"Mom, Joey's parents give him a dollar every time he takes out the trash."
"I don't know. Can I have a dollar for taking out the trash?"
"Because taking out the trash is something you do as a member of this family, something that benefits us all. It's not something I should have to bribe you or pay you to do. Are you going to give me a dollar every time I do your laundry?"
Busy parents sometimes take the "easy way out," employing outright bribery to get kids to help out around the house. Take it from someone who's been there, done that: It's not the easy way, in the long run. Everyone has a need to feel useful. When a child has a sense that he's not needed or valued, he becomes less motivated to pitch in and help. This is the point at which the exasperated parent often gives up and gives in. "Fine, I'll give you a dollar if you'll just take the stinky garbage out of the kitchen and put it in the garage." If money is the only motivator, the child still doesn't feel needed or valued. He recognizes that "getting the trash out of the kitchen" is something that has value, and that mom or dad is willing to pay for it. But it doesn't satisfy the child's need to be needed; it doesn't teach anything about the balance of give and take in a healthy relationship.
That said, there are times when payment may be appropriate. Times when mom or dad, weary from a long day, ask for something above and beyond the norm - such as doing another family member's chores, or a chore that doesn't benefit the one doing it. "Would you go into your brother's room and ferret out the dirty towels so I can do laundry? I'll give you a quarter for every towel you can find in that mess." Occasional bribery can be effective and rewarding, and may even encourage the enterprising child to take on additional duties.
Allowances ought to be tied to such "additional duties," and not be treated as an entitlement, unless they are meant to be a lesson in budgeting, and the child's "expenses" are clearly understood. The unearned allowance ought to come with obligations: a portion set aside each week for charitable contributions; a portion set aside to share in gas expenses when asking to be chauffeured somewhere, perhaps. I don't believe in asking a minor child to pay for room and board, no matter how miniscule the "payment" may be. Nor do I think they should be required to pay for necessary clothing, books, or family travel.
Accessories, make-up, movie tickets, candy, and video games are all things a child can save up for and use to learn the value (and the hardship) of saving money over time. Even so, parents should set expectations early on: no child should be entitled to spend his hard-earned savings "on anything [he] wants." If mom or dad disapproves of the purchase, then the money stays in savings. Imagine a child with a sense of entitlement: "It's my money! I can buy drugs with it if I want to!" Or "I'm going to pay for that piercing with my own money, and you can't stop me!" There are less extreme - more legal - examples: the short, short miniskirt; the t-shirt with a sexual come-on emblazoned across the chest.
I've given my kids a choice between their current deal: all reasonable expenses (including the occasional frivolous purchase) covered, or an allowance where all frivolous expenses become theirs. They're smart kids. Suddenly, "But Johnny gets five dollars a week!" doesn't seem like such a lucrative deal. And I'm not willing to pay my kids to clean their rooms, take out the trash, or do the occasional load of laundry. That's just "stuff we do" because it has to get done, and we're a family. But I'm also willing to pay a quarter a towel to the kid who didn't leave the dirty towels upstairs, to save me the trip up and down, as well as sparing me the aggravation of seeing a messy room.
What's your approach to chores and allowances?