As I’ve mentioned before on here, my family did not have a lot of money growing up. My parents were always able to make ends meet and keep dinner on the table, but there was never really a sense of getting ahead. Instead, there was always a sense of just barely enough.
That’s not to say that I had a deprived childhood, though – I didn’t. My parents – my mother in particular – found lots of little ways to get me the things I wanted or needed. We went to the library all the time. I was always allowed to get a book or two from the book order. And when there were windfalls, I would often get something very nice – a new video game, typically, or a few new books all at once.
One thing my parents often did, though, was make Christmas and my birthday into very big events. They would ask me what I wanted months in advance and encourage me to make lists. Since my birthday was in the middle of summer, by the middle of most springs, I was already puzzling over my birthday list, letting it often consume my thoughts. Similarly, I was already getting started on my Christmas list by Labor Day.
My parents did this for what seems like a very good reason. Since there weren’t a lot of resources around to give me a healthy allowance or to buy me lots of things, they would instead channel my childhood desires towards two big days. Then, they would save up their nickels and dimes and try very hard to make my birthdays and Christmases memorable.
This was really effective in my childhood years. Instead of nagging my parents for things I wanted, I’d stew on them. I’d write down a wish list, revise it, and start over again a few times. I’d pore over the Christmas catalogs like a researcher in the library of Alexandria.
Building a Destructive Habit
What really happened is that the things that I wanted consumed my thoughts for a big part of the year. I’d spend my time stewing over that list, thinking about the things I wanted, and as I grew older, I began to dream about other ways to get them. I started an aluminum can collecting project – one that actually ended quite sadly, I started doing lots of piecework for my father’s fishing business, and I tried several other small-scale entrepreneurial tasks.
But the problem signs were already in place. As soon as I earned anything, I was already plotting about buying one of those things I had wanted and stewed about for so long. I’d take the $50 from aluminum can sales and rush straight to the local department store (Jacks, a now-defunct chain) to buy a video game.
This only escalated throughout my college years, and by the time I was a young adult, I was still focused heavily on the material things I wanted. Of course, then, with a nice income and access to credit cards, it became very easy to just simply go get all of those things I wanted.
And I did.
I bought multiple DVDs and multiple CDs and a video game pretty much every week. I went out to eat all the time. I went to London and stayed in a hotel room overlooking Hyde Park.
In short, I no longer had a wish list. Instead, I just did these things as they came to mind. All that stewing about the things I wanted finally came to fruition.
How I Fixed This
So what did I do to fix this problem?
The biggest realization – for me – was that this was a never-ending road. There would always be something else to want, no matter what I purchased for myself. I would always be wanting something more.
Thus, if that’s true, isn’t all the money spent trying to sate those desires just money wasted? Even worse, wasting all that money meant that I wasn’t achieving the big things I dreamed for in my life – becoming a writer, providing a safe financial foundation for my wife and my kids, owning a nice house in the country.
What I found was that if I cut back big time on my discretionary spending, I didn’t really lose much at all. Sure, there were still many things that I wanted – and there still are – but that would be true regardless of how much I spent. Instead, now I’m actually using and enjoying the things that I buy. On the occasions when I do choose to buy something for myself, I take my time both on the purchase (researching it and choosing the best deal) and on the enjoyment of the item (reading the book, playing through the video game, and so on).
The “wants” are still there, but they no longer run the show in terms of my spending, simply because I realized that no matter how much I spent, the “wants” would still be there – a ghost I could never catch.
The Parenting Hat
So what can we do to help my children out with this issue?
Our first tactic is to simply strongly de-emphasize wants. We don’t ask for birthday lists or Christmas lists. Instead, we just listen to them and note down anything they might mention.
During the lead-up to the holidays, our gift-related conversations revolve around giving. We talk about good, reasonably-priced items that people would particularly like. Instead of focusing on what we want, we focus on what Luke or Brittany might want – and how we can make them happy for a reasonable cost.
Second, we don’t watch many commercials – and we talk about the ones we do. If my son sees a commercial for a toy or a type of junk food that makes him want the item, even though he’s three, we talk about it a bit. I usually point out how only the good side is shown – and how we already have similar things.
A great example happened a few evenings ago. My son saw a commercial for some type of Batman action figure – he wanted one, and he told me loudly. First, I suggested that he instead play with the action figures he does have (mostly leftovers from my own childhood, honestly). He said he didn’t want them – instead, he wanted Batman. So, then, I suggested if he didn’t want them any more, why don’t we give them away to kids who might want them? He didn’t like that suggestion at all, at which point I suggested that he pull out his favorites and we’d get down to business. By that point, he had completely forgotten about Batman and instead found himself excited to pull out the action figures he already had.
I really believe this is the key. Instead of focusing happiness on things he doesn’t have, I strive to focus his immediate joy on the things he already has. That way, he doesn’t have that burning desire for more things.