Home Parenting & Financial Literacy 4 Words I (Try) Never Say To My Kids

4 Words I (Try) Never Say To My Kids

by Phia @ Freedom 101

Happy Monday everyone! To start off the week I want to tell you about a great Canadian FI podcast that’s recently kicked off, FI Garage. Hosted by the witty FI Mechanic, Accountant and the Economist, it’s a not only a great resource, but also super entertaining! Now that’s a winning combo.

AND, it just so happens that the guys at the FI Garage were kind enough to have me on the podcast to chat about Financial Freedom, Early Retirement, and a whole lot more. Here’s a link so you can check out the interview, and the other awesome podcast episodes they have available in the garage!

Now Back To Those 4 Words…..

It never fails to amaze me how impressionable our kids are. While they all come with their own nature and personality right off the hop – they are still a pretty blank canvas anxiously waiting for you (and life) to hand them some paint.

Not to mention they pretty much believe everything you say, do, and tell them……..without question.

Well – until about the 8-10 range (which our oldest son is currently in) then they question everything.

(Which, don’t get me wrong, I am really happy about it – because it means he’s critically analyzing things, which we’ve always tried to encourage him to do – but he’s clearly misunderstood that I only want him to apply that to OTHER people. Not to me telling him he needs to clean his room or do his homework.)

But our toddler is still in that wonderfully innocent stage of life where he just generally believes whatever you say (except when I try to convince him that broccoli tastes good – he doesn’t believe that for a second.)

Oh and allow me to be clear – that most definitely does NOT mean he listens to everything we say – but there is a degree of blind trust.

Every time I see that trust in action, it serves as a strong reminder of how important my words and actions are when it comes to influencing my kids and the type of people they will grow up to be, including how they interact with money.

That’s part of the reason I try my effort best to avoid using four key words when it comes to approaching money with my kids.

“We – can’t – afford – it”. 

I hear this line getting a lot of mileage by parents these days (often in toy stores). And honestly, I get why a lot of parents use this near automated response when their kids are nagging them endlessly for the next best toy on the store shelf. Kids have a way of whining at a decibel and pitch level that inspires us parents to do just about anything to make it stop.

Saying you can’t afford it is an easy way to quell those requests. It concretely removes the option of buying the item, while seamlessly transitioning the blame for why it can’t be facilitated to vague financial circumstances, rather than you being the meanest parent in the entire universe for not buying them the latest and greatest Shopkins or Pokemon card.

But – as easy of an out as it can be when trying to explain financial choices to our kids – it’s actually one of the worst things we can say to them (even when it happens to be true).

Here’s 3 key reasons why.

Are You Being Honest?

First off – and most importantly – the vast majority of the time………it simply isn’t true.

I think most parents do try to avoid outright lying to their children (despite our penchant for making up dramatic stories about a guy in a red suit who seems to have a serial addiction to breaking and entering homes in the middle of the night, a fairy who steals your teeth from under your very NOSE, and a bunny that craps chocolate.)

But lying to our kids about our financial capability is not the ideal way to distract them from what could instead be a valuable learning opportunity when it comes to money and spending.

We have 6 very clear house rules in our family. (They are the kind of rules that allow for a parent to apply at least one to almost any undesirable behaviour and pose the very rhetorical question of whether or not said behavior falls in line with the house rules. Extremely handy and I highly recommend adopting a set of your own.)

Rule # 3 is “We are honest”.

Telling our kids we can’t afford something, when both we and they, clearly know we can, is a cop out. And while it may work for a little while – kids are way to smart to let it slide for long.

Not to mention, it definitely doesn’t fall in line with Rule #3. Our 10 year old would call us out in a heartbeat.

Is There A Better Answer?

Secondly – even in situations where it actually is TRUE, there are better ways to have that discussion than to say we can’t afford it. Ways that will build up your child’s financial knowledge and better equip them to handle questions from their friends about why they don’t have the latest and greatest.

Not one of us parents wants our kids going to school and feeling as though their only answer to other kids teasing them as to why they don’t have something is to say “my parents can’t afford it”.

So if the ask is something along the lines of “Why can’t we go to Disneyland”, and it’s simply not in your budget, don’t stress –  instead thank your lucky stars that your kid has just handed you an opportunity to talk finance with them on a topic they have a vested interest in.

If you are busy and don’t have time to get into it when the question is posed – tell your child that. Tell them you understand it’s important to them, and you want to talk about it at a time/venue where you can give them your full attention. Then schedule that time with them. Whether it’s after dinner, or a family meeting on the weekend, just commit a time to talk about it with them.

(Oh – and then make sure you follow through, if your child knows you mean it when you say you will talk about it, they are much more likely to let it go in the moment. If they know your “we’ll talk about it later” really means “I’m trying to distract you and I’ll never bring this up again” – then they are much more likely to do that pestering, whiny, high decibel thing we already talked about.)

Committing to talk about it will validate their desires and wants as important rather than simply dismissing them, and give you a prime opportunity to discuss needs vs wants, and how you prioritize that as a family. It could even provide an opportunity to talk about how their desire could be facilitated.

IE: If it’s small, maybe they could save birthday/Christmas money up to make it happen. If it’s big (like Disneyland) maybe as a family you could agree to do stay-cations for a couple years to facilitate a Disney trip down the road (if that meets the priorities of the family as a whole).

Even for small children – they can (and should) be part of the dialogue, but that doesn’t mean they are the ones making the decision.

Certainly you won’t be sharing the minutia of your financial situation with them, and you’ll want to ensure the details discussed are age appropriate – but discussing what your family vacation budget is, and comparing it to the projected cost of Disneyland, are great ways to involve kids in understanding how much these types of things cost (which in the future – can go a long way to building gratitude and appreciation for what they do have).

After all, without building an understanding of value – how can any kid be expected to develop gratitude?

So rather than saying “we can’t afford it” – instead teach your kids to ask the question “how can we afford it” followed by the questions of whether or not it is worth the related “cost” (IE: giving up 2 annual family vacations to go to Disneyland in 3 years?).

What Kind Of Message Are You Really Communicating?

Thirdly – those four words convey a very clear message to kids. One that screams that we as parents are not in control of our money. One that says our money controls us – we don’t control it.

Spending money should entail making intentional choices about what is important to us, and recognizing when we need to save for something that doesn’t meet our immediate financial capability.

Again – I don’t know a parent out there who wants to bring their kids up with the idea that they aren’t in charge of their own financial trajectory in life. Ownership is a big part of raising responsible, independent kids, who then go on to be responsible, independent adults.

If we can’t demonstrate to them that we take responsibility of our own money – how can we expect them to learn to model that behaviour.

Changing the conversation from whether or not you can afford it, to how you can afford it (and if that cost is worth it) teaches kids all about making those intentional choices – and more specifically PRIORITIZING.

Evaluating the options, understanding that we can’t have EVERYTHING (nor do we need everything), and identifying what gets us the best bang for our buck. This line of thinking inevitably leads us to talking to our kids about what is important to our family. What our family values are.

Once those are identified – it’s easy to help kids understand that from a financial standpoint, we take care of our needs first, then we take a look at our wants to see what will give us the best return on investment, in line with our family values.

Sometimes that will be saving money – sometimes that will be spending on something like a family vacation, sometimes it will be buying a board game to play as a family. Sometimes a combination of those things.

But bringing the conversation to what’s important to your family, and what, with your available funds, will accomplish that in the best possible way, is a simple way to divert your child’s attention from a singular object/desire, to learning to look at how the object/desire fits into or impacts the bigger picture.

The Bottom Line

Next time your kid is pulling on your arm in the store and begging you for the hot wheels car that looks exactly like the other ten that he has at home, don’t make it your mission to stop the whining.

Make it your mission to have a discussion with your child about how that desire fits into yours (and their) financial picture. If not then, commit a time to talk about it, follow-through, and help them assess if it’s something they are likely to get much enjoyment from.

Sometimes they will still want the car – that’s ok. Help them write it on a wish list, and make them come up with a plan to get it, if they feel they really want it.

But whether it’s a $2.00 car, or a $500 IPad, teaching them how to reach sound choices themselves, and take control of how to achieve wants that they feel are important to them, will form the building blocks for not only a mindful consumer, but a happier person.

Thanks for being such great readers! Next week we’ll jump to a much lighter topic on how to stay trendy without decimating your budget – see you then!

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Tawcan June 3, 2019 - 3:52 pm

Great stuff, I love it. We avoid saying the “we can’t afford it” line too. Rather, we teach our kids the reasons why we aren’t purchasing the item and the alternatives they can use money for.

Phia@Freedom101 June 3, 2019 - 7:52 pm

Thanks for the comment Tawcan! Love how you are already utilizing this approach with your kids! Outlining the reasons, and providing alternatives is truly a great way to help our kids grow perspective as well as the ability to question the status quo. Nice work!

Chrissy @ Eat Sleep Breathe FI June 9, 2019 - 9:44 pm

I admit: I used to say, “We can’t afford it” to our kids. It was an easy way to deflect spending requests. But when my younger son started to say he wished we were rich, I realized it was time to have more meaningful money conversations.

You’re right that teaching our kids these lessons is so important. When we sweep things under the rug with “We can’t afford it” we lose all those amazing opportunities to grow their financial knowledge.

Thanks for another great article Phia!

Phia@Freedom101 June 10, 2019 - 1:24 pm

Thank you Chrissy! I agree – it really is an easy way to deflect – I think we all fall prey to using that line on occasion!

By writing about it, hopefully I hold myself more accountable to avoiding phrases like that, and overall make myself more conscious of what dialogue I am using with my kids!


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