My kid wants to know why we don’t spend money like her friends’ parents do
Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.
My fifth-grader came home from school this month and asked me why our family never goes on vacation over the holidays. Two of her friends are going on family ski trips. Another is headed to a resort in the Bahamas. This isn’t the first time she has asked me why we don’t do stuff that some of her better-off friends do, and I hate that it makes me feel like a bad father. The short answer is that we don’t have the money for that—I work for a nonprofit, and my wife is a social worker. I don’t want my kid to feel deprived, but I also don’t like the idea that she thinks the only important thing in life is having the money to spend Christmas at the beach. What do I tell her?
—Rob T., Boston
It can be hard for parents to tell a kid, over and over, “We can’t afford that.” Even harder now that your daughter’s old enough that big-ticket lifestyle items like vacations, a house with a pool, a second bathroom, or a late-model SUV are on her radar. Many parents I talk to feel—unsurprisingly—defensive when their kids bring up luxuries like this.
I’m reminded of a brilliant story by the writer who just won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, George Saunders, in which a man wanders around an affluent neighborhood comparing what he sees to his own life, furnished with items purchased at Target and garage sales: He “stood awhile watching, thinking, praying: Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.”
While that dad’s angst is understandable, it’s misplaced. No kid is going to be damaged because you can’t afford to take them to the Bahamas, but it’s important not to send the message that lacking money for luxuries is something to be ashamed of. Here are a few ways to have this conversation with your kid.
1. Talk values. Discussing how your values differ from those of other families can be tricky, because you don’t want to badmouth her friends’ parents. Make it very clear that they are free to choose the kind of life they want, but that’s not how you want to live your It sounds as though you and your wife both have jobs that fulfill you in lots of ways—and help others—but don’t command high salaries. Let your kid know why you chose those careers, even if though they don’t pull in big bucks. Maybe one or both of you has opted for a job that’s part-time, has very set hours, or doesn’t require a long commute, so you can spend more time with your family. Your kid should know that too. For more tips on having similar money conversations, see Chapter 1 of my book Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not).
2. Give some financial context. While your daughter is old enough to notice money differences between her and her friends, she’s probably not savvy about how your household budget works. She should know, for instance, that flying your whole family to the Caribbean and staying in a hotel will cost as much as X number of mortgage or rent payments. Say you charged that vacation to a credit card. You can use my calculator to show her how long it would take to pay it off if you made only the minimum monthly payment, and the staggering interest you’d be faced with. What would your family have to give up to go to the Bahamas? Eating out for a year—or two? The family dog, because all those bags of dog food and vet bills add up? The answers might surprise your kid.
3. Let your kid express her own aspirations. After having a conversation like this, your child may say something along the lines of, “I’m not going to be like you. I’m going to make tons of money when I grow up.” For many kids, these are fleeting desires, eventually replaced by real-world experience and passions for documentary filmmaking, marine biology, opening their own bakery—you get it. But trying to make your kid adopt your beliefs and priorities now can easily backfire. It’s enough for her to know that while she’s under your roof, this is the way things will be. The best way for you to pass on your values is to live them, loudly and proudly. They’ll rub off on her, more than you know.