Never Say We Can’t Afford It

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As my son grows older I’ve been thinking about how I want to teach him about money. One thing that came to mind was never to say, “We can’t afford it”. No, I’m not going to buy him everything he wants. I just feel that “we can’t afford it” is such a terrible answer. For instance, what would he think if I said we couldn’t afford his toy, but turn around and buy a new laptop for myself — he’d think that I lied.

A Better Way To Say No

What do you think is a better response? I don’t know the best answer, but I think either “We haven’t saved for it yet” or “We didn’t budget for it” are quite good. Either way, it would show your child that he (or she) can have whatever he wants as long as he saves for it, or budgets for it.

Of course, the next question will be “Why?” regardless of your answer. And I think both responses lend themselves more naturally to a constructive conversation about saving and budgeting. What a great opportunity for you to teach him how to save for what he wants! The budgeting conversation is bit tougher, however it is manageable. You don’t have to teach him how to work the spreadsheet or do any crazy calculation.

Teaching Your Child How To Budget

How to teach a young kid about budgeting? The simplest way I can think of is to give him a small allowance as his income and give him three envelopes to manage his expenses. Marked these envelopes as “Spend”, “Save”, and “Give”. Let him know that he can spend money from the Spend envelope for short-term expenses like snacks, drinks, lunch, etc. For more expensive things, he has to put money in the Save envelope until he has enough. Last but not least, shows him how he can help others by putting money in the Give envelope. Make it clear that once he puts it into the Give envelope, he can’t take it back out.

Let him know this is exactly how you’re doing it too. Tell him how you save money to buy big ticket items and how you donate to charity. This way he doesn’t feel that only he has to do it.

What would you saying the next time your child ask for something?

27 thoughts on “Never Say We Can’t Afford It”

  1. Hmmm, I think we do have to be careful with how we talk to our kids about money. Maybe “we can’t afford it” isn’t the most positive way we can tell them they can’t have something. We try to ingrain i our daughter that we don’t buy some things so that we have the money to buy and do others things. There is an opportunity cost. We don’t have the big TV that one of her friends might have because we are saving for a house so she can have a nice backyard to play in.

    Like many other subjects I think you need to communicate with your kids and ask them what they think from time to time to see their perspective.

  2. Good post.

    Don’t forget when teaching your child about budgeting to teach them about priorities. When you start giving them an allowance stop giving them money for other things so they learn to prioritize. Teach them the difference between the things we need and the things we want.

    When you go out shopping talk about why you are buying items. Not just – we buy food so we can eat but that you planned out the meals first so you only buy what you need or ask them to help you review the ads to find the best deals on the things you buy most frequently. The more involved they are the more they understand that you have a plan and that you are careful with your money.

  3. Another zinger. Well done and very helpful.

    What I use – at least sometimes – is “it’s not the best use of our money right now” This has also really led to some good conversations about money.

  4. I agree, spinning it and explaining it out is better than a direct negative no. I like the we haven’t saved for it yet, or we are saving up for something else. Teaches compromise and decision making.

  5. That’s really useful. I don’t like to say “we can’t afford it” too often because I feel like I’m manifesting limitations. So I often tell the kids that we choosing not to spend the money on X… but saying “we haven’t saved up for it” gives the kids some responsibility and it opens up the possibility of buying this or paying for that in the future after some work.

  6. Quite often, I try to ask myself HOW can I afford it?
    Since I don’t have any kids, I’m not sure what I’d say … maybe, it’s not a priority right now?

  7. If it was me I would rather say: “Sounds great – let’ make a plan for how we can make the money to actually go buy the thing”.

    That way you would not say that you didn’t have the money and instead teach him that the best way to get something is to make a plan and go make more money. Once that becomes a habit you’ll never EVER need money again because you know how to get it.

  8. This is definitely a healthy approach when dealing with children. I often heard “NO” when i was younger or the excuse that we can not afford it as well. I turned out fine, but for younger children today, it can not hurt to tell them why its better not to buy it or why we can’t than just a stern “NO”

  9. Good point. We’ve said to our son, “We’ve chosen to do something else with our money.” And sometimes, like Mikael, we tell him to think of what he can do to earn it.

  10. I always try to avoid saying “I can’t afford it” mostly, because it is not true. Really I could afford to purchase a lot of things that I choose not to purchase. Instead I tell myself, “That’s not my priority, right now.” It seems to help me feel less deprived. If you communicate with your children what the family’s financial goals are, they too can understand the sacrifices the entire family makes in reaching those goals. I would just be careful of a couple of things – 1) helping them realize that everybody is sacrificing and 2)allowing them to particpate in the excitement/benefits when the goal is reached. It helps too if you can gain the child’s buy-in for the goal; but even if they don’t it is really your financial health you’re working toward and you know better than they the trade-offs that can be made.

  11. Around here, we call it poor-mouthing. You raise a great point, so often it’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we choose not to. Thanks for the reminder, I know I’m guilty of the practice.

  12. I say something like “We’re choosing not to buy that.” The word “choose” is a big difference from “can’t.” 🙂

  13. I think your suggestion is a good one to extrapolate into general advice for a son or daughter. Never say “we can’t” – say “we choose”.

    Too many of us grow up stuck in reverse gear before we start.

  14. I really like this… the budget conversations are then organic. The budgeting process is real and live in day to day life rather than simply an envelope ‘game’ at home.

    There’s also the underlying positive or non-negative message being sent. “Can’t afford it” can generate a limited mindset in a young mind because they can’t grasp the larger context but they can see the difference between him not having something and his/her friends having that something. It starts to look like the parents of the friend have more and that simply is not the case in most instances.

    Good work… I need to adopt this approach in my life.


  15. I agree that you shouldn’t say “We can’t afford it” to justify not spending on something that a child wants.

    I would take the idea step further. You shouldn’t say “We can’t afford it” to justify not spending on something that you want.

    You can afford just about anything if you put your mind to it. To not buy something is a choice.

    You learn a lot by forcing yourself to go to the trouble to figure out why a particular purchase does not represent a strong long-term value proposition for you. When you say “We can’t afford it,” you cut off the reasoning process that would lead you to a better understanding of why the purchase is not a good idea (or, in some cases, why it is).


  16. I hate the Kyosaki brain wash that it is evil to say “we can’t afford it”. Sometimes it is true and it can me the most caring thing we say to a loved one. Sometimes we can’t afford the consequences that come with a bad purchase decision.

  17. @Dustin – I know where you’re coming from, but this one is definitely NOT Kiyosaki brain wash. He didn’t even come to mind when I wrote this. It was just me thinking about teaching my son about a defeatist mindset versus an expansive mindset full of possibilities.

  18. Sorry Pinyo for the false accusations. I see your point though. It really is hypocritical to tell your kids you can’t afford a toy when they see you buying toys for yourself. I guess if you have a “commission” system for chores you could ask them if they can afford the toy.

  19. Any Advice? My son came home from the well to do family down the street and was absolutely distraught and in tears. He is 13yrs. old. It started with the friend has all this weight equipment and we do not and his friend is getting in amazing shape and he is not. His friend has grown taller, he has not. The hardest of all was he asked if we were poor. He said dad always says we cannot afford this or that and dad has explained to him how much $ we are in debt. He is so worried and asked if he would always be poor. He is in tears and very upset. We don’t have any toys (boat/quad/ski-doo) like all our neighbors and yet we live 2min. from a lake and 2min. from trails so he does not understand. I work half time and my husband works full time but we made a choice for me to stay home while the kids were young and now it’s caught up with us. Any advice?

  20. @Heather: I think now is a great time to start getting your son involved in the family finances. Maybe you could consider all of you taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course together. It is 13 weeks of training and discussion that should help him understand personal finance much better. He may also find motivation to be a little entrepreneur to make some money for his own toys.

  21. Teaching your kids about setting priorities, as well as long-term and short-term goals, might also make it easier to teach them about budgeting. Helping them understand why you choose (nice distinction everyone) to purchase certain items before/over others will highly contribute to how they handle finances in the future.

    @Heather: I agree with Dustin about getting your kid involved in family finances. From experience, kids can often be quite sympathetic after you explain the situation to them carefully. Good luck 🙂

  22. @Heather: I agree with Dustin about getting your kid involved in the family’s finances. Kids can often be quite sympathetic and willing to help out once you explain the situation to them carefully. Good luck 🙂

  23. Excellent observations. Children learn from those around them and sometimes the easier answer is one that misleads. I prefer your suggestion “We haven’t saved for it yet” I’m actually going to start using this response myself, as it’s got me thinking about that quite a bit 🙂

  24. I can’t afford any iPhone 6 in gold because I don’t have a job and my Mother is the only person that work in my House and I know it Suck to be 16 in 11th Grade with a iPhone 6 & All my Friends got iPhone 6s that just came out & I’m like I will never get one…

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