And teach kids about money

8 Habits That Plug Parental Spending Leaks

by Lynn Adams

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When I was a childless child psychologist, kids made me money. Then I had two kids of my own, and they began to drain my spending money like two slow leaks.

You can establish new habits, or tweak old ones, to plug leaks of any size. The trick is to match your technique to your child's developmental level, and then to grow with them.

  1. Treat stores like museums. Pointing with the index finger is a developmental milestone to celebrate, but it can cost you. Add in grunting and early vocabulary, and you have Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in your shopping cart: "I want the world. I want the whole world." But wait a minute. Pointing doesn't always mean "give me." Sometimes it just means, "Look at that one-eyed stretchy purple alien!" For a child's first two years, you can join in the fun. Say something like, "Yes, that alien is terrific! I wonder what his name is." Very young kids usually forget the alien as soon as it's out of sight. If they remember the alien, in the next aisle or the next week, you can bring them back for a visit like in a museum. The really special stuff can appear like magic in their Christmas stocking. This technique worked wonders on my son, who didn't seem to realize those impulse items were for sale until his two-years-younger sister learned to talk and let the alien out of the bag.
  2. Be prepared. Always have emergency snacks on hand, even beyond the diaper bag years. Snacks should come from home, not directly from a store. Another trick is the hidden candy stash. There are times when nothing will lift the spirits like a mouthful of chocolate. Pull it out of your sunglasses case instead of reaching for checkout candy. You've set the long-term expectation that snacks are premeditated.
  3. "Me time." As kids get older and more persuasive, there's no shame in avoiding the leaks altogether. My husband, bless him, is always trying to give me a few hours to "do something for myself" on the weekends. You know what I really used those hours for when the kids were in preschool and Kindergarten? I used them for essential errands to stores that market impulse buys to children: the pharmacy, the grocery store, the big box store, the hardware store, pretty much any store.
  4. Catalogues, the modern Playboy. You know how Playboy used to arrive in a plain brown wrapper? I wish catalogues were that way. Stake out your mailbox and hide all catalogues, so that your kids will be spared their version of porn, the Chasing Fireflies catalogue or the American Girl mailer. Kids don't need to know what all is available to them. While you're at it, remove their Christmas presents from the manufacturer's wrapping, so that they never see the little brochures inside that helpfully tell them how to "collect all ten" of whatever.
  5. Related: How a Family With Children Is Getting Out of Debt

  6. Opportunity rewards, not material ones. The money may be small, but the message isn't: If you please your parents, they will buy you stuff. Why not turn this around and make rewards out of things money can't buy? For siblings, pay attention to what kids fight over. For only children, it's what they pester you about. Here's my current list. They want to get the first turn to feed the pets, press the buttons on the elevator, enter the house, and take a bath. They also enjoy getting to choose what's for snack, what to watch on TV, what bedtime story to read, and what board game to play. Their special opportunities include sleepovers with Mom and Dad or grandparents, sitting on Mom's lap at dinner, a bubble bath, making videos with Mom's camera, and a picnic dinner.
  7. Set up a library day. You might not need it when they're really young, although there are plenty of board books at our library. But if you're already in the library habit, you won't be tempted to buy a shrink-wrapped package of Level 1 books at Costco when your first grader hates reading. Purchases aren't therapy. Kids are more likely to read one book they chose than a packet of readers that were "on sale." For the record, my first- and third-graders have yet to cherish any book on their own reading level. It's all picture books and read-alouds.
  8. If circumstances have put your family in debt, find out how to conquer your debt by creating a plan personalized to your family's budget and lifestyle.

  9. Marketing: our family's in-joke. We call it "the askies." As in, "Margot, did you see that those Frozen sleeping bags were at your eye level, not mine, on our way to the shoe section? Well, that's meant to give you the askies." Then, instead of spending as much on the sleeping bag as on the shoes, we share a rueful laugh about how we're too smart to fall for tricks like that.
  10. Wallets, not piggy banks. Make sure your child has enough money to make her own purchases, so she'll learn how long she has to wait to replace that money. My six-year-old wants to collect a mob of Beanie Boos, which cost $5.99 each. So if her allowance is $1 per week, it takes her six weeks to earn enough for one Boo. Perhaps this is why she treats them like celebrities.

Some of these savings may seem small. But by starting with these habits, you'll be teaching kids to plan, budget, and resist temptation while the stakes are still low with the added bonus of saving your own money for the really important stuff.

Reviewed April 2018

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Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Find more of her work at

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