Why You Need To Stop Saying “We Can’t Afford It”?

We can not afford it

How many of you have told your kids, “We can’t afford that” when asked to buy something for them? I have, well, that is to say, I used to.

It is easy to be less than fully conscious of the things we say to our kids. A good friend of mine shared a quote from a parenting book that resonated with me. I apologize if I butcher the quote. It was something along the lines of “children are great observers, but awful interpreters.” I couldn’t agree more.

What do you think your child’s interpretation of “We can not afford it” is? Especially after they see you spending money. We can’t afford that toy, but we can afford beer? Or you can afford gas for the car, or some other item for the house.

Children Are Awful Interpreters

Unfortunately, our children do not get nuance. We know when we say “we can’t afford it” what we are actually saying is, “In our family budget we prioritize what we spend money on.  On our list of priority items, this toy is at the bottom”.  Ha. Can you imagine trying to say that to a child on the verge of a meltdown in a store? Of course not, so what we say is, “No, we can’t afford that,” and we go on our way.

The problem is, our children don’t get it. How is it possible that we can “afford” all the other things that they see us spending money on? But when it comes to the things that they want, all of a sudden we don’t have money.

Well, I won’t pretend that I can interpret what a child thinks, but I can tell you what I would think if I observed those inconsistencies. I would think that my wants are not as valued as the wants of the adults in the house. I would also be confused about how money works. Does money only exist for my parents, but not for my wants? I would be utterly confused on the one end or very disappointed and devalued on the other.

Our Job Is To Demystify

As parents, it is our job to demystify the world for our children, not to add more confusion. “We can’t afford it” is an easy out, but it is not an accurate statement. If the desires of your child do not exceed the balance of your bank account, then we can not afford it is not a true statement.

So what are you to say? Well, first off, don’t start this conversation when on the verge of a meltdown. You start by explaining to your child how much money you have, where it comes from, and where that money needs to go. Do you get a salary or an hourly wage? Explain in terms your child understands. Let them know that you have only so much money coming in each month.  And let them know that money is spent on the items that your family needs. This can be a fun and engaging conversation and enlightening for both you and your child.

A Chance To Talk About Needs vs Wants

Try to have your child list out the needs that your family has. A place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear are the primary ones, but see how deep you can go. If you need to commute to work, see if your child can come up with gas for the car, or subway pass as a need. Guide them and try to list the big ones. Go deeper if your child is into it. Then explain that the money that is left over after the needs are met can then be spent on wants, and then explain how you prioritize the desires in your family. Tell your child if their wishes will be given on birthdays or other special days, then tell your child so. If you can buy more wants more often, let your child know the guidelines for when those wants will be met.

How Do You Prioritize

That way, when the question comes up in a store for that toy or candy, you can say, “that is not a priority for us right now”, or “we are not choosing to use our money to buy that at this time”.  Let them know they may get it on their birthday or whatever guidelines you set out. It is not an easy out, and it may likely spur on more conversation such as needs vs wants, but at least you are starting to show your child how money is allocated, instead of using a blanket statement that may not be true to appease them.

Are there other phrases that you catch yourself saying, that you wish you could change? Or have you ever found yourself saying a money cliche? Tell me about it in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Why You Need To Stop Saying “We Can’t Afford It”?”

  1. Last year when we moved into our new house we had lots of expenses. My 10 year old asked about buying something one day and I casually replied off the cuff “We can’t spend money on that, we’re broke”.

    I didn’t really think twice but the next day he came to us in tears asking if we were really broke. I hadn’t realized he interpreted it literally. We had a long conversation and explained to him our budget, our monthly income, expenses and even our retirement savings and projections.

    It was an eye opener for sure and now I’m much more conscious of what I say to the kids!

  2. Love it, a great way to prepare children by helping them understand instead of just giving a response that suits us as adults.

  3. Wow… this is an enlightening read, I usually say this to my son. I’ll have to explain to explain to him that most of what he asks needs planning and saving.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Louise. I’m glad you were able to get some insights from it. All the best, and please let me know if any of my other post resinate. Clifton

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