Wants vs. Needs: How Parents Can Help Kids Find a Balance

If we can’t get a Wii, then we really need another controller for our PS2. Right now, only one person can play at a time.
—Isaac, age 10

With the annual holiday gift-giving season fast approaching, kids across the Western hemisphere are clamoring for all kinds of things they really need (and a few things they want, too). Teaching them the difference between their wants and needs, and also that both are okay, is challenging for parents any time of year, but especially so right now. Here are tips to help teach your kids (and to remind yourself) that wants are perfectly normal, but are not the same thing as needs.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Whatever your financial situation might be, it’s a good idea to establish a budget that allows you to save some, share some, and spend some. This practice will help you identify your needs and set parameters regarding your wants. You can get going along this path by checking out Nathan Dungan’s insightful Web site, Share Save Spend.
    • Having too many wants and needs will probably always challenge us. Remember to take time to be sincerely grateful for what you do have.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Be a savvy shopper. If you don’t do so already, check out consignment or second-hand stores specializing in children’s toys, equipment, and clothing. New gadgets come out all the time for parents of young children, but many are just “more of the same.”
    • Restrain yourself—and ask others to do so as well—from buying lots of gifts for babies and small children. They won’t know the difference, and you won’t end up with a home full of “stuff” that you rarely use.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Start teaching your kids about the value of money. Talk about differences in prices and quality at the grocery store, clothing store, and toy store.
    • Discuss how your family helps those who really are in need. Whenever possible, include your children in choosing charities and benefit events in which you invest your time and to which you make financial and noncash donations.
    • Be specific in your use of the words want and need. For example, if you really want a cup of coffee while you’re running errands, say as much, but don’t say you need it. On the other hand, if you live in a cold climate and really need winter boots to protect your feet, be clear about that, too.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Children need certain items for school and everyday life, such as school supplies, socks, and coats. Based on typical prices at the stores you frequent, set a limit on the amount you plan to spend. If your kids want more expensive brands than the ones you’re willing to buy, let them know they’ll have to use their own money to make up the difference in price. If they don’t currently have money of their own, perhaps you can make a deal with your children to exchange their work around the house for the extra bump in price.
    • When kids this age want something, to them it often feels like a need. Have a conversation with them to find out what’s underneath that feeling. Sometimes they are concerned about fitting in with a crowd. If the item fits your budget, in some cases it might be worth having the good conversation and making the investment.
    • By now, your children should know where your family donates its dollars and time. Let them help make these decisions with you whenever possible.
    • When your children receive allowances or earn money, help them think about what percentages should go toward spending, saving, and sharing so that each financial decision is intentionally made.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • If your teens want to work (or you want them to work), talk about what they need and want money for and how much they hope to earn. If they have valid reasons for working and are keeping up with their school work, then, if at all possible, help them find part-time jobs with a limited number of hours on school nights (10 or fewer per week) and that don’t schedule them to work late.
  • Remember to have the conversation with your teens about what percentages of their earnings should go toward spending, saving, and sharing so that each of their financial decisions is made with care.

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