Teaching Financial Literacy through Goal-Oriented Gift Giving

Tanya Van Court’s daughter wanted just two things for her ninth birthday: a bicycle and enough money to start an investment account. This surprisingly mature request made Tanya realize that giving and receiving gifts as we know it is a broken process. So she started Sow (, a free online platform that lets young people register for meaningful goals rather than getting traditional gifts. In the spirit of Financial Literacy Month in April, caught up with Tanya to learn more about Sow and how she hopes to transform gift-giving and teach financial literacy at a young age. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does Sow work?

With Sow, young people can register for goals in three categories: saving for the future, sharing with others, and spending, because we’re certainly not saying that young people shouldn’t want anything. We all want things. But Sow is about about being goal-oriented and wanting things that are meaningful in your life as opposed to collecting lots and lots of stuff

Who is Sow’s target audience?

We actually have two target audiences. We think we’re pretty exciting to young people themselves — they could be anywhere from eight to 22 years old. I have nieces and nephews and kids who are in that demographic and they’re all really excited about Sow because they don’t want another set of pink fuzzy bunny slippers from Grandma for Christmas. At the same time, this is also a generation of givers. They’re a generation that cares for other people, and Sow lets them ask for things that are meaningful, and also ask for support in championing a cause that is going to change the world. They’re excited about Sow because it really enables them to be philanthropic but at the same time save for things that are important for them both today and in the future.

Our second major audience is parents — mom specifically because they really are serving as the chief financial officer in their households and they’re the ones who are imparting financial wisdom and healthy financial habits to their kids. And sometimes they need help, so we want to help them  engage their kids and excite them about healthy financial habits. People are afraid to talk about finances or don’t feel equipped to talk about them, so we want to equip mom with a site that is relatable to young people and that she can use as a go-to to help explain what healthy financial habits look like in action. It’s not just in principle. It’s not just in theory. It’s not just literacy. It’s financial action.

What’s the state of the gift-giving process today, where we all probably have more stuff than we need?

I think that gift-giving is the most broken process in our country because the inputs are broken and the outputs are broken and people are unhappy on every end of the spectrum.

Givers are really unhappy because they really don’t know what to give, and the truth is they often feel like they’re wasting money. In many instances, they just go and buy several small, but they actually add up to quite a bit of money. For the gift-receiver, the process is broken because they get lots and lots of stuff. And it collects dust and it sits in a corner and they feel guilty about it. They want to be grateful and gracious but they just don’t need yet another truck that makes noise or bottle of smelly lotion. Gift cards are broken too, because you’re really just handcuffing them to a particular store that they may or may not like.

The reality is that we all want something — maybe it’s tickets to a Broadway show or a dance class — but these things are too expensive to ask from one person. You can’t buy these things in a checkout line at your local grocery store.

What are some of the most interesting goals you’ve seen Sow used for?

We see people Sowing for everything from eco-friendly water bottle to Soulcycle lessons. We’ve seen people Sowing for kids in Haiti and for a Jeep. Sow isn’t necessarily about gift-giving and getting you 100 percent towards your goal. The gift that you receive may get you 25 percent of the way to your goal and you have to figure out how to earn the rest of the money. And that’s okay. The most important thing is to have a goal be willing to sacrifice other things in order to move closer to that goal. If you are willing to sacrifice another pair of shoes, all of that money can be amassed to something bigger. That’s the exciting thing. It’s seeing people saving towards things that are important and being goal-oriented but also giving towards causes that are really special.

Sow gives 10 percent of all transaction fees to children’s charities — how do you choose which charities to donate to?

We went out and talked to young people about what causes they care about, especially causes helping other kids. We got lots of recommendations back and looked into each of those organizations and tried to identify ones that we thought would cover a wide slot of young people’s interest. That’s why we support Writegirl, because people really care about writing and literacy. Others prefer technology initiatives so we support Code2040.

Photo courtesy of Tanya Van Court