Children and Money

How to Avoid Creating Feelings of Deprivation in Kids

How To Avoid Feelings of Deprivation in Kids | www.TheHeavyPurse.comLast week, I wrote about a few popular phrases parents often say to their kids and should try to avoid, including the often used, “We can’t afford it”. This struck a chord with many of my readers, and one thought I kept circling back to was that it also makes kids feel deprived, which can be equally as dangerous as creating unintentional fear.

Now, under no circumstances, am I suggesting that you buy everything your kids want. Beyond the damage that can do to your finances, it also sets a bad example for your kids and can create feelings of entitlement. But at the same time, think back to when you were told, “No, we can’t afford it” and that was the end of the discussion. What were your first thoughts?

Be honest—have you ever had similar thoughts? I’m sure the majority of us have at least once and perhaps, even far more frequently than we may even care to admit. How do you think such regular thoughts as kids might influence you today as adults? I would venture some grew up to enable their children by always telling them “yes”, bought whatever they wanted regardless of whether they truly could afford it because they “worked hard” and always struggled to keep up with the Joneses. This doesn’t make you bad; it makes you very human. You felt deprived and no one likes to feel that way.

The Reason “Why” Matters

Of course, the reality is most of us weren’t really being deprived when our parents told us “No, we can’t afford it”. It just felt that way. They were actually trying to teach us a valuable money lesson but forgot the most important part—the reason why we can’t afford it.

One of the most important money lessons I can impart on my girls is that money needs a purpose (goals) and to use that purpose to make conscious choices on how they spend their money. This is why I make such a big deal out of goal-setting and why the girls set individual save, spend and share goals in addition to our family goals.

A Better Response than “We Can’t Afford It

Now when they find something they want and ask me to buy it for them, I am prepared.

“That’s a nice toy. But remember we’re saving our money for our big family vacation to China. Remember how much fun we had on our last vacation? This is going to be even better! What are you looking forward to doing the most?” Let them answer. “Sounds like fun. Our trip is so important to me and that is why I’m choosing to save our money so we can go on our family vacation together like we planned over buying this toy. You can use your money to the buy the toy if it is something that will make your heart happy and is more important than the dollhouse you are saving for.”

I always give the girls a choice as to whether they want to buy the toy themselves. On occasion, they think it trumps their current goals and will buy it. Sometimes they regret it afterwards. It’s hard to let them make mistakes, but I also know that they learn from them too. The best part is that I’ve gone from the lengthy explanation above to the point where they rarely ask me to buy them something. They instead ask me for more ways to earn money so they can buy it themselves. Love it.

Remove Any Lingering Feelings of Deprivation

After they have made their decision on whether or not to buy the toy, when we leave the aisle, I always start talking about our upcoming vacation and how good it will feel to achieve our family goal and their personal goals too. I don’t want them to feel deprived by my “no” or even their choice to say “no”. Instead I want them to understand that sometimes saying “no” to one thing means saying “yes” to something that truly matters. It’s very hard to feel deprived when you’re focused on the things you really want and feel confident in your ability to achieve them.


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October 7, 2013  •  41 Comments  •  Children and Money

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  1. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    The other day, I replaced my four-year-old's toothpaste. I bought her the bubble gum kids kind and she probably thanked me ten times! We rarely buy her anything so she never expects anything. But, when she does get something, even as silly as new toothpaste, she's super appreciative! I don't think she feels deprived....I just think it feels normal for her to not get new things all the time.
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      How adorable! I love how she appreciates evert treat - big or small, rather than having an expectation that she gets what ever she wants, which unfortunately some children have. It's great she understands that at such a young age and will serve her well as she grows older.
  2. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    When I was a kid, I would always get frustrated when my dad would fine the "uncool" version of something, like buying some weird brand of mp3 player instead of springing for an ipod. He did explain it to us, telling us that it worked just as well (or better) and was much less expensive, but at the time it was still annoying. But now I do exactly the same thing, so I guess all those lessons were worth it.
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      Ah yes! I think we've all been recipients of the "uncool" versions, although like your father told you - sometimes it was far more practical and even better than the name brand. :)
  3. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    It drove me nuts as a kid when my parents told me that they could not afford something. I wasn't deprived by any means, but I guess I had no way of measuring that against anything when I was younger. I think circling back to goals and the "why" is such an important task to undertake to help them discern...which will hopefully start to build that solid foundation for them.
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      Most of us were not deprived by any means, but it felt that way, especially when you start comparing your life to others. There is a reason why so many people spend years chasing after the Joneses. :) I think the why is so critical as it helps them understand the family has another purpose and Mom and Dad are not being arbitrary with how they use their money. But a lot of times are "why" is some version of "because I said do" which is deeply unsatisfying for most kids.
  4. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    I like your strategy of giving them a choice to buy it with their own money, and let them feel either the joy from having it or the repercussion of regret. I agree that the latter is the fastest way to learn against instant gratification!
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      It's really worked well as it has helped the girls become more confident with their decisions. After a few mistakes, they definitely take their time and think through their decisions. Mom might try to help guide them to the right decision but I really want them to come to the conclusion themselves. And yes, understanding how often regret comes into play after succumbing to instant gratification is great lesson to learn!
  5. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    Very good tips for people with children. I like the way you always stress that your whole family is saving for a common goal, and that if you spend on this then you won't have that. It teaches kids to consider their options which are lessons that they can then use in other areas of their lives.
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      Thanks, Sicorra! Having the girls understand that handling money is about making good choices is so important to me. While it might be nice, we can't have everything we want, so understanding how purchasing something unplanned can impact our goal achievement has a been a great lesson for the girls.
  6. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    It's amazing how slight shifts in phrases can make all the difference in the world. Truth be told I learned how to shift my own phrasing to myself and to my friends when they invited me to do something...saying it's not in the budget right now, or I'm saving up for something else instead of "I'm broke" or "can't afford it." Plus it's so depressing!
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      So true - just a subtle shift can really change the emotions behinds the words. It's great that you shifted your own phrasing. "I'm broke" and "we can't afford it" is depressing and it's far easier to tell friends "no" when you tell them you're working towards something.
  7. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    My parents shopped so much at second hand stores, auctions and garage sales growing up, I developed a slight aversion to used things. I guess I felt a bit deprived as my friends were always sporting the newest clothing. I still battle it occasionally to this day, especially as my wife and I have an ongoing "debate" about whether we should purchase new or used cars. :)
    • Shannon
      Monday, October 7th, 2013
      I think it's easy to get an aversion to used items when it felt like you never had anything new. And there certainly isn't anything wrong with buying something "new". The trick is to be sure that we're spending our money on what we truly want - which may or may not be something new and saving on the things we don't really care much about but need.
  8. Monday, October 7th, 2013
    I like the idea of saving for a trip or goal instead of saying you can't afford it. I think sometimes kids just think it's normal to have XY and Z. It's important that they know those things are earned and not taken for granted.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      Thanks, Kim! It's really worked well with our girls. It really helps them understand the cost of unintended purchases too. I've noticed that they take that lesson to heart now when they make decisions with how they use their money too. And yes, it absolutely helps drive home the message that things are earned, which prevents those pesky feelings of entitlement! :)
  9. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    I told you in a previous post how my parents saying "we can't afford it" pretty much altered the course of my life. It definitely made me interested in small business and entrepreneurship and contributed to me choosing business as my major in college. In the end it was a good thing, but overall I think it's a bad approach to constantly tell your kids you can't afford things when technically you could but you choose to prioritize spending differently.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      Precisely, DC! "We can't afford it" is often misleading. As kids grow older, they (like you did) will realize that their parents can afford some of those things but don't understand why parents keep saying no. The "why" is so important. Otherwise, for some kids, without the "why" all the can think about is when they can say "yes" to everything!
  10. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    Shannon, I am the perfect example of this whole deprivation damage. It's a huge part of what got us into the financial mess we're digging out of right now, and we're a great example of why it's SO important to avoid creating those feelings in your children. And you know what? It works! As tight as we are right now (and we are, as you know, SUPER tight) we can do things that help the kids feel less deprived, and it's usually the little things, like Holly mentioned with the toothpaste. I took Maddie out with her friends last night for their first latte' at the coffee shop. Four bucks, and the kid felt on top of the world. All because we are choosing what to spend our money on more wisely now, and making it a positive instead of a negative.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      I think many parents underestimate the impact of feelings of deprivation (real or imagined) on children. When you've lived with a lifetime of "no" and not really understanding why, it's not really surprising that you said "yes" to everything. Thankfully, you know better now and are teaching your children how to handle their money properly. They know why you say "no" and really appreciate those small unexpected gifts they receive, which are the very best kind to give!
  11. Corina Ramos
    Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    All the times I heard "we can't afford it' I always repeated the first two phrases...the third one not so much because in the neighborhood I grew up in, we all were in the same boat :)

    It was a real wake-up call for the kids when we went from getting what we wanted to what we needed. As teens going into adulthood now they are beginning to understand why it's important to make good financial decisions.

    Great advice Shannon! Happy Tuesday girlfriend!
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      You're not alone, Corina. I think lots of kids make those vows. Some change their minds by the time the reach adulthood, but plenty do not. It isn't always easy changing "the rules" on kids when they are used to living a certain way but I am glad you did. You're setting a new, better example on how to handle money and make smart decisions. It might have been hard at first but kids adapt and sending them out into work money savvy is worth a few upfront complaints too!
  12. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    I really like the idea of giving our children the choice of saving or spending their own money. This responsibility early on should have huge benefits and is a valuable lesson for later on in life. I do try to explain 'why' whenever I say no to my daughter although I'm now trying to not say the word 'no' as much these days if that makes sense!
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      I actually try to avoid saying the word, "no" too. Kids especially seem hardwired to hate that word and instinctively put up a fuss! :) Having the girls set their own save, spend and share goals have been one of the best decisions I ever made. It really forces them to think about how they use their money, which is something too few of us really do. It makes me very happy when I hear the girls think about whether this new toy will make their heart happy or if it's worth the price.
  13. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    I also used this kind of method to my daughter. Last year she asked if I could buy her a big doll house that's a bit expensive and then I let her to choose if we are going to buy that doll house or we will give her a birthday party together with her friends and classmates. Of course she chooses to have a birthday party.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      That's wonderful, Clarrise! I really find the girls like it when I give them options and they almost always make the right choice. They feel good because they were heard and feel in control.
  14. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    I think it's perfectly acceptable to tell my kids that we can't afford something, but I do agree with you that it's important to tell them why - whether it's because we'd rather save our money for something else, or because we just had to buy new glasses for everyone in the family. It validates the answer, AND teaches kids that you will not always be able to get what you want at the exact time you want it.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      I agree the "why" is the most important part and the step parents most often skip, unfortunately. I still try to avoid "we can't afford it" personally, because some of the things the girls ask us to buy, we can afford and they know it. They seem satisfied by my response of how we're saving our family money for family goals.
  15. Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
    I remember early on when my husband and I were married (second marriage) my stepson asked me why we didn't buy them all the electronics and toys - and take them to as many movies and outings as their Mom did. I had a long talk with him about how we CHOOSEto spend on different things. We are blessed to be able to lead a good life - but we still have to choose because we don't have THAT good of a life! Lol. I explained that we chose to spend our money on skills and lessons (ski lessons, swimming lessons, tutoring) and vacations. Initially he did feel deprived (I suspect his Mom also planted a lot of "I can't believe your Dad and Stepmom don't take you to movies or spend money on you".) But fast forward about 6 years, and we have done a ton of travelling with them, they are great skiers and swimmers too:) Now, I can often say to them - you want to go on vacation next year? Then we are skipping this activity , or we are watching a movie at home, or we are having a smaller Christmas. I find that they actually even appreciate things more -as they know that it is more special when we do go out, or do buy them a gift. It helps keep the sense of entitlement under control too.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      Great lessons you are teaching your kids and stepkids, Leah! Money is about choices and the sooner we can teach our kids that and how to make good choices - the better! Through both your words and actions, you clearly demonstrated how to make good choices with your money on the things that mattered to you - skills, lessons and great family vacations! And I love how you're always giving them an option and voice too - it's hard for kids to feel deprived when they helped make the decision that a great family vacation was worth a smaller Christmas. My girls value those unexpected gifts more too since they recognize it as being a true treat, rather than feeling entitled to whatever they want.
  16. Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
    I think a lot of parents default to "because I said so" rather than an explanation of "why". Why they won't buy something, or why something is good or bad, or why there are certain expectations. I think understanding the why behind all of those things can make a huge difference for children.
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      I agree, Stefanie. "Because I said so" is a classic for reason! :) The "why" is so important. Beyond helping eliminate any possible feelings of deprivation, it also helps kids understand that you are making arbitrary decisions with your money. It has a purpose.
  17. Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
    I really enjoyed the post. When I was a child I sometimes felt deprived...we were a working class immigrant family and my parents were pretty frugal. Frugality was ingrained in my head. For some reason, I always remember one time when I asked my mother for a toy, and I rarely asked for something. My mom said that the toy didn't seem that fun. Later on, she saw that I seemed upset and explained to me that money is tight, but that I'm a good kid who never asks for much and she said she would buy it. I told her that I didn't really want the toy that much...(I already felt loved that my mom changed her mind) Sometimes, kids can handle the truth =)
    • Shannon
      Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
      Thanks, Andrew! Yes, kids can handle the truth far more often than we give them credit for. In fact, sometimes it is downright comforting because they are smart enough to sense something is wrong and can let their imagination get carried away.
  18. Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
    I am not as tactful as you. If one of my kids asks for a random toy I remind them of the closet full of toys they rarely play with and that usually does the trick. I suppose I should learn to be more diplomatic.
    • Shannon
      Thursday, October 10th, 2013
      LOL! At least they understand why you don't buy them a new toy! :)
  19. Martin
    Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
    I always make sure to give my kid presents when I can, even if they are really small things... it helps them to feel appreciated.
  20. Thursday, December 19th, 2013
    Are there other responses besides you are saving for a toy or vacation?
    • Shannon
      Friday, December 20th, 2013
      Absolutely, Stephanie. What you want your kids to understand is your money has a purpose or a goal. Ideally, the "purpose" is something your child wants as well, which is why I often use our vacations because they are big family goals for us. My girls understand we need to save money in order to go on vacation, but you can use whatever you are saving money for (a family goal - a new TV, vacation, day at an amusement park, etc) or you can simply say that your money already has a purpose. Let them ask what and say - "to put food in your belly, gas in the car, etc." in a happy, grateful way. And again, I think it's important to give them the option to save their own money to buy an item if it's something they really want.
  21. Monday, February 17th, 2014
    Children have a hard time absorbing the reasons we say no. That's why it's important to give a reason every time, so that it sinks in eventually. Giving them a choice so they can begin to understand the process really makes it easier to grasp. It's a process!
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 17th, 2014
      I agree; it is 100% a process. Teaching kids about money is never one and done! It's so easy to forget the "why" behind the "no" and that is the most important part. Otherwise it's easy for kids to think they are deprived (even though they are not) and promise themselves when they are big - they will buy everything they want and never tell their kids "no". Some of these kids grow up to do exactly that too.
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