A conversation with my 6-year-old on our walk to school, as a gorgeous car drives by:
Son: Can we get a Tesla?
Me: We don’t have the money for a Tesla.
Son: We don’t have money?!
Me: We DO have money, but not enough for a Tesla.
Son: How much is a Tesla?
Me: They start at $60,000.
Son: Wow. (beat) I can lend you some of my money.
Honestly, even we could afford a Tesla, we don’t need a new car.
The one I drive is almost 10 years old, and the paint is peeling, and the back seat passenger door is broken, and the CD player and A/C outlets were all fried years ago by toddlers putting change into them, but it runs fine and gets good gas mileage and fits two kids and one friend for carpooling.
I have this conversation with one or both of my boys over and over again. Sometimes they seem to get it, and sometimes they just want a new car to ride in.
Us Vs. The Joneses
They see their classmates getting into Porches, Bentleys, Odysseys, Expeditions, Mercedes-Benzes, and even a lovingly restored Shelby Cobra convertible.
Their friends live in small mansions. Other kids vacation in Hawaii or Europe, and have lavish birthday parties.
With me at home earning just enough to supplement Stewart’s income a tiny bit, we are comfortable, but we can’t be extravagant.
There’s no way we can keep up with the Joneses in this particular part of the world.
So we don’t. This year, there won’t be a lavish birthday party. There won’t be a party at all.
My kids were born in the spring – two years and eight days apart. We do a little family celebration on the actual birthdays – presents, cake, a song – and a combined party happens on the weekend in between.
They look forward to this sequence, and now that they are about to turn 7 and 9, they are counting down the days.
It’s fun to watch their excitement grow, to hear them ask for things for their birthday, to see their faces as they contemplate getting another year older, becoming big boys.
But this year I have taken special care to manage their expectations. We are on a budget, and there’s no room in it for the big bash.
Teachable Money Moments
The silver lining of this lack is the opportunity to discuss the value of hard work and money with the kids.
Since our budget plan began last year, they’ve gotten used to the phrase “It’s not in the budget.”
They have noticed that we don’t go out to dinner anymore, or make surprise trips to the frozen yogurt shop after school.
Stewart and I talk about money in front of them all the time. We discuss the budget, we (okay I) complain about the cost of sports programs, we compare prices.
It’s hard, emotionally, when one of them wants something that I’d love to provide but we can’t afford.
(And yes, Mommy would love to roll up to school in a Tesla. Everybody wins in that scenario.)
We remind them that Dad works all day and comes home late sometimes because he is earning the money that pays for the house and the food and almost everything else we buy.
Mom doesn’t have a job that takes her away all day because she is here taking care of you (and, conceivably, the housekeeping).
Our money isn’t endless. We have to work for every penny.
The boys hear these things, and sometimes I see evidence that it’s sinking in.
Over the last several weeks I have steered the birthday conversation away from party planning and toward the true meaning of the celebration.
Togetherness! Getting bigger! A special day just for you!
Instead of a party, I suggested, they can each pick one friend and we’ll go play miniature golf and have pizza! It will be so fun!
At first they whined. “Noooo!” they cried. “We want a birthday party!”
Eventually I explained to them that a party is not in the budget this year. And anyway, I don’t believe a kid needs a big birthday party every year.
If they happen all the time, what makes them special?
Focusing on What Really Matters
The boys also know that their wishlist for birthday presents must be realistic. A few LEGO toys, some clothes, a journal with a lock, a word search book. These are the things on their lists.
I hate to tell them to dream small, but to make up for that, I encourage them to save their allowance up to buy bigger items.
Taking the focus off the party and putting it on what really matters has been the best move.
It’s a great precedent for other money issues that arise.
When the almost-9-year-old wanted hip-hop dance classes on top of sports, I told him…wait for it…that it wasn’t in the budget.
“I’ll use my own money,” he said, reminding me that we promised he could use his growing bank account as he wished. But when I started the registration process online, he reconsidered.
“That’s okay, Mom,” he said. “I’m going to save my money for something I really want.”
I think we’re off to a great start.
Kim Tracy Prince is a Los Angeles-based writer who has a husband, two little boys, and an obsession with spreadsheets.