NEW YORK (Reuters) - Kelly Bird Pierre knew the world had changed when she heard what the Tooth Fairy was giving out these days.
The 39-year-old educator from South Orange, New Jersey used to get a quarter whenever she lost one of her own baby teeth. But when her daughter Oona and son Jacques went through the same phase, reports from their schoolyard buddies swiftly got back to her: $3, $5, even $10 a tooth.
Pierre was shocked. "A dollar still seems reasonable to me," she said.
Pierre and her parental peers had better get used to tooth inflation, because a new survey shows just how dear a baby tooth has become. The national average is now $3.70 per tooth, up 23 percent in a single year and 42 percent in just two years, according to a study that credit-card company Visa will release today.
"Tooth Fairy inflation clearly is surging," marvels Jason Alderman, Visa's senior director of global financial education. "It is due to a combination of things: one is a reflection of an improving economy, and that parents feel they can afford to be generous in small areas.
"The other real driver is parental angst. It is very hard for us to say 'no' to our kids."
Apparently so: For a full set of 20 baby teeth, at the going rate, that works out to $74. Especially for a young child, that is a serious sum.
Indeed, some Tooth Fairies - or their parental representatives - are taking things to an extreme. Some 6 percent are leaving more than $20 a pop, and 2 percent actually give a whopping $50 or more for a single tooth.
"That's shocking," says Alderman. "I was flabbergasted when I heard that. After all, they are not donating bodily organs.
"I think the Tooth Fairy is suffering from irrational exuberance. She wants to be the best one on the block."
At such lofty amounts, the question becomes about whether those children are actually being done a disservice. Too much cash being left under their pillow at night, and it starts to feel like over-indulgence.
"I think the amounts have gone up because we feel guilty about our parenting," says Neale Godfrey, chair of the Children's Financial Network and author of books like "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees: A Parent's Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children".
"We are not spending as much time with our children as we would like, and so we substitute money for time."
Young parents in particular, in cahoots with the Tooth Fairy, are doling out hefty sums, according to the Visa survey. Parents between ages 18-24 say they tuck almost $5 under the pillow. And kids in the Northeast seem to be reaping the most booty, at an average of $4.10 per tooth.
Give our collective desire to keep up with the Joneses, it may be inevitable that parents err on the side of giving too much. But personal finance experts suggest that the Tooth Fairy may be taking things a bit far and may want to pump the brakes on her magical generosity.
"I've seen some parents go crazy with things like Tooth Fairy-branded pillows and special boxes for the teeth," says Godfrey. "It's like, enough already.
"If you are going to overindulge, at least have them put some of that money towards a charity. It would be really cool if kids supported a charity in keeping with the theme, like Operation Smile."
Visa has even come out with a new smartphone app, the Tooth Fairy Calculator, to help parents figure out how much is enough. Plug in data like your region, income, education, and age, and you get a rough estimate of what other parents down the block are giving. "It takes out a lot of the hand-wringing," says Alderman.
As for Pierre, she is trying desperately to keep a lid on Tooth Fairy inflation.
"I am going to stick to a dollar," she vows. "It is a fun tradition to keep alive - but it shouldn't feel like a fee."
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)