Financial experts almost unanimously laud teaching kids how to tell the difference between “wants” and “needs”. The trouble is, they often stop their advice there, failing to give parents and caregivers some basic strategies that will help children make independent purchase choices. These questions can point your kids in the right direction and get them thinking through the purchases they make.
1) Does this item keep me safe or healthy?
Safety and health will be your children’s purchase priorities, not only in the present, but through their entire lives. At the top of the basic safety/health list is food and shelter, but there are rules even here. With food, for example, the general guideline is to aim for something that will give you the most nutrition for the dollar. Therefore, a nice turkey sandwich with a salad would be more of a need than say, a donut. This isn’t to say that your kids can’t have occasional treats, but rather to say that the foods that fuel the body’s processes best should be first choices because of their efficiency and larger range of nutrients and vitamins. The same logic is applicable to shelter. A larger house might be nice, for instance, but when push comes to shove, all that really matters is a warm, dry place that’s sanitary and that supports good rest. Other needs that can fall into this category might include immunizations, a good bike helmet (if your kids have to ride because of transportation logistics) or a warm coat.
2) How often will I use this item in the future?
Some items are important to buy even though you only buy them once, such as a school lunch. In general, however, when dealing with non-perishable items, a higher frequency of use typically means that an item is more of a need. For example, your kids need a place to sleep every night, so comfortable beds with some blankets are needed. The sleeping bags they use one weekend out of the year for camping, however, are not.
3) Will not having this item prevent me from moving forward in some way?
In some cases, not having something is detrimental to your children’s overall success. For example, most public schools in the United States require that children get through at least basic algebra as part of their coursework to graduate. Here, a scientific calculator could be considered a need, because without it, your kids can’t do the homework and tests necessary to get the degree that connects to higher education or a job that pays sufficiently.
4) Is there a good alternative I could use instead?
One of the biggest pitfalls kids (and adults) fall into when trying to decide whether to make a purchase is not thinking about what else they could use in place of the item they’re considering. With a little creativity, your kids might find that the goods they already have more than do the job. For example, they could decorate an old tin can use as a pencil holder instead of buying a premade one.
5) Does the item do more than I need it to?
In addition to considering what they already have on hand, your kids should think about whether the item they’re looking at is overkill. They don’t need a $2,000 laptop with state-of-the-art graphics and ultra-fast processing power, for instance, when a $300 budget model will let them type up their homework and get online for school. The caveat here is that it can be cheaper to buy things that are scalable—that is, items that can grow with your child’s increasing demands over time. This is an important area to cover when your kids are analyzing products, because it gets them thinking about the true purpose of the purchase and encourages them to compare the functionality of the different models available. They should be able to identify the specific benefits their purchase will provide other than just pleasure.
It can be tough for kids to distinguish between a “want” and a “need”. By keeping a few key questions in mind, however, your kids will be better equipped to decide whether it’s really worth it to hand over their cash. That, in turn, can keep them from overspending as adults, supporting good financial security.