How To Tell Your Kids You Can’t Afford Something

With the holidays coming up I figured we could all use a little tutorial on How-To Tuesday about how to tell your kids that they won’t be getting everything their little hearts desire. Of course you need to know how to do this all year round. If you think you don’t ever need to tell your kids that you can’t afford something then you will end up with some pretty selfish, bratty kids. Please don’t let them anywhere near me. Because if there is one thing I hate it’s kids who are all, “me, me, me”. Which is a surprisingly large number of children these days.

Kids need to be told that you don’t have enough money. Even if you do. Can you imagine the surprise that awaits them when they leave for college without the basic knowledge that you can’t have everything you want? What will their adult lives be like when they’ve grown up not knowing that sometimes you won’t have enough money to buy what you want? Kids don’t learn this unless you teach them.

This is really hard for new parents. I remember when India and York were little and we went to Target for something. They both started asking for toys or some other nonsense. It was the first time they were old enough to actually understand what I was saying. I thought about telling them that were weren’t there to buy toys for them, which was only halfway true. The truth was that we were very financially strapped at the time. So I told them how we didn’t have very much money and if we bought toys we wouldn’t have enough money to buy food too.

I felt like a loser saying that.

The loserest of losers.

The great thing about kids is that they take things at face value. When you tell your three year-old that you don’t have enough money for the doll she wants, she isn’t going to think, “Boy, Dad must have a real dead-end job. Why doesn’t he go back to school and get his MBA or something? I can’t believe he doesn’t have ten lousy dollars. I have no respect for that man anymore.” Instead your child is thinking: “I want that doll. I waaaant that dollllllll! I want that doll now!!!!! What do you mean we have no money? There’s money in your purse! Don’t blab at me, Mom, just buy me the doll! Now!!!! I must have that doll! That doll is my key to happiness!” You get the idea.

But there is no arguing with, “we don’t have enough money.” Begging and pleading are pretty much nipped in the bud.  So not only is it effective, but it gets kids in the habit of thinking about money before asking for things. Which will hopefully lead them to think about money before they buy things as they get older.

If arguing or whining persists, you can always tell kids that they are welcome to write it on a list for Christmas/their birthday– a time when they will be getting presents.  This is how it goes for our Littles if they are being persistently greedy at the store:

Jasper: Mom, can I have this Play-Doh Set?

Mom: I’m sorry, Jasper, I haven’t got enough money for that. I only have enough money to buy the things on my list.

Jasper: But you have lots of money. I saw it in your purse.

Mom: That is all the money I have for food and toilet paper. If we buy your toy we won’t be able to buy dinner. I’m going to be hungry without dinner. And what about if there is no more toilet paper? That would be gross. But maybe you could pick some leaves in the backyard for us to use instead. That’s what Indians used for toilet paper.

Jasper: Ew! [not falling for my impromptu budgeting lesson]  But Mom, I really want that Play-Doh set. Please can you get it? I’ll do a chore when we get home.

Mom: When you do enough chores to earn you own money we’ll come back and buy it then. You have to do the chores first.

Jasper: Please mom!

Mom: How about we put it on your Christmas list? You’ll be getting presents then.

Jasper: [hesitant and not totally buying the whole Christmas List bait and switch] Hmmmm.

Mom: [acting quickly to distract from whining] What else would you like to put on your Christmas list? How about that Buzz Lightyear toy over there?

Jasper: [perking up as only a greedy child does] Yeah!  And the Woody and Jessie toys too! Plus that Darth Vader light saber!

Mom: Let’s start writing that list as soon as we get home. [This part is important!!!] You won’t get everything on your list but this gives Santa some ideas. [You don’t want him to think he’s getting everything on the list. Which he will certainly think unless told otherwise.]

So, not only did you deflect a whiny, selfish child but you got him to realize that he only gets toys at certain times. Not every time he goes to the store. And that money needs to be spent on necessities first.

I realize that many parents feel like they will make their children deliriously happy by buying them lots of stuff. Listen to me now:

You won’t.

Because stuff won’t make you happy.

Not you. Not your kids.

Do everyone in society a favor and tell your kids no. Tell them that money must be spent wisely. The sooner you do this, the better.

I’m not saying that you can’t ever buy your kids things. Sure you can. But it’s important that kids realize that there are limits, they can’t have everything they want, and that money needs to be spent intelligently.

You aren’t depriving your kids. You are giving them a much more valuable gift than anything you can buy at a store.

Unless its a jewelry store.

(Just kidding.)



21 thoughts on “How To Tell Your Kids You Can’t Afford Something

  1. I think it stings to say you can’t afford it when you really really can’t. But when you can afford it, it’s easy to flat out say, “Sorry son, we can’t afford it.”

  2. There’s an element of freedom that comes when you say, “We can’t afford it.” It’s funny when kids come back and say, “Just go to the bank and get some more!”

    I actually like saying “We can’t afford it” and its cousin, “I’m not going to spend money on that.” I feel like saying “No” makes me a better mom. I said it loudly and happily at the store so that even other people can hear me say it. Sure, I love when my kids get to have something new, but the truth is they don’t need it and it’s just a future mess waiting to happen. Better to say “we can’t afford it!” Kids need to know there isn’t an eternal spring waiting to satisfy their every need.

  3. Maybe there’s a reason God makes one of a child’s first words “NO”?
    Maybe they come already wired to know that “NO” is the word that will give them ultimate freedom, control, and happiness over their own lives.
    “And a little child shall lead them”. Just a thought.

    1. “Pretty soon you end up with a delinquent child who has just totalled his brand new car, all because he got a pig nose at the rodeo.”

  4. awesome! I just had this conversation with my 5 year old and her response was, “for my birthday I want 2 five dollar bills so I can buy this and this” On the way home her little sister said she wanted one of the things on the list too so big sister said, ” I need 3 five dollar bills for my birthday now so I can get Ady her toy too.”

  5. I wrote an entire post about this exact subject a couple of months ago. But, I think I left it in the line-up and didn’t post it, for fear of being offensive! Funny, now that I think of it.

    I love saying “I can’t afford it.” So amazingly freeing!

  6. We had a particularly inquisitive kid that forced us to parse our language. (That kid needs to be a lawyer) We switched from saying “We don’t have enough money” to “We don’t have enough money for that.” (It also felt better because we weren’t declaring poverty)

    It turned the discussion from poverty to wants vs. needs, which issue will rage with all of us until the day we die.

  7. This is a great post and something I’ve thought about with raising my daughter. When I grew up, my parents lived comfortably and my sisters and I pretty much got what we asked for. There was nothing about them not affording things (even though I’m sure there were things they could not afford). I think that had a negative impact on me as I grew up. I never had to earn something or wait until the money was available. So as an adult, I would often buy or charge things without having the money to back it up. It’s been a hard financial lesson to learn. But I don’t want my daughter to have to learn it as an adult like I did.

  8. This post is very fitting, my wife and I just told her parents the other day that we might have to have a talk with them at some point about getting their grandchild to many things, and spoiling them to death. Even that, I would imagine, would make parenting even that much more difficult. Still a lot to learn!

  9. We personally use the “Let’s put that on your list for birthday/Christmas” all the time with kid #1 who is 5. We also just went over that list again before sending Christmas lists to grandparents and he was like, “Why would I want an Elmo doll!?!” I have a hard time with the whole “We can’t afford that” thing, because, well, if we *need* it, we *could* afford it, so we mostly go with the needs vs. wants discussion. We are starting to think about allowences now, and that is just too frightening.

  10. Great post Jennie. Love the tactics at work. And that photo? Jeepers. Stuff, stuff, stuff. I’m good with telling our kids we can’t afford something. And totally fine with them wanting to earn their own money for whatever toy or trinket they saw while we were out shopping. (They usually forget about it within a day!)

  11. Yup, yup! We’ve had so much money talk that my 6yr old annouced this morning that “the Santa at the ward Christmas party {11 months ago!} CAN’T be the real one becuase he doesn’t have enough money to fly all the way here JUST for a party- that would cost too much!” 🙂 Money talk even helped motivate potty training in my son when he was little. He wanted pink milk powder and we couldn’t buy pink milk AND diapers so he waited until he was trained to get pink milk!

  12. Related lectures I’ve given my kids:

    “Santa has to have enough toys for all the kids, so he can’t give too many to you.” (Santa is also sometimes unable to obtain trendy, sold-0ut toys because he does occasionally rely on a middleman.)

    “If we all got all the toys we wanted, we wouldn’t have enough places to keep them, and our whole floor would be covered in toys, and we wouldn’t have any room to walk or to play with the toys we do have.” (Your photo illustrates that very well.)

    “Santa likes to give children things they love, but he doesn’t give them too many toys because he doesn’t want them to be spoiled and selfish.”

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