Good news, kids: The recession hasn't bitten the tooth fairy.
For every tooth left under a pillow, the average U.S. child under 10 gets $3, according to a recently released Visa Inc. survey of parents.
Even as many financially strapped families are cutting back on extras, the tooth fairy's cash-for-cuspid swap apparently hasn't slowed. About 94 percent of those surveyed with pre-teen children said the tooth fairy still makes an appearance when a baby tooth falls out.
"Recession or no recession, we've always had the tooth fairy. There are a lot of other things we could cut back on ... this keeps the magic alive," said Lori Porter, a Carmichael, Calif., mother of a 9-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.
That toothy magic still looms very large in kids' lives. "The money she brings has so much more power than if it was just handed over by Mom and Dad," said Jason Alderman, senior financial education director for Visa Inc. in San Francisco.
No matter the amount, cash under the pillow can be a teachable moment, say financial experts.
"For some kids, this is the way in to talking about money," said Alderman, who said his 6-year-old daughter gets "obsessed with her wiggly teeth" in anticipation of the tooth fairy's visit.
When her $2 miraculously appears under her pillow, Alderman says it leads to a conversation: "What should we do with that money? Do you want to put a little aside to save or spend some on a little treat or put some in the family charity bucket?"
It's a way to start engaging kids in money-management skills. "Any time a child receives money, she needs to know she has choices. She can save it, spend it, share it or do a combination," said Karyn Hodgens, who teaches financial classes for school-age kids in the Sacramento, Calif., region. She recommends young children keep clear jars -- for saving/spending/sharing -- where they can see their money add up.
But, Hodgens adds, tooth-fairy cash belongs in a special category all its own.
"Losing a tooth is like a rite of passage ... I think it's fair to let the child decide what happens to tooth-fairy money, even if they want to spend it all."
Popular worldwide, the tooth fairy has been flitting around this country since the early 1900s, sometimes leaving candy or gifts, but mostly money. In 1981, Rosemary Wells, the so-called tooth-fairy expert at the Northwestern University School of Dentistry in Illinois, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the average tooth-fairy present was 66 cents, up 120 percent from 30 cents in the mid-1960s.
Today every parent has a personal comfort level with how much a detached tooth is worth. In some families, the tooth fairy leaves $6 and up per tooth, according to Visa's survey. In others, nothing.
Parents who let kids receive a lot of tooth-fairy money are setting an unhealthy precedent, said Hodgens, who co-founded Kidnexions, a Rocklin-based money-management company aimed at children.
"Parents need to keep things in perspective," she said. "If kids are 5-year-olds, they don't need a lot of money ... a dollar or two is just fine. In fact, that first tooth can (be) a Susan B. Anthony coin."
Porter, the Carmichael mother who owns the marketing firm Porter Communications, said that in her family it's always been $1, even when her kids were reporting that friends at school were getting $5.
"I used those moments to say: It's just like Santa Claus. Nothing is the same at every house, nothing is always equal."
Anton Simunovic, founder of ThreeJars.com, a new money-saving website for kids, says the tooth fairy is generous when visiting his Connecticut home. Among his six kids, each child's two front teeth earn $10 apiece; all subsequent teeth get $2.
That money goes straight to each child's "three-jars" accounts, where they can monitor their money online. With a special $10 tooth, for instance, 50 percent goes to savings ($5), 40 percent to spending ($4) and 10 percent to charitable sharing ($1).
Kids using ThreeJars.com can change the percentages, depending on whether they want to give more, save more or spend more (after earning it through extra chores at home).
"Kids need to practice using money, to actually make decisions, juggle priorities," said Simunovic. "It's how they learn to manage their money with parents still in control."
And given the financial straits so many Americans are in, if kids get the right financial habits early on, it can make a huge difference in their lives, he said.
Ultimately, say parents and money experts, the tooth fairy's appearance is not about the cash.
When one of his kids comes downstairs the morning after a tooth-fairy visit, Simunovic says it's not the money that causes the child's grin, but the handwritten note left under the pillow.
Written in an awkward, left-handed script, the note comments on exactly how or when the child's scraggly tooth popped out and offers encouraging words about good teeth-brushing habits. Simunovic, who takes no responsibility for the notes, says they're "feel-good, funny" messages that transcend the financial.
"There's so much hard work to raising kids. It's important to still have fun."