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It's time to face it, your kid is bankrupting you

The one phrase all parents need to use when their kids want more, more, more

Adapted with permission from Your Kid's a Brat and It's All Your Fault: Nip the Attitude in the Bud — From Toddler to Tween by Elaine Rose Glickman. © 2016 by Elaine Rose Glickman. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Group, Penguin Random House LLC.

Say it with me: “That sounds great, but we can’t afford it.” Hey, I told you to say it with me – not run away and hide! Yes, it’s hard to do the first time; but sharing the fact that you are not an endless well of cash is an important thing to do with your kid. You’re still hiding, aren’t you? Okay, stay under the bed for another minute or two – but at least listen while I explain further.

Your kid almost certainly suspects that your financial situation is not the stuff of her dreams. Even if you think you make a good living, have a nice house, and shower her with everything her little heart desires, the fact is that she has richer friends with bigger allowances, better rooms, and far more shit than you could ever dream of. I know this is a tough realization to accept. Our society places so much emphasis on wealth and acquisition that admitting we can’t afford something makes us feel like flops. And when that “something” is a pair of pricey sneakers half your kid’s class already has, or a vacation to rival that of her best friend (my kid’s friends have been to significantly more European capitals than I have, so believe me, I know how you feel), or an awesome tricked-out bedroom when your kid feels she’s basically living in a closet (my kid again, and her room is actually kind of small), it’s easy to feel even worse – as if you’re letting your kid down in some terrible way.

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It’s kind of depressing to make this realization, I know – but it’s also kind of liberating. Knowing that you will never, ever be able to buy your kid everything she wants means that you’re going to disappoint her eventually – so why not do it before she pushes you even farther along the road to bankruptcy? And why not tell her explicitly what she already knows – that your money is a finite thing, and that she’s not the only one entitled to it – and maybe even delve deeper into the subject?

First, drop the contrite or defensive attitude. These difficulties are part of life rather than something you need to apologize for. Nor should you feel guilty for not making these extras your top priority; foregoing a mani/pedi with a friend so that you can buy your kid yet another fuzzy sweater and a zebra-print rucksack, or giving your kid the new tablet you just bought and making do with the old one (true story!) will not only give your kid a completely skewed sense of how the universe operates and an even more bloated sense of entitlement, but will also doom you to chipped nails, a slower WiFi connection – and, oh yeah, resentment of your kid. This is where “That sounds great, but we can’t afford it” comes in – delivered not in a glum, remorseful way but in a casual, matter-of-fact, end-of-story tone.

Make sure, however, that you don’t go so far in the anti-apology direction that you drift into defensiveness or antagonism. Unless your kid is trying to make you feel guilty or inadequate when you suggest she find a way to cope with her hair that does not involve regular salon appointments and weekly blowouts, there’s no need to answer her request with a list of the million things you’ve bought her in the past month and an angry reminder that you work hard and deserve to enjoy a few luxuries yourself, has she stopped to think about that? Once again, “That sounds great, but we can’t afford it” will serve you well. Because it probably does sound great, and you probably can empathize with the feeling of wanting something beyond your means – and there’s no shame in acknowledging both of these facts to your kid.

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Your kid is old enough to learn about costs, budgeting, and saving – and the values your family upholds when making financial decisions. If you use online coupons or clip them from the Sunday paper, for example, involve your kid in the routine; let her search the Internet for bargains (not only will she enjoy the task, but she’ll also find websites and deals you never knew existed) or set her up with some scissors and go through the coupon inserts together. Rather than doing the grocery shopping while she’s at school (even though she’s told you a million times she hates the market, I know), drag her along and have her practice her math skills by figuring out the price per serving and price per unit of various items. Tell her why you shop the way you do; if you save by buying generic peanut butter, for example, but shell out for non-GMO dairy or locally-grown produce or name-brand cereal, share the reasoning behind your choices – and let her weigh in, too. Do the same when considering family outings or major purchases; without disclosing your net worth or giving her TMI about your finances, you can still help her understand just how many dinners out you might have to forego in order to upgrade her phone.

Once she’s gotten the hang of budgeting – and understands the link between what you spend and what you value – put her in charge of selecting ingredients for three nights’ worth of dinners or deciding what luxuries she wants to give up in return for getting a new set of earbuds just like the ones everyone else has, really, everyone.

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I’m not saying that these activities will end your kid’s I-want-that-itis, or that she’ll immediately jump on the clip-and-save train; but I am saying that they will help your kid understand that you are more than a large, occasionally cranky ATM, and that your saying no to her requests for treats and luxuries is not just you being mean or cheap or poor. I’m also saying that you should not feel embarrassed about providing her with less than her wealthier, or just being-raised-with-different-values, friends may enjoy, and that the tween years are exactly the right time to introduce her to issues like budgeting and finances rather than shielding her from such matters completely.

The one phrase all parents need to use when their kids want more, more, more
Image: Elaine Rose Glickman

Elaine Rose Glickman is the author of Your Kid’s a Brat and It’s All Your Fault (TarcherPerigee). She is the mother of three (non-bratty) children and is also a parenting advice columnist for Sarasota Mommy Magazine, a parenting expert featured on the syndicated television talk show Daytime, a former teacher, and the chair of a nationally accredited, top-rated Florida preschool.

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