For 11-year-old Max Schwartz, the holiday gift he's most curious about is a little box of dollar bills.
Last year, as an incentive to get Max thinking about saving, spending and donating, his banker dad offered to double part of his $24 monthly allowance. In return for not touching those savings all year, his father dangled another bonus: he'd double it again at year's end.
Twelve months later, on Christmas morning, Max opened a check-sized box. Inside was $200 in crisp dollar bills. (His dad, Peter Schwartz, a regional sales manager for Fremont Bank, admits he's "way too nice" and added a bigger bonus).
Of that total, Max got to spend 70 percent, had to save 20 percent and got to choose where to donate 10 percent. When the Granite Bay fifth-grader showed up a week later at the SPCA – his chosen charity – to hand over his $20 donation, the staff cheered, rang a bell and hugged him.
"In one year, he learned the power of saving and the power of giving away," Schwartz said of his son.
Max's dollar box is just one example of a money-mindful holiday gift. In an uneasy economy, many families like the idea of giving something that gets their kids – of any age – thinking about smart money managing.
With that in mind, we've gathered some money-minded holiday gift ideas from parents, grandparents and money professionals:
Ellen PowellNonprofit consultant, Elk Grove
Several years ago, Powell had to start taking $2,000 a year from an IRA that her savings-minded dad left her in his will. "It's money I never expected to have and I thought: 'What would my dad have wanted me to do with this money?'"
The answer: Open Roth IRA accounts for her kids, then ages 19 and 22. Every year since, she adds equal amounts to those IRAs.
Creating retirement savings for her dad's beloved grandkids is "a way of honoring him," says the Elk Grove resident. "Someday that money will be worth something to them."
Other readers had the same idea. And Roth IRAs were the preferred choice because taxes are paid now, at current rates, instead of at future – presumably higher – tax rates.
Susan LyonFinance analyst, NerdWallet.com
On the receiving end, Lyon says the "best money-minded gift I ever received" was a check from an aunt and uncle to open her first Roth IRA. Just as important: They walked her through the process, "making sure I understood what was happening every step of the way."
At 19, Lyon thought the holiday gift was a little odd. But today, at 26, the Princeton graduate calls it "the gift that keeps on giving year after year." Not only did it lessen "the intimidation factor" of investing, but it gave her a 5- to 15-year jump on her retirement savings.
Kay BrooksEstate planning attorney, Sacramento
For parents who've loaned their children money for a home or car – and where the funds are actually being repaid, "one thoughtful idea is to forgive some or all of the loan as a year-end gift," said Brooks. "It can be very gratifying to help an adult child reduce their debt."
Other ideas: Help a young adult pay down a student loan balance. Or help a new- ly divorced child with financial needs due to his/her changed circumstances.
Marcia BrixeyAuthor of "The Money Therapist"
Buy a few shares of stock in companies your kids like, whether it's fast food like McDonald's, toy stores like Disney or beverage companies like Coca-Cola.
"Buying stock is a great way to educate children on how the stock market works. It also teaches children they are 'owners' of the company," said Brixey, who suggests buying additional shares on birthdays, etc.
Also for kids: a piggy bank to get them in the savings habit. She especially likes the "Money Savvy Pig," a clear, plastic bank whose porky body is divided into four compartments: "Save," "Spend," "Donate" and "Invest." (It's $17 at www.msgen.com.)
Gregory BurkeCPA, Sacramento
He recommends buying U.S. savings bonds – EE or I series – in a child's name. (Note: As of January 2012, they're no longer available in paper form but must be purchased online at www.treasurydirect.gov.)
Burke also recommends a new financial literacy book, "Save Wisely, Spend Happily," by CPA and financial author Sharon Lechter. Comprising "real stories" from 125 CPAs, it covers "everything from goal-setting to budgeting to raising financially savvy children," said Burke, who calls it ideal for a high school or college graduate or a young couple starting out. (It's $19.99 at www.cpa2biz.com.)
Walt RomatowskiCertified financial planner, Roseville
His financial gift list: U.S. savings bonds, CDs, shares of kid-friendly stocks (Disney, Apple, Best Buy, Facebook) or no-load index mutual funds.
He also suggests funding a 529 college savings plan and giving a young adult a subscription to Kiplinger's or Money magazines.
Eleanor BlayneyConsumer advocate, CFP Board of Standards
Instead of clothes or gadgets, how about picking up the fee for a session with a personal financial planner? For a young adult or couple, it's a chance to sit down with a professional to tackle debt, budgeting and other financial topics, said Blayney of the Certified Financial Planner Board in Washington, D.C.
"Spending an hour or two with a financial planner can help them set some priorities and get them off on the right financial footing," said Blayney, who estimated hourly rates at $150 to $250.
Jane Bryant QuinnMoney columnist, AARP.com
She endorses traditional gifts: contributing to a 529 college savings plan, an IRA or Series I savings bonds.
For her own kids and grandkids, once they turn 12, she slips checks or cash into envelopes. "At that point, they enjoy the fun of shopping for themselves, " said Quinn.
Quinn says handing over a large amount of cash – such as for a future house down payment – is risky, since there's no guarantee it won't get spent on something frivolous. Instead, keep the funds in your own account and "tell the grandchild you're ready to help with X amount of dollars when the time comes."
Karyn HodgensFinancial educator, Rocklin
For young kids: "The Money Mammals," a DVD/ book that teaches kids about saving money; "Saving Money is Fun," a musical CD; and "Share & Save & Spend Smart" banking kit.
Books: The Berenstain Bears' "Trouble with Money" and "Mad, Mad, Mad Toy Craze." Other favorites: "Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday" by Judith Viorst or "The Monster Money Book" by Loreen Leedy.
Games: "Monopoly Junior" and "The Allowance Game."
For middle-schoolers: "Not Your Parents' Money Book" by parent and author Jean Chatzky; "The Game of Life" board game.
For parents: "Raising Money Smart Kids," by Kiplinger personal finance editor Janet Bodnar or "Raised for Richness," Hodgens' own book on teaching good money habits to kids ages 6 to 16.
For stocks: Hodgens recommends kid-friendly funds like the Monetta Young Investor Fund and using discount brokers such as ShareBuilder.com.
For young Max, that box of dollar bills still seems like a holiday treasure chest. This year, he can't wait to dive in again. Now a wiser sixth-grader, he's learned a priceless lesson from his yearlong saving and giving experience: "Donating isn't just for (the charity), it's good for you, too." Afterward, "you've got a smile because you feel so good."
Two weeks ago, Max's pet-friendly donation came full circle: His family brought home a new dog – a 5-year-old rescue Labrador.