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Responding to Uncomfortable Questions About Money

"Why Won't You . . . ?" Questions
There is probably no parent on earth who hasn't been asked, "Why won't you buy me a __________?" Typically, these questions are accompanied by such announcements as, "I'm the only kid in my class who doesn't have a __________," and "No other parents have rules like yours!" Depending on your child's age, you can fill in the blank with everything from a candy bar to a new car.

These are difficult conversations to have because you may be reluctant to delve into the sometimes complicated reasons why they can't have a candy bar or a car. Many times, the complexity is due to your values; it requires time and effort to explain why your child can't have a five-hundred dollar bike just like two of his friends; how you believe giving him such a bike fosters a sense of entitlement; how it's not the same thing as giving him a thousand-dollar computer, which he can use as a learning tool, and that you value education while you don't value buying trendy things to be "in." In many cases, the explanation is even more complex and ambiguous than the one just suggested. You may believe that your child isn't able to understand all the issues you might raise or you don't want to get into a long, drawn-out argument.

As a result, many financially unintelligent parents rely on the knee-jerk answer, "We can't afford it." Of course, if you really can't afford it, this response is appropriate. Most of the time, though, kids ask for things parents can afford, and to pretend that you can't involves lying to your children as well as taking the easy way out. In addition, repeated reliance on the we-can't-afford-it excuse fosters needless anxiety in children.

Tony and Julie told us that they were dumbfounded a few years ago to receive a phone call from the vice principal of their local school offering to help them apply for the community's financial assistance program. Julie's favorite way of saying no to her eight-year-old son, Max, was telling him that they couldn't afford it. Max became so anxious that he told his teacher that the family was on the verge of bankruptcy!

Maybe your kids are not afraid that the family is about to go bankrupt, but if they see you coming home with a new camera or a new dress after telling them that you can't afford to buy them a computer game, they'll view you as a hypocrite.

The best way to say no, therefore, is to couch your response in a values statement. State your values simply and in a manner that shows how those values relate to the topic at hand. For example:

  • "I don't want to buy that cereal. It isn't healthy because it has too much sugar."
  • "I've already bought you two things you wanted today and that's enough."
  • "I don't want to buy that brand. They have a poor record of child labor. Let's get this brand instead."
  • "I don't want to spend my money on violent computer games."
Many times, these values statements help start productive conversations about what is important to you and what is important to your child. Your child may not agree with your values—he may not embrace nonviolent principles in the way that you do—but you'll at least help him be aware that you're saying no for a reason and get him to think about this reason. It also will make engaging in the conversation easier for you. Most people are more motivated to talk about tough subjects when they're communicating deeply held beliefs, and attaching your values to the discussion provides this motivation.

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More on: Family Finances

From The Financially Intelligent Parent by Eileen Gallo, Ph.D. and Jon Gallo, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005 by Jon Gallo and Eileen Gallo. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, visit Amazon.


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