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How do you tell your kids you can’t afford something?

Children often ask for new things, and it can be hard to say no if you can’t afford it. Here, we'll talk you through ways to help cope with this difficult conversation.

There may be many reasons you’d like to buy your kids the latest products and gadgets. You want them to have the things you didn’t have, or like to give them a treat.

But if there's not enough money or it's budgeted for other items, it’s better to resist the temptation to overspend. How do you tell them that, so they understand that you're not just being mean?

There are a few ways to talk about this:

1. Be honest and direct when talking about money

Explain your situation, and if you can't afford something, it's important not to give in to pester power and risk getting into debt.

While parents often use phrases like "money doesn't grow on trees" and "I'm not made of money", it's also ok to say 'no'.

It's a good idea to keep your language simple and straightforward, and simply state the reasons why you can't buy everything they want. It's an important part of having honest conversations about money and how to avoid debt.

2. Teach them to save up

Teaching your kids about managing money is a great skill that will help them when they’re older. Financial education is also a good way to explain to children why you can’t afford something.

One way you can encourage your kids to understand is to show them how to manage their own money. For example, you could give them pocket money and suggest they save up for larger items.

You can also help them to understand the difference between 'want' and 'need'. Try filling in our budget template, to show them how your income has to pay for all the costs you need to cover. If they can see that things like food and rent come first, it's easier to understand that treats may have to wait.

As you are their first role model, it can also help children to see you sticking to your own rules when buying things for yourself!

Mental Health UK say: "It’s really not enough to expect young people to just be resilient; we need to help them to build their own resilience, and identify what works for them, and what doesn’t. A key element is giving young people the necessary tools and techniques to help them with problem solving from an early age, something they can then use throughout life."

3. Manage your money as a family

A fun way to plan is to save up as a family for enjoyable things, like trips out, holidays or Christmas.

Ideas that can help you with this include:

  • Jam jar budgeting - a great, visual way to see money building up
  • Research into the best toys, to help your children work out what they really want
  • Letting kids pay for things in shops using real money, so they see the change they get

4. Make a wish list

Getting your child to write down, or even draw a picture of things they want and adding it to their very own wish list can help teach them about delayed gratification.

Doing this with them shows that you care and are interested in their request, but also sends the message that they simply can’t have everything they want right away.

A wish list can be general, or for a specific event like a birthday – but either way, it can help your child learn patience and appreciation for such treats when you’re in a better position to grant their wishes.

5. Let them earn their own money

One of the best ways for children to understand money is to have their own. Ask your child to complete chores to earn money towards the item they want. It doesn’t have to be much, but asking them to cover some or all of the cost can teach them about money management from a young age. It also provides a sense of responsibility, and even pride when the savings target is reached.

If you’re worried you can’t afford this approach, remember you don’t need to pay them in cash. Buttons or stickers that can be swapped for a treat in the future are a great way for kids to learn about earning, saving and spending without you worrying about the money.

Talking about money can be tricky, but starting these conversations with your children and teaching them good money habits early can have long-term benefits and can set your kids up with valuable life skills.

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