Why We Never Tell Our Kids ‘We Can’t Afford That’

This mom wants you to rethink the words you use.

“We can’t afford that.” Do you ever remember hearing this from your parents? Maybe your mom used it to make you stop begging for that toy that all of your friends had. Maybe it was the high school graduation trip. Maybe it’s you saying it to your own kids.

You might think admitting that you “can’t afford” something is financially responsible. After all, it shows you have an awareness of your money situation, and you’re resisting the temptation to spend money. Sounds laudable, right?

Not so much.

Read More: How I Teach My Kids Financial Responsibility — and So Can You

The Words We Use Matter

“We can’t afford that” creates a dangerous money mentality.  It tells our kids that we are controlled by our finances, rather than being in control of them. It takes us out of the driver’s seat, leaving us passive victims of our circumstances. We want our kids to see us taking ownership of our money choices. And we should help them learn to do the same.

“We can’t afford that” also keeps kids focused on what they don’t have. It builds a “poor” mentality. Instead of being constantly reminded of all the things in the world that they don’t have, I want my kids to be grateful for all that they do have.

So, while it could hush their clamoring for us to spend money, I made a conscious decision not to use the words “can’t afford” with my kids.

Discover: The 5 Things We Should Have Learned in School — But Didn’t

Let’s be clear that avoiding “can’t afford” does not mean I’m avoiding money talk. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Money is anything but taboo in our house. My husband and I are completely open about finances with our kids. They know how much we earn and how much we spend, and what our financial goals are. We even got our kids involved in our journey to pay off our debt.

What Do We Say Instead?

We try to make financial choices based on our values and goals, not just the balance of our bank account. We acknowledge our money decisions as choices using words like “choose” or “decide.”

Instead of saying, “We can’t afford piano lessons,” I might say, “I’m choosing not to spend money on extra activities right now.” I’m not blaming the absence of piano lessons on how much the lessons cost or on my total discretionary income. I’m not a victim, deprived by circumstances beyond my control. Instead, I’m actively choosing how to allocate my finite cash in a world of nearly infinite spending possibilities. So, right now, piano lessons don’t make the cut.

Sometimes it helps to share the alternatives. Instead of saying, “We can’t afford a trip to Disneyland,” I would say, “We’ve decided to put our extra money toward debt right now,” or, “Right now we’re saving our fun money for kayaks. If we agree that we’d rather go to Disneyland, we can see how much that costs, set a goal and start saving.”

Check Out: Why One Mom Doesn’t Buy Her Kids Nice Things

But Does That Little Change in Words Actually Matter?

For our family, yes, that shift in the words we use matters. With five kids at home, we have a lot of chances to respond to spending requests. Without the offhand “We can’t afford it” option, I’m forced to think about and express to the kids why the purchase they are suggesting does or does not make it into our cart. That’s good for me and good for the kids.

Our young kids don’t have a lot of money, but they’re learning to take control of what they do have and to own their financial decisions. With a lifetime of larger decisions to come, they can’t afford not to.

Read More: 4 Easy Ways to Teach Kids Taxes

More From Our Smart Money Squad: