, Peru with our wonderful driver, Enrique, in his beat-up white station wagon. Eli and Jake were the lucky ones who got to ride in the very back. At one point Eli was being silly and I had to turn around to tell him to stop. When Eli is getting into trouble he does this creepy thing with his eyes to avoid looking at me. He makes them shake and it drives me bonkers!! After I told him to stop being silly, I said, “By the way, you drive me crazy when you shake your eyeballs.” He replied, “Well, I’m sorry but it’s the only way to repel the mom stare!” 

The ‘Mom Stare’

The “mom stare” is a much talked-about phenomenon in our house. The boys will warn each other to not look at me when I am angry with them. They will comment on the “lasers” that burn holes in their faces. Secretly, I’m a little proud of my “mom stare”. 

Back to the story. Jake, being the wonderful big brother that he is, stepped in. 
“Be careful Eli, you don’t want to make her angry. You might lose a travel buck.” 

Don’t know what “travel bucks” are? – I’ll explain more in a minute.  Suffice it to say, Jake is the richest of the bunch; not because he is the best behaved but rather he is the most motivated by money.  Since we implemented travel bucks, Jake has been an angel! 

Jake – “Eli, do you want to know what the secret is to never losing a travel buck?”
Eli – “YES!”
Jake – “Okay, come here and I will tell you. It’s a secret, but I will share it with you.” Jake proceeded to whisper loudly, “Just be good!”
Eli – moved back to his seat and said, “Okay, but what’s the secret to being good?”
Jake – “Follow all the rules and don’t disrespect mommy.” 
Eli – “Okay, but do you have any tips on how to repel the mom stare?”
Jake – “No, I don’t. Eli, you have to just take it. If you are getting the mom stare then that means you deserve the mom stare. Just take it!” 

Owen, Ben and I were in the seats in front of them listening to this conversation. It was impossible not to laugh.

On the way to Machu Picchu, trying not to get the “mom stare”

Bridging the gap between plans and reality

Preparing for our month-long New Zealand road trip required a ton of planning. I loved it – I am a planner! This year we have tried our best to not “plan” very much;  it has worked well for our style of traveling, but this road trip was my jam. Mapping out a route, finding accommodations and activities, I was in my element. The one worry I had was, “How were our non-car loving kids going to handle this?” 

Our kids have never loved being in the car. They don’t sleep. They complain of car sickness. They get bored because they can’t read due to said car sickness.  Any trip that was longer than one hour was met with, “Ugh, we have to be in the car for that long?” I needed to figure out a way that we would all survive this road trip and maybe even enjoy it. So, I did what any good parent would do:, I Googled it. “How to survive a road trip with kids” . . .  Like any parenting question you Google, I was met with thousands of ideas and opinions. Honestly, how did people parent before the internet??

I stumbled upon the idea of “car bucks”. The name says it all. . . you are paying your kids to behave in the car. Matt and I aren’t big fans of bribing our kids – not that we are judging those who do. We just think it’s a slippery slope, especially when the kid to parent ratio is not in our favour – they would eventually take everything from us!  We much prefer to have a little more control. It might require a little creativity, spin-doctoring, and the occasional Google search, but we’ve usually managed to get our way and have the kids think they’ve won at the same time. Travel bucks are a great example of this. But let’s rewind a bit . . .

Boarding in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Kids and currency

For years, Matt and I were at a loss at how to implement an allowance for the boys. We didn’t love the idea of paying them to do chores. Chores are a reality for everyone – just part of being in a family. And we were worried about the possibility of asking the boys to do something and the reply being, “Okay, how much will you pay me?” I cringe at the thought of that question. We’re a team: if we all pitch in then we will have more time to do other things together. The boys all made their beds, put their stuff away and kept their rooms tidy. There was little resistance when we asked them to help out. What was missing was the ability to teach them about money. 

Finally, a couple of years ago, we came up with a solution. The boys would be given allowance each week based on their grade level (if you were in grade 2 then you received $2/week). We explained to the kids that the allowance was based on:

  1. Going to school which was their job. They needed to behave well and try hard. 
  2. Being helpful and having good behaviour at home
  3. Learning about money – saving and spending

We talked about how you can lose part or all of your allowance if there is a major transgression at school or at home. We also discussed what they could spend their money on but we gave them incentives to save their money as well. 

What happens to allowance on a gap year?

Santiago, Chile

For two years, our allowance system worked well. Over time, their spending and saving habits became clear. For the most part they were all savers. Owen would not spend a dime on anything! Not even books. He preferred the library which was not the case when we were buying all the books (hmmm, that’s interesting). Jake was a saver but would eventually spend some of his money on items that he loved and thought about for a while (MP3 player, music and fishing lures). Ben would save all of his allowance but spend his birthday or Christmas money in a heartbeat. Eli was still young and his allowance didn’t amount to much. It took him so long to save up that he couldn’t bear to spend it on anything. All in all, allowance was a very positive experience in our house. 

Once we decided to travel, we told the kids that their allowance would be put on hold during our family adventure. Interestingly, there were no protests to this announcement.  What we didn’t know at the time was that we needed an allowance-type system that was adapted to the realities of long term family travel.

Adapting the “car bucks” idea

Aguas Calientes, Peru

I liked the idea of car bucks but it seemed too limited. Our kids are smart enough to save their bad behaviour for outside of the car if need be. We decided to cast a wider net, so we called them “Travel Bucks” and made some simple rules: 

  1. If you cause a major problem you will lose a travel buck. 
  2. Going above and beyond our expectations might earn you an extra travel buck
  3. Making long travel days easy and enjoyable (pay attention and behave) is prime time to earn more travel bucks

Travel bucks can be earned and lost and spent. I keep track in a notebook.  But, just like allowance, our kids generally prefer to save their bucks. All of a sudden they might not want ice cream if it meant spending their own travel bucks. They might not be so keen on an activity if they had to put some skin in the game.  On the flip side, free stuff became even more exciting to them. Matt and I were left wondering how we had travelled for eight months without travel bucks! It’s one of the best travel strategies we’ve adopted. 

The Travel Bucks master database

An idea good enough to keep

After a successful month long road trip, we decided to continue the travel bucks system. About a month ago the boys asked what would happen with the travel bucks since they haven’t been spending them. We’ve decided to convert their “travel bucks” into cash when we get back to Ontario. Now they are treating travel bucks like it’s their job. They will warn one another if they think someone is doing something to possibly lose a travel buck. They are constantly wondering what their total is and who is in the lead (spoiler alert: it’s always Jake).

Matt and I are pretty stingy with handing out travel bucks but it doesn’t seem to matter: the boys are still motivated. I think that is partly why they want to drive across Canada. There are way more “travel days” when you do a road trip so the earning potential is much bigger. Matt and I enjoy a peaceful road trip and the boys earn money that they are saving for university. We’re savoring this one as a parenting win. 

Coba, Mexico


  1. Love it! Thanks for the contribution to 21st C parenting!
    Once our daughter hit high school we were lucky to be advised by a clever parenting expert to work with her on her annual budget which included: wardrobe, entertainment, haircuts, school supplies, toiletries, gifts for family/friends – everything! She got a checking and savings account, and learned to manage with a monthly deposit of 1/12 of her annual budget, through seasonal ups and downs. She could have and do anything, as long as she planned for it. We never had to endure requests for this or that. She learned to manage it wisely. When she transitioned to university, we were lucky to be able to give her exactly what the uni estimated her personal expenses would be, and she managed that well. Now as a young woman, she’s way ahead of where we were at her age…

    1. Marla, I love this so much!!
      What an amazing way to teach your daughter about money. I think Matt and I will be adopting your system. Thank you!!

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