Children are our most gentle teachers. I’ve just received an eye-opening lesson in economics from five-year-old Brioni after I set out out to teach her about money and the best way to spend it.

Aisha and Brioni are currently very interested in handling money. They’ve been asking for their own purses and want the freedom money gives to purchase whatever they desire. This is easy to provide, especially when Brioni found a purse she was “in love with” in an op shop last week.

She filled her new purse with small notes that she had scrounged off us and enterprisingly dipped into my coin supply that I was hoarding for laundromat use. Consequently, she had a pink purse brimming with dollar coins and a desire to spend it on “fun” things.

Brioni and her purse, January 2012
Brioni has her purse stuffed so full of coins that she often has trouble latching it closed.

Buying fruit, January 2012
The more often girls spend their money, the better they get at identifying the denominations of the coins.

Earlier this week, I set out to show Brioni how money is helpful to our family. When we drove to a caravan park to use their dump station, I invited Brioni to come with me and pay for the privilege of emptying our cassette toilet that sits in the truck.

Brioni baulked at the idea. She wanted to spend her money on fun things. I explained that David and I spend most of our money for our family’s good, and who uses the toilet anyhow? It wasn’t fun, but she knew it was necessary, and perhaps I bullied her a bit into parting with $5.

A necessary lesson, I thought. This is life. We spend money on non-fun things because they’re necessary and helpful.

The truth was that in my heart I must resent spending money on non-fun things as much as she does. In making her pay for the dump station, I was sharing a burden with my five-year-old. I was saying, “Wake up, take responsibility, this is life!” in an unkind and selfish way.

However, I didn’t see this lesson at the time. I didn’t learn anything from the experience because I was so intent on making Brioni learn!

In the shopping centre we’ve been visiting, the girls have been eyeing off the food stalls and electric kiddie rides. And the lolly machines — especially the lolly machines. Conveniently located alongside the children’s play area outside the supermarket, a collection of coin-operated machines beckon to passing children.

In my mind, they’re the equivalent of the nasty man in Chitty, chitty, bang, bang who lures children with candy. “Children, children!” he calls, and I hear echoes of his creepy voice in the proximity of these lolly dispensers.

Calista on a kiddie ride, January 2012
When another mother pays for her son's ride, Calista jumps into the car and shares the fun experience.

Brioni needed some new shoes, and it was easy to get her to pay for her pink sandals with her own money. She had chosen specific shoes, declaring “I’m in love with them,” and they weren’t too expensive. I agreed with the purchase, and handing the money over to the cashier was exciting and fulfilling for Brioni.

However, when Brioni, her purse and the lolly machines collided together in the same space and time continuum, she was eager to put her coins into them and collect the lollies in return. I was equally determined that she should learn the value of the product and how to fight off the wily marketing that was taking advantage of her youth and naivety.

Together we approached the machines. I explained how the pricing worked and gave examples of how, if she wanted to spend her money on lollies, she could get much better value from the supermarket just across the way.

For me, time equals money. Money equals things. And to make the most of the money we have, we spend it wisely for the greatest end result. This desired result is usually quantity or quality of product.

By this definition, to spend $1 in a machine and receive a handful of lollies is poor value. That same $1 could be spent in a supermarket to receive three times the amount — more than enough to share the lollies with her sisters.

This was the lesson I was trying to instil in Brioni. Lolly machines equal poor value. Supermarkets equal good value.

Then she stopped me.

“But it’s not fun,” she said. Handing the money over at the supermarket cash register just wasn’t as fun as collecting the little white bag, inserting the coin, twisting the dial and collecting the lollies.

In Broni’s mind, fun had more value than quantity.

In my mind, fun was not considered if the end material was inferior in quality or quantity.

In each considered economic transaction, I’ve been trying to receive the maximum reward for the dollars I’ve spent. However, this reward has always had to be something tangible. I haven’t assigned a value to the experience of spending money, thinking that it was simply a trap to get me to spend more money than I needed to!

An adult example is that of visiting a pub. Previously, I’ve pooh-poohed the regulars who buy a beer or two at a pub. The $12 that they spend on two drinks could have been used to buy a six-pack from the bottleshop. I haven’t considered the pub experience to be good value. But clearly, those who drink in pubs are happy to invest in the experience. Who am I to judge their economics as faulty? I’m the one at home with a six-pack, drinking by myself, preferring loneliness over a minor extravagance.

Lolly machines, January 2012
Brioni selects the lollies she wants, finds the right coin, inserts it into the slot and turns the dial.

Brioni and Delaney, January 2012
She happily shares the machine-dispensed lollies with her sisters.

Brioni and Delaney, January 2012
Later, Brioni buys a small packet of hot chips to share with us all. We enjoy a lovely transaction with the counter attendant who is impressed with Brioni's maturity in making the transaction without adult assistance.

At about this time last year, we started to realise that our previous mindset of quantity economics can be futile and cause us to miss out on certain experiences. And so we rented our Brisbane house out at two-thirds of its value. Although we have received less money each week, in return we have built a relationship with its occupants and have no worries about the care and condition of our house. By forfeiting a greater dollar reward, we have fostered new friendships, received peace of mind and lessened the burden of rental payments on a young family.

That’s really what money should be about. It should be about expanding our life experiences so that we are investing in relationships, love, enjoyment and passion. When we forfeit these things in order to get more, to extract more, to hoard more, we are being selfish and limiting our own life experiences.

I was trying to teach Brioni about money. In return, I’ve received a lesson on the value of fun over quantity. This is the economics of enjoyment — I’m going to remember it.