It was time to put my foot down. Sick of my girls’ too-frequent requests for stuff, I recently put my serious mom hat on to announce a new house rule. “Chloe and Sophie,” I said, “you must start distinguishing between your needs and wants. Your mom and Papa do not possess an orchard full of money trees,” I added as the two girls rolled their eyes in perfect unison. We don’t live in a French Renaissance castle, either, although our humble abode is about 100 years old (and often feels like it was built 500 years ago, too).
As parents, we have not always set the best example, particularly when I was still working full-time. We never spent exorbitantly, but we also never really deprived ourselves. We didn’t have to. We’ve been very fortunate and as much as we’ve tried to teach our kids to appreciate everything they have, they’re still kids. And they sometimes forget that they shouldn’t take their charmed lives for granted.
But it’s been two years since I became Chief Mom Officer and my annual income is now a mere fraction of what it used to be. We need to be mindful of our spending, especially since I still want to prioritize family travel over other discretionary expenses.
I told the girls that if they wanted to buy things during the course of the year (excluding birthdays and year-end holidays) that were not crucial for their health and well-being, they’d have to use their own money. That they would have to make some tough choices about what they really need – like underwear and shoes – versus what they really want – essentially everything else. Chloe wrote an essay about this very topic about five years ago. Apparently, she was full of shit back then because she hasn’t followed her own sage advice.
Chloe reacted with indifference to my lecture – her babysitting gigs and weekly allowance tend to provide her just enough spending money. If her coffers are empty, she gives us a series of IOUs that she eventually pays back. Sophie’s facial expression, on the other hand, betrayed worry as she realized that her modest $3/week allowance would not get her very far. Which would mean raiding the pile of cash she’s been hoarding for the past half-decade – not unlike Smaug – if she wants to add to her stuffed animal count. Who knows? Perhaps her next purchase will be a noble peacock to convey the illusion of great wealth.
I naively thought that we’d have the conversation once and that would be that. One and done. Was I ever wrong. I’ve become a broken record, repeating variations on “needs vs. wants,” “wants vs. needs,” “Do you need it or do you want it?” with astounding frequency. What’s even more shameful? We’re only a few weeks post-holidays, when they received most of the crap they wanted. We’ve created monsters, I tell you.
Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed reminding them of our pact (notice my use of the royal-like “our” – it’s really a one-way pact, but I am the boss after all). Because since instituting this law, it’s become VERY EASY to say no. No guilt. No pain. It’s freeing, actually.
Under this new regime, when one of my children announces her desire to acquire yet another thing, our conversations go something like this:
Chloe: [using her abnormally high-pitched and friendly voice, previously described here] Mom! There’s a really cool concert at Terminal 5 in New York in a few months. It’s general admission, so the tickets will be cheap.
Me: Do you need to go to this concert, Chloe?
Chloe: No, I guess not. But can it be part of my birthday present? [a sly little smile forms on her lips]
Sophie: Can I get more Post-Its to make flip books?
Me: Sure, if you use your own money.
Sophie: [Brief hesitation as she calculates the approximate cost of Post-Its in her head and decides she can swing it] OK. Can you take me to Target to buy them?
Chloe: Hey, Mom? There’s this really cool top I saw online. What say you?
Me: We just cleaned out your drawers and completed taking inventory of your wardrobe. Do you really need another shirt?
Chloe: [smiles sheepishly and returns silently to her lair].
Sophie: Can we get the Blu-Ray for “A Cat in Paris?” [Great film, by the way. Highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet]
Me: Sure. If you buy it. It’s $23 on Amazon.
Sophie: [Her eyes go big. A flicker of alarm registers across her face as she realizes she’d need to raid her hoarded funds again.] That’s ok, I’ll pass.
Me: If you want, we can add it to your wish list for your birthday next September.
Sophie: That’s sooooo far away.
Chloe: Hey, Mom? There’s this really cool nail polish that’s on sale at Ulta. Do you need nail polish? Because if you buy two, you get one free. Good deal, right?
Me: I don’t need any. Thanks for your generous offer. But if you want to use your own money to buy two for your ridiculously large collection, you can always give me the third one. I’d happily take it.
Chloe: No, that’s ok. I don’t need them, either.
See, all it takes is repetition. Over and over again. At first, they’ll try to wear you down. Or they’ll hope that you’ll forget the pact. Eventually, however, your kids will get the point. Because they’re not dumb. If you’re lucky, they’ll start sounding like you, too. And before you know it, you’ll find yourself with a little extra cash to buy something you need. Like a massage. Or a kick-ass bottle of wine.
Have you ever had similar conversations about needs vs. wants with your children? If so, please share!