Raising Thrifty Kids in a Materialistic World

Consider the following scenario: You’re at the store with your kids shopping for some household items when all of a sudden they’re yanking you towards the toy section, imploring you to buy yet another Star Wars figure, doll, lego set, package of silly-bands, or any other glossy piece of plastic that catches their fancy.

As you pick up the item and look at the price tag, your children double their assault, firing a barrage of reasons why they absolutely need that toy: it’s so cool, I really really like it, it’ll be my favorite toy forever, my old toys are so boring, all my friends have one, you always buy toys for ____________(fill in sibling’s name), I never get anything, and so on and so forth. You mind is so muddled by the increasing volume and pitch of this verbal attack, that against your better judgement, you find yourself caving.

Do you:

  1. Throw the toy into your shopping cart because you want to make your kids happy and preserve your own sanity,
  2. Tell them you’ll buy it for their birthday, and promise you’ll buy donuts if they don’t nag,
  3. Try to direct their attention to the one-dollar bin,
  4. Drag your whining children away from the toy section vowing never again to take them to the store.

Believe it or not, such times are valuable teaching moments. They can be the beginnings of helping your child to grow in patience, develop self-control, manage peer-pressure, and learn to be financially responsible. But only if you can lovingly but firmly say, “No, not now. No nagging, no negotiating. We’ll talk about it later.”

Here are some ideas on how to turn your shopping trips into life-long lessons for your kids:

1. Distinguish between Wants and Needs. When a kid sees a toy he really wants, he often believes that he needs it.  Try to teach him the difference.  One way to avoid spoiling your children is to teach them in words and deeds that needs are important, and wants are superfluous.  Assure them that you will do your best to supply their needs.  Leave it to friends and relatives, birthdays and Christmas to supply their wants.

2. Avoid buying expensive character-themed items and brand-name clothes. This further develops the idea of wants vs. needs.  A child needs toothpaste. He wants the tube with Sponge Bob on it, but does he need the more expensive toothpaste, when plain children’s Crest will work just as well?  Your daughter may pine for Disney Princess pajamas, but will sleep just as comfortably in regular P.J.s that are half the price.  And unless a certain brand of clothing is more expensive because it really is superior in quality, you’re really just wasting money on a label. Point this out to your kids. This is not just about wasting a few dollars here or there. It’s about learning to follow rational thinking over immediate desires.  And it becomes a spending (or rather, saving) habit that affects the rest of their lives.

3. Delay the gratification. Our kids are growing up in an instant and therefore impatient generation – they have access to instant photos, instant messaging, and instant movies.  Teach them to wait for the things they want but don’t need.  Chances are, if you make them wait long enough for a sought-after product, (3 or more months) their desire for it will decrease or they may forget about it altogether.  If, after a long period of waiting, they finally get what they want, your kids will enjoy and appreciate it all the more.

4. Shop with a list and if it’s not on the list, don’t buy it. This helps to you to keep impulse shopping in check, and makes it clear to your children what you will and will not be buying for them.  Stay away from the toy or candy section unless such items are on your list.  This will save you time, and will give your children fewer ideas of things to want.  When one of my kids asks me to buy them some whimsical little thing, it’s so liberating to say, “I can’t. It’s not on the list.” When they ask, “Can we put it on the list for next time?” I simply respond, “We’ll discuss it later with Daddy to see if this is something you really need.”

5. Teach your child the value of a dollar. When your child is old enough to use money, give him a very small, very modest allowance. For as the wise old saying goes, to teach your son the value of a dollar, give him a dime. Give it to him bi-monthly or monthly so he will have to wait a while if he spends all his money. Never give it to him in advance. Give him his allowance in dollar bills. This way, when he uses the money, he sees how quickly those dollar bills disappear.  Encourage him to save a portion each time, to think very carefully about how he will spend his money, and to be generous in buying little gifts for siblings and for the family.

6. Remember that Less is More. It is far better to give your kids a few high-quality educational toys than to clutter their rooms with cheap toys that easily break and lose their interest. The fewer toys your child has, they more she will appreciate them.  The fewer times you take her to the toy store, the more excited she will be when you actually take her.  The fewer toys there are at home, the more your kids have to share. The fewer toys in a room, the more space to play in.  And the fewer toys you buy, the more money you can save for college.

7. Resist Peer and Parent Pressure. One of the most persuasive arguments a child can use in getting you to buy ludicrous amounts of collectibles or exorbitantly expensive items is, “Everyone at school has them.  I’ll be the only one without any.” Here you have an excellent opportunity to build your child’s resistance to peer pressure.  But first, you must flex your own muscles against parent pressure.  Be ready to face the criticism of other parents, friends and even family.  Share with your kids your reasons for not buying that wildly popular item and tell your kids that you are raising them according to your standards and beliefs, not everybody else’s. By standing strong against the tide, you are modeling for your children how to live by principles, not pressure.  In their teenage years, when peers try to pressure them into drinking and drugs, you have a greater hope that they will be accustomed to not having and doing what everyone else has and does, and to standing by their convictions.  Furthermore, it is a way of teaching them that their value as a person does not come from what they have, but rather, who they are.

8. Develop an Attitude of Gratitude. Compared to most children in the world, our kids are extremely privileged. Our kids enjoy more toys, food, comfort and conveniences than even the children of kings and queens of olden days. Moreover, while our children bicker over what flavor of ice cream they want, other children are dying of starvation.  While our children complain that their toys are boring, children in other parts of the world work 12 hour days in polluted factories.  The price of an American Girl Doll could probably feed a malnourished child in Africa for a year.  Our children need to know this.  Draw them out of their ego-centric little worlds and let them see the poverty and suffering of children in their city and around the world.  Encourage them to donate some of their own toys and money to children who are less fortunate.  Teach them to be thankful for what they have and constantly remind them of how blessed they are.

9. Model restraint and responsibility in your own spending. Make a budget and stick to it. Spend less than you make. Avoid unnecessary purchases. Find ways to live more simply and frugally. Your example speaks louder than words.

Saying “no” to your children’s unnecessary wants on a regular basis is not easy, or fun, either.  After all, it gives parents great pleasure to see their children’s faces light up with excitement when they are handed a new toy, or something that they have been longing for. But these “No’s” are really big “Yeses”. They are Yes, to the voices of reason and conscience. Yes to standing up against peer pressure.  Yes to growing in patience and mastery over one’s desires. Yes to financial responsibility and freedom. And, yes to a happiness that lasts much longer than the fleeting pleasure of material goods.

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