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Telling Kids, ‘We Can’t Afford This’!

A very stressed couple came for advise; they had put their child in an IB school (6 lakhs per year) against all counsel, “Doc., we agree we made a mistake. Now she wants us to give Barbie sets worth Rs. 1200/- as return gifts on her birthday. Doc, you know we just can’t afford it. But how to tell her? It will break her”.

Telling Kids, ‘We Can’t Afford This’! - Value Of Money To Kids - Thoughtful Spending

I was taken back to 1982. Me and wife were deciding on a school for my eldest, B. The better school in our vicinity was managed by an airline. We finally decided to not try for her admission there. The reason was if around 90% of kids in the school travel to Singapore, Hong Kong every year (free passage) what will we tell B? Not wanting to risk introducing her to ‘we can’t do it’ that early, B was made to travel 6 kms to her school.

Things were not so bad in early 80s; of course foreign travellers boasted of ‘imported’ stuff – perfumes, chocolates, etc. But today thing are more materialistic, more so for children, what with exposure to television, media and an unending bombardment of images, jingles and child models influencing the kid’s mind.

Things are also different in that most children are ‘precious children’ – 30+ parents, good money, good position, peer pressure of getting ‘things’ for their children & what if you don’t have cash in hand, there is always plastic money!

How do you tackle the issue?

Like always, there are two schools of thoughts on this.

One says, like you use language carefully when telling anything to your child; even here instead of saying “We can’t afford that” use a more positive, teaching, approach and say, “do we/should we buy everything we want or choose something that is more important to spend our precious money on”. This will teach them the principle of thoughtful spending.

This applies even if we can afford the item in question. We know that if we overly indulge the child; we will have to pay a hefty price in future (and I am not talking of money alone). We would have reared a child who can never take no as an answer or face a failure in life. He will break down.

Most of us look for instant gratification, which gets translated in kids to ‘Joh mangoge milega’.

The other school of thought says “tell the child upfront that we can’t afford that” but they also add that don’t leave it at that. After saying no to a request, handle it in one of the following ways:

  • We won’t buy this now but give it to you on your birthday/Diwali/Eid/Christmas/when granny comes, etc.
  • If you have been smart enough to inculcate the habit of saving in the child (provided he is of the age) then promise that once his savings reach a certain figure, you will contribute additional and buy him the item in question.
  • If the child is not big enough to throw a tantrum, distract him.
  • If the child does throw a tantrum; that is time NOT to bend to the tantrum.

When you are telling them that “we can’t afford this” in whichever way/format, ensure that your body language is not of regret. Kids would pick that up and you can be certain of a tantrum.

I always feel that families who live within a budget and make sure they are saving for a rainy day inculcate the thoughtful spending very early (after all, don’t we say environment is the best teacher) than parents where one tells the other, “but how can we not get that doll? Most girls in class have it”.

Parents should have some cost containment conversation in front of kids, as a routine. Things like,

  • How can we spend so much on just a mobile?
  • So much money just for a frock?
  • Of course, we can have a birthday party for half the cost with more fun.
  • I am sure if ‘H’ understands money, even she would say, ‘don’t spend so much’, etc.

The environment always shapes the child!

Please share whether you have started saying ‘No’ to you child’s not-so-necessary demands and how are you managing it? I am sure every parent has a tale to tell!

Dr Chander Asrani, father to three daughters and grand father to one, is a post-graduate in Family Medicine. He has over 35 years in clinical practice, launched in 2000 and since then has been writing on various subjects. Know more about him at