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Wherever a child’s money may
reside, the urge to spend it will eventually arise. Which begs a basic
question: What do we want our kids paying for exactly, and what sort of
spending should we ban altogether? The answers to these questions will evolve
over time, since we can’t anticipate everything. Still, by as early as age 5,
kids are ready to reckon with the framework that ought to govern a lot of their
spending for the rest of their lives: wants versus needs (and knowing the
difference between the two).
younger children, the definitions can be relatively simple: We need food to eat, clothes to
wear, a home to sleep in, doctors and medicine to keep us healthy, and a
babysitter or after-school classes if there isn’t a parent at home. Most
families consider savings a need too—for the kids’ college tuition and for retirement.
A car may also be a need, and many parents treat books and charity or tithing
as a necessity too. Then there are things we want, like treats, sports equipment, toys,
local excursions and vacations. These are nice things to have, the explanation
can go, but we won’t always get all the things on this list that we want, nor
will we get them all at once.
also useful to have kids generate their own list of needs and wants at the
outset of the allowance process, just to see what they come up with. Once they
understand the concept, be prepared for it to come up at unexpected moments. By
the time she was 6, our daughter had already figured out that our car was not
truly a need, given that all three of us can use the subway to get to work,
school and most weeknight/weekend events. She explained this while we were
giving a ride to a friend of hers whose family did not have a car and wondered
why we did. By age 8, she was evaluating charities on the basis of whether they
were delivering services that people truly needed, like life-saving medicine,
or just things that were nice but not necessary, like public displays of art.
want versus need test will inevitably come up as our kids get older and start
to question the fairness of parental spending decisions. The very best question
I’ve ever heard after one of my talks on money and values came from a stumped
mother who stood up in front of her peers and reported the following: Her
middle school son had asked her why he couldn’t have a high-priced carnivorous
plant terrarium, since his parents had bought Hunter boots for his sister. The
juxtaposition was a great one, given that many parents are willing to spend as
freely as they can afford to on tools for learning, and an interest in plants seems
well worth cultivating. After all, kids need to learn; they merely want fashionable, expensive rain
boots. I told the inquiring mom to let the kid have some Venus flytraps