We can’t afford that: The lie of scarcity

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Ever noticed how grown-ups are always trying to tell children how expensive life is, and how hard it is to be an adult, and how becoming one of us will be a real drag? I don’t think we make maturing sound like a very attractive goal to have. Lately I’ve been working on making a switch from you’d-better-enjoy-this-before-you’re-in-my-shoes to you’ll-love-what’s-next. One thing I wanted to tackle right away was how I talk to my girls about money, and to dispel the myth that we don’t have enough.

Last week, my 5-year-old gave me a perfect opportunity to start. We were in Academic Toolbox, her favorite place to drop her allowance, looking at the animal figurines she adores.

“Mommy!” she swooned, bright blue eyes wide with endless possibility. “Aren’t they so cute! Don’t you wish you could buy ALL of them?”

For a minute, I thought about replying with my go-to lesson (OK, lecture) on fiscal responsibility and the merit of truly valuing just a few things instead of buying more than we need. I was about to open with the usual “Yeah, they sure are cute, but we can’t afford them today, and we have to save our money,” and blah, blah, blah. She might have paid attention even if I did whip out that worn-out moral tidbit — after all, she is a pretty fantastic listener and a polite little soul. But something inside me said we could go way beyond that. I decided to try something new, and perhaps a bit truer.

“Babe, you know, they are really cute. And, to be honest, if I wanted to, I could buy them all.” Her jaw dropped and her eyes nearly burst.

“All of them?”

“Yes. I suppose I could. I do have enough money to buy every single one of these figurines here on the shelf.” (Quietly, I admitted to myself that to back up my statement, I would probably have to mortgage the house — those little figurines’ price tags aren’t exactly miniscule.) “Yesiree, we could take them all home today if I thought it was a good idea.”

I paused for dramatic effect, wanting it to sink in before I lowered the boom. She didn’t blink.

“But here’s the thing. If I used up my money on all these critters, I’d have a whole lot of toys, and maybe not much else. Like groceries, for example. If I chose to use all my paycheck here, what would we eat this month? I don’t think these would be very scrumptious, do you?”

She grinned, not wanting to concede my point just yet, but also realizing that there might be wisdom to consider here.

We talked a bit more, and she had a brilliant insight about the irony of childhood: when you want lots of toys, you have no earning power, but by the time you do, you won’t want those toys any more. Kind of a bummer, I agreed, but a good point nonetheless.

My goal, though, was to illuminate the lie we often tell our children about money: the illusion of scarcity. We’re always saying things that would lead them to believe that we literally cannot afford that thing they want, whatever it is. But really, if we wanted to, we could. There is usually a way that I could buy a shirt or toy or bejeweled trinket they want, if I needed to. So, why is my standard reply “no, we can’t afford that”? Is that what I want my children learning? That we would buy that thing, but it’s just that we don’t have enough money today? And that if I happened to have more, I would buy it?

Sure, I want them to be good at balancing a checkbook (if they even use those by the time my girls are of age) and making wise choices with their resources. But much more importantly, I don’t want them thinking, Finally! Now I can buy all the things I want, because I have money! I’d much prefer they do some cost-benefit analysis, and for that to happen, I have to teach them to see further than just how much money they have in their coin purses. I have to help them learn about instant vs. delayed gratification, and also, that there is almost always a way to afford something if we really want to go through the process of making a sacrifice or saving up for it.

I think the illusion of scarcity does quite a lot of harm, actually. Think of all the anxiety attached to the fear of not having enough money. My childhood was marked by anxious adults telling me there was barely enough to go around…yet we always managed to get by, and with a few luxuries to boot. Looking back, what was everyone so worried about? When there is a solid roof over your head, food on the table, and something fun to look forward to, why the need for the constant reminder of our poverty? I wish someone had dared to teach me about the bounty we were enjoying. Because compared to so many children around the world, I never once went to bed hungry (OK, unless I’d been a brat…but that may have been due to my unwillingness to eat my parents’ vegan fare). I had all my needs soundly met, and many wants besides.

What if, instead of believing we just can’t scrape together enough money for the bauble-de-jour, my girls knew the value of good planning and the joy of purchasing something long-awaited and justly earned? They certainly wouldn’t mind if I quit reminding them how expensive it is to care for them (isn’t that kind of an awful thing to stick to a kid anyway?), and they might grow up thinking they can do a lot more with what they have. And they’d likely be so much more grateful for the bounty of the things we enjoy rather than afraid of scarcity.

As for the cute critters at Academic Toolbox, they’ll have to wait a bit longer for a new home. G is still in the decision process about which one she’ll choose once her piggy bank is full. Until then, I’m not going to tell her we just can’t afford extras…I’ll let her do the planning and saving. I’m really looking forward to seeing her eyes sparkle when she flexes her earning power. What’s more, when she believes in the truth of bounty instead of the lie of scarcity, just imagine how she’ll beam!

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