Things I heard a lot as a kid, yet try really hard not to say to my kids include “We can’t afford that” and “Do you think money grows on trees?”
First of all, some things that we don’t buy, we could easily “afford” if we didn’t pay some of our bills or chose to carry a credit card balance. So technically, while I might feel like we can’t afford something, I want to be clear that “I choose not to allocate our budget that way.”
Secondly, paper money does indeed come from trees, my checkbook still has checks in it, and all you have to do is go to the ATM and stick your card in the machine and – like magic – out comes money. Duh! So how can I, or anyone, ever be out of money? That is about what kids know until we teach them otherwise.
Money is not the root of all evil; it’s the love of money that is, as the saying goes. This means that if you put the pursuit of money above all else, that is where things can get ugly. But money itself is power – not in the sense of the “wallet bully,” i.e., he who has the money has control. I mean that if you have money you are empowered with choices and freedoms. At the very most basic level, you can choose what to buy at the supermarket. At the other end of the spectrum, you can choose to take a vacation and where to go on vacation. You are also free to live without the oppressive burden of debt.
My kids get allowance and it is tied to chores. While I think it is important to contribute to the family and to know how to do things around the house. There will be a period in their lives (starting about now) where no one is consistently going to hand all their meals to them on plates, pick up their dirty clothes and towels and wash them, or clean up the bathroom after them and “of course I am sure your girlfriend or wife will appreciate it very much if you already know how to do these things when you meet her.” I need leverage to get them to do said chores. That is partially what allowance is for. The other part is so they learn how to budget, plan, sacrifice, trade off, delay gratification, and regardless of the amount one earns, spend less, invest the rest, and watch it grow.
I do get tired of hearing my kids say “all my friends have swimming pools,” and “our backyard is way too small” and “I wish I had my own room!” All I can say tell them is some people have more than us, and some people have less. Everyone can’t be the same. You’re right, life isn’t fair. Some people are happy with more or less. Those that are not ought to be motivated to make a change.
To illustrate to my kids that they have it pretty good, I made a list of needs and wants and left it on the kitchen counter near the cereal and cracker cabinet. Items in the need category included shelter, utilities (not including cable), property maintenance, clothes, and groceries. Items in the want category were things like allowance, sports, sports equipment, school lunch/meals out, and “brand-name” clothes. The list stayed there for a few days, with no comment. After I had gone grocery shopping one day, I hauled out items from the bags one by one before putting them away.
“Kids, milk: luxury or necessity?”
“Necessity,” my middle son answered. He probably drinks two gallons a week himself.
“Yuck,” my youngest said. He prefers yogurt or cheese from that food group.
“Bread: luxury or necessity?”
“Necessity,” my older two chimed in.
“Well, not so fast – you can get protein from other sources, right?”
“Oh, well, yeah…”
“Beef jerky,” I continued.
“Necessity,” my oldest stated.
“Well, again…you don’t need meat for protein, and couldn’t you make your own beef jerky?”
“Sure, Uncle does.” I went on, “Chicken nuggets.”
My youngest perked up and said, “What’s a luxury again?”
“Something you want, not something you need” his brothers answered, in almost-unison.
“Necessity,” he answered affirmatively. He would eat chicken nuggets at every meal if he could.
We all laughed. “Of course he would say that,” my middle son commented.
My oldest said, “You really need to try new foods” which is very true, and something Grandma always said, but not the topic du jour.
I refocused them. “Kids, Honey Nut Cheerios®: luxury or necessity?”
“Well, is it the bag or the box?” my middle son asked (the bag would be the store brand).
“It’s the box, they were on sale.”
“Then it’s a necessity.”
“Hmmm, are you sure? They are pre-sweetened. Isn’t it a luxury to have someone else put the sugar on your cereal, when I could be buying plain oat rings and we have a sugar bowl right here?”
“Mom, is this what that list is all about?” My oldest asked
“Well, about that list. Mom,” my middle son interjected. “You gotta take haircuts out of the want column – I need haircuts and I need to go to a professional.”
(Ultimately I moved it, even though I really do think I could recreate his buzz cut with the Conair® clipper set we have tucked away, and not wanting to get too far into the economic theory of specialization: given that I am already their chief cook and bottlewasher, should I be expected to be their hairdresser, too?)
My oldest asked, “Yeah, on the list you put ‘car’ in the need column. Is a car really a need?”
“For us it is, but it wouldn’t be in a city. I lived in Boston for five years with no car. We had the T. There is no public transportation here, so how would you get to football practice?” (Wait ’til he is old enough to drive… I thought. I am sure he wouldn’t doubt the need for a car then!)
We continued our conversation as we – they had come into the kitchen to help me unearth the latest wants and needs from the shopping bags – put the groceries away. We talked about how many people’s needs are others’ wants and vice versa, and how it isn’t up to us to make that decision for them; and how some people wouldn’t want or need some of the things we want/need, like vegetarians, who don’t need or want chicken tenderloins, chicken nuggets or any kind of chicken at all, never mind beef jerky. We remembered that it’s important to be grateful for what you have otherwise you’ll constantly be focused on what you don’t have. We agreed that it’s okay to want more, but not to expect it to be handed to you: the world doesn’t owe you a living. I informed them that parents aren’t obligated to provide more than food, clothing, and shelter for their kids with the caveat that hopefully parents want to, and hopefully kids will appreciate it. I inferred, with my holey and squeaking sneakers, that sometimes parents put their own needs aside for their kids needs or wants.
“Ooh, you got Fenway Fudge ice cream – can we have some?”
“Luxury or necessity,” I asked.
“Luxury,” my older two shouted.
“Sure, you can have luxury – ice cream – after dinner – necessity. Needs should always come before wants.” I turned on the oven to preheat it for cooking the chicken nuggets.