When the Things You Want Become Destructive

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.

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  1. Johanna says:

    The very best money lesson my parents ever taught me, which I alluded to in the “10 word or less” post, is: If you don’t spend money on stuff you don’t want, then the money will be there for stuff you do want. Although many personal finance lessons begin with a discussion of needs versus wants, I believe that they would do much better by starting with the difference between “really wants” and “don’t really wants” – it seems to me that a lot of people get into financial trouble by spending lots of money on stuff they don’t even want.

    You see this phenomenon at work whenever you hear someone talk about how she put a certain percentage of her income into savings and “didn’t even miss it.” If she’s living well on less money and not feeling deprived – if she doesn’t have all kinds of unsatisfied desires for things she’d otherwise be spending money on – it must be because she didn’t really want those things to begin with.

    A similar thing happens with mindless eating leading to overeating. There have been all kinds of studies done about how people will eat what’s in front of them whether they’re hungry or not. Put more food in front of them, and they’ll eat more. Put less food in front of them – up to a point – and they’ll eat less and still be satisfied.

    If you regularly eat things you’re not hungry for, just for the sake of eating them, you’ll gain weight. If you regularly spend money on things you don’t really want, just for the sake of spending money, you’ll go broke. But if you learn to be mindful of when you’re really hungry and when you’re not, or when you really want something and when you don’t, then that’s progress.

  2. Sandy E. says:

    I know we all want to educate our kids about money, and while I was visiting the Dave Ramsey website, I notice he has a kit called “Financial Peace Jr. for Kids, ages 3-12.” It says: teach your children how to handle money while they are young, and they won’t make costly mistakes later.
    It’s on sale for $10, and in my opinion, is worth checking out. Might be the best 10 bucks you ever spent. (I noticed he has a Financial Peace Jr. Add-on Kit, if you have more than one kid, for $9.97, but since the other one is one sale for $10, maybe 2 of those would be the way to go.

  3. AC says:

    Great anecdote about how you handled the Batman figure situation. If more people had exchanges like that with their children, there would be fewer spoiled kids in the world.

  4. Rosa says:

    I am trying to do what you’re doing (my son is 4, and our most common answer when he wants something is “but you already have one at home!”)

    The other thing we do is make him choose – for instance, if we’re at the grocery store or the thrift store and the plan is to get a pizza on the way home, and there’s something he wants, he gets 3 or 4 chances to choose it – “do you want this, or pizza?” A few times it’s ended in tears, given 4 year olds inability to predict their future feelings – but in general, he makes the choice he really wants.

    I do wonder about the making Christmas a big deal thing – that’s how it is in my partner’s family, and I don’t think there’s any bucking the family tradition, lists and all. So I’m trying to find ways around it and also to avoid making it a chore.

  5. Grad No Job says:

    Even though I am not a parent, I can only imagine how hard it is teaching delayed gratification much less unspecified/unfulfilled gratification.

  6. Gena says:

    One thing we’ve done to reduce that never-ending list of childhood wants is to eliminate the catalogs that come in marketing to kids. My boys are Lego fiends, so much so that when the new catalog would hit the mailbox, they’d be arguing nonstop about who got it first and who was going to get what from it, regardless of the fact that they probably weren’t going to get anything! Getting off the mailing list and throwing out the ones that do come in before the kids see them has made a huge impact on their desire for the next shiny thing. We’re finding that they’re becoming more interested in activities or experiences as gifts (hiking, camping trips, going climbing) rather than stuff.

  7. a conscience life says:

    In response to the question; “isn’t all the money spent trying to sate those desires just money wasted?”

    I suppose that depends. If you trying to fully satisfy yourself — to the point that you would have fulfilled ALL of your desires — then yes. If you are just trying to satisfy some desires — those that you have really thought about — then no. Just because you can never have or experience everything does not mean that you should not experience or posses some things. I think the trick to life is to realize that you are inherently limited with both time and resources and to come to terms with that. If you are able to work within the constraints that you have, then perusing desires can be quite pleasant and a good use of time and money.

    I think you addressed this later on, just thought I would emphasize that there is nothing wrong with spending on desires (in fact, it *should* be quite good). The problem arises when you try to obtain *everything* that you ever wanted — which is an impossible task for most people.

  8. bethh says:

    My family has always had the rule that you can’t talk about what you want for your birthday until the milestone ahead of it has passed. This works well as there’s a number of us spread through the year: for example, my brother’s birthday is the end of July, mine is the end of August, so only around Aug 1 can I start making my wishes known. Same thing goes for Christmas: nobody talks about what they want until Thanksgiving.

    Of course we know each other pretty well and can opt to purchase things ahead of time without benefit of a wish list, but this helps keep the greed out of the equation.

  9. Jamie says:

    My story is so similar. Thanks for sharing this!

  10. Tate says:

    Excellent article. I cringe when my 4-year old sees a commercial. Typically, we watch public TV or “on-demand” which is commercial free. I told my wife not to give the newspaper ads to my daughter because it is a list of things she doesn’t have … while we have a pile of stuff she DOES have in the next room.

  11. Joan says:

    This was great – I have done the same thing with my daughter: “Well, if you really don’t like those any more, let’s give them away.” She’s now at the point where, at 9, she anticipates the question sometimes and says, “Well, I don’t feel like playing with those NOW, but I don’t need to give them away or get new ones.” :)

    As an adult, I find I get into this mindset not so much with stuff like books, clothes, etc., but with home-improvement projects. We saved up a lot of money to replace the ragged and allergy-laden carpet in my daughter’s room with laminate floor, and I’m so glad we did. (That was, in effect, her “Christmas” one year – the total redo of her room – and she loved it.) But now I look at other flooring in the house and it’s, “Eww, that looks horrible.” And it goes on and on.

    I could hit the lottery (that I don’t play, haha) and spend a million on renovations and still find something “new” or “different” I wanted, I’m sure. Thanks for reminding me to appreciate what I am lucky to have – a nice, large house and a great family in it!

  12. Amy says:

    As a parent, I’m always interested to read your posts about the challenges inherent to raising children. I liked this post very much.

    One book you may want to check out from the library is “The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes”. After the kids pester the mother for stuff on TV one too many times, and after she notices that they don’t play with the toys or eat the food she does get for them, she lets them have their way. For one week only. She tells them she will buy the first three things the kids see on Saturday morning TV–but they have to eat the new cereal until it runs out, and they have to play with the new toys for a certain time period. The cereal is a bust, and the toys aren’t much better. The kids go back to eating their usual cereal after the new cereal is gone, and revert back to their favorite toys when the new toys start to break.

    All in all, I think your 3yo might enjoy the book, and it’s one that I’ve re-read many times with both my children. Thanks for all you do.

  13. Amy says:

    It might just be the kid. My parents had a similar system and we made lists for xmas and BDs. But I didn’t obsess all year (that I remember anyway), and when I had a paper route as a pre-teen I saved ALL the money, and as a college student and an adult I’ve continued to work and save, and only spend after thoughtfully considering the purchase.

    On the other hand, I have fabulous memories of getting together for big family events on BDs and xmas, the anticipation of making lists for gifts, and I still really look forward to those events today. I also still make lists and ask for them from my family: how else do I know exactly what they want? I love being able to provide what they truly would enjoy. I cringe at the thought of receiving something I don’t really want, both from the clutter of it in my house and the waste of money for the person who bought it.

    I think lists and channeling gifts to certain events can be very useful and sure didn’t make me into a greedy consumer!

  14. There’s a certain sense of independence that comes from buying what ever we want when ever we want it. Maybe it comes from thinking “I want it, I deserve it, I'”. Maybe it’s an unconcious rebellion against a youth of doing without

  15. Kathryn says:

    I really needed to hear this. We are a commercial free house too but I hadn’t thought of banning ‘want lists’. I love this idea. Making Christmas and birthday lists was such a huge part of my childhood that I never thought about doing it differently. Your post has made me re-think this. Thanks.

  16. Please ignore Post 11, the computer flickered, then posted while I was typing. (???)

    There’s a certain sense of independence that comes from buying what ever we want when ever we want it. Maybe it comes from thinking “I want it, I deserve it, I’ll buy it”. Maybe it’s an unconcious rebellion against a youth of doing without where we try to “make up for it” by giving ourselves what we did without (Michael Jackson trying to recreate the childhood he didn’t have is an outstanding example of this).

    Real indendence comes from letting go of it and the control it has over you, but the transition comes at different times and with varying degrees of difficulty. Count yourself blessed if you’ve made the transition at all. A lot of people never do.

    BTW, we’re doing something similar with out kids in regard to birthdays and Christmas. What’s amazing is how the lists change so dramatically over time. By December we’re usually glad we didn’t buy what was on the list in September!

  17. Marsha says:

    This is a very interesting and provocative post. My own parents did a great job of managing their money, and I have done a lousy job. Our family story is different from yours, so I will have to do some thinking as to where and how I went off track.

    One factor, though, is that the economic world when we were kids was different than it is now. What was smart then may not be as smart now.

    That said, I need to think harder about the kinds of bad decisions I have made and take responsibility. Maybe the world is different now, but I need to focus on what I can control.

  18. Russ Smith says:

    Great article. I like the part about the burning feeling inside for months as a birthday or Christmas approaches. interesting how that childlike desire can stay with us as we get older, and before we know it, we just work for more stuff, over and over again.

  19. Kelly says:

    As a kid, I always created Christmas lists and it was kind of fun to dream. The funny part was when I would go back and look at some of the lists from years pasts and see what junk I just had to have…I mean who really needs a Jose Canseco rookie card???

    I actually think it is a fun thing to do and I intend to do it with my kids not to prove any points, but to let them realize how quickly taste change and how not getting a toy one year really doesn’t matter. (essentially a 30 day rule for gifts :) )

    And of course, my wife and I will be doing the save, give, spend method and making them earn their allowance, etc. But for those that want to let their kids have fun making lists, then let them have fun laughing at the ridiculous things they used to want?

  20. KED says:

    While we should definitely set the example for our children, we also must let ourselves off the hook if in the future they don’t follow our example.

    In retrospect my childhood was spent living very frugally, but I was unaware. It is only in my adulthood that I realize what my parents did ..growing their own food, canning, preserving, raising chickens, sewing, etc. was a lifestyle that was frugal and necessary for our survival. I thought it was normal and had fun doing it with my parents, they made it seem fun. They also were the type of parents that invested their time in us.

    As a result, myself and one of my two brothers both live similiarly. We cook, we garden, we fix what is broken, we don’t long for the newest and shiniest thing! We drive older model “paid for” vehicles, etc. Our only debt is our home.

    Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for my middle brother. He is in debt up to his eyeballs…..again. He has already filed bankruptcy once. He and his wife have run through two inheritances, but threw away most of the “things” they inherited rather than use them or donate them. Clothes, furniture, watches and jewelry, I cringe thinking about it.

    Wish we could clearly define what made this one sibling react so differently to the exact same environment. Then we might find a way to cure those that “need” that “newest” thing so much the are willing to risk theirs and their childrens financial and emotional futures.

  21. Melody Bakeeff says:

    KED – it is said that possibly up to 80% of a person’s personality is genetic. It could just be that your middle brother has a vastly different personality than you. How we process information is determined in large part by our personality and coping mechanisms.

    I ran the gamut in childhood, partially because my mother was the opposite of her parents for quite awhile. Where they saved, invested and were relatively quiet financially, after their deaths she blew through the inheritance in the craziest way possible! I’m going to write a book someday, I swear. :-) Any rate, she was definitely taught about money, but my grandparents were also old-fashioned and still strict because she lived with them well into her 30’s. There was definitely a large chunk of sheer rebellion involved. Thankfully she was responsible to me, so I wasn’t harmed. Unfortunately, I grew up with a healthy habit of ‘I deserve it’ because that’s what I learned from her.

  22. Damester says:

    I like the idea of focusing on one or two times a year for very special and personal gift-giving. As long as kids then take that same approach in giving to others.

    But it’s never good to get caught up in wanting something SOOOOOOO much that it dominates your life, regardless of whether you’re capable of getting it or not. That level of attachment is problematic.

    To my mind, this whole wanting/desiring, it all goes back to how you feel about yourself. The healthiest and most well-balanced folks who are financially careful/prudent/frugal tend to be folks who have very strong self-esteem; come from very close families and who place little to no value on “stuff.” They have shared experiences and lots of good memories and plenty of people who love them and show it. They don’t look to stuff as a replacement for that love, which, I think, some of us do at times.

    it doesn’t mean these folks don’t like or appreciate some good things (books, food, etc.) but they don’t let their wants and desires become needs when it interferes with living a debt-free life.

    On the other hand, if you look carefully and deeply, many, if not most, folks who had debt problems from an early adult age are those who have had poor families and/or very intensely difficult financial situations. But what really influenced their behavior and choices was not the lack of money (because in fact, many of us growing up didn’t really understand how poor we were because we weren’t all pining away for stuff and feeling bad cause we didn’t have it), but a lack of love, affection, emotional connection and yes, a feeling of safety and security that your family either gives you, or doesn’t.

    I didn’t have a lot of stuff as the young daughter of a single working mother, but I didn’t think much about it. But one year, when I was around 10, my mother had to sell everything in our apartment, including those few toys I had.

    We were then homeless for a short period before moving in with an aunt (an experience that was far worse than being homeless)and it was after all of this that I realized something was really wrong.

    You’d think that this background would make me a security-conscious person, working as a drone in a “steady” job. I may have started out that way (and I worked multiple jobs from high school through my early 30s, and then again in my 40s till now.)but of course, I then saw in business that there is no security or guarantees.

    The real issue of course was not the poverty. But the fact that my mother was someone incapable of giving of herself, to me or anyone else. The real poverty was emotional and it never really ends. No matter that as adult one has people we love and trust and who love and trust us. Without a solid foundation of love and caring, your view of life and what you want/desire/need are always skewed. The lack of self esteem screws you up in so many ways…it’s not even about how much you spend, but how it affects your confidence in getting and keeping work and your earning power.

    And if you look carefully at those who spend wildly and out of control, you’ll probably find someone in a lot of pain, who is trying to compensate by buying stuff to make themselves feel better. But it’s never about the money or the stuff, really.

    i do think that my love of certain kinds of stuff (my thing is books and food) comes from that deep sense of lack and the knowing that your stuff could be gone in a moment. (Something I live in fear of, due to fire, etc.)

  23. Marvellous Clare says:

    With reference to comercials and children – we watch t.v (about an hour each day) and discuss the commercials – putting it into “real” terms. This discussion continues into the shops. When my kid gets all excited about Spiderman Yoghurt (for example) – I ask him if he has ever seen Spiderman (or whoever) ever making yoghurt (or chocolate or sweets etc)? He thinks about it and reluctantly has to answer no. Occasionally I might buy a small item and buy a decent brand and ask him to try a “blind tasting” and then ask him what he thinks and explain how marketers will do anything to get people to buy their products. We now have a cynical eight year old who questions the adverts we see and derides those that use hyperbole. He’s not banned from anything but overtime has learnt to save his money to buy worthwhile toys rather than branded junk. And happily donates toys that he no longer plays with.

    And with reference to birthday presents – he gets mountains of toys at his parties (not from us!). He is allowed to open all the presents from their wrappings but is then only allowed to open and play with one present per week (so they last a good few months). That way he really plays with the gifts and appreciates them individually rather than becoming overwhelmed. And he loves Fridays because when he gets home he gets a “new” toy.

  24. Leigh says:

    I love this post. We usually only watch PBS or Noggin, with no commercials. If our 4 yr old happens to see commercials, we talk about them, and also suggest giving toys away to other kids. She is accustomed to this now. If we are in a store and she sees something attractive, she’ll ask about it, but not ask for it. Now, if she asks for something, I know she REALLY wants it.

  25. crazyliblady says:

    I find it very helpful to have something visual that everyone can see also. I have a profile at http://www.networthiq.com. You can indicate the amount of money you have in savings, retirement, and how much debt you have. I was tremendously surprised and please to find out I actually have a positive networth. Then, you can post the url of your profile on other websites or blogs.

  26. Laura says:

    Trent- this is, in my opinion, your best article to date. It sums up the thought process and feelings and motivations behind every other post you write. Where you were just before your meltdown and where you are today stem from your ingrained thought processes from childhood and show the amazing growth you’ve gone through to get where you are now. It is inspiring to watch your transformation and see your honesty about your struggles. Your motivation and determination are inspiring.

    On a semi side note- how’s the running going? Which 5k are you looking to run? I wish you well on it!

  27. Lenore says:

    Damester said” “The lack of self esteem screws you up in so many ways…it’s not even about how much you spend, but how it affects your confidence in getting and keeping work and your earning power.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Those of us who are “walking wounded” as one counselor of mine called it, perpetually suffer in a state of spiritual lacking, even when surrounded by material excess or people who claim to care about us. Once trust is shattered by abuse or neglect, it is very difficult to fully enjoy or engage in life. We wallow in addictions to soothe or distract ourselves and are paralyzed or deficient in many social interactions, particularly the playground politics of the workplace.

    I know there are ways to “get better” but I sometimes wonder if there is any way to “get well.” My experience with psychiatry has been somewhat helpful, but I’m still unable to work and plagued by self-doubt. Maybe I could overcome the painful lessons of my youth if I could afford counseling from more competent, compassionate providers. I’ve read plenty of self-help stuff, but it always seems like there’s a hole in my soul that can’t be filled.

    If you don’t feel that way, consider yourself lucky and try to have a little tolerance and sympathy for the “nuts” you know. My friend and I have a saying, “Unhappy childhoods last a lifetime.” I’d give anything to have the confidence I see in others, the social skills, resilience and natural ease of mental health. Maybe someday…and I do appreciate that I’m better off now than I was a few years ago.

    Sorry to rant, but Damester started it! ;-) Psychology and money are deeply interwoven, often in ways we fail to perceive. I’m no longer going into debt to buy useless collectibles, but my house is still somewhat cluttered. My struggle with overspending and avoidance of responsibility is far from over. Reading this blog certainly helps me try to stay on track.

  28. Caroline says:

    Well written, tight, and all in all a great lesson.

    My mom encouraged list making too – actually I made/make tons of lists, but rarely gift lists for myself. It’s probably partly my personality, and (being the oldest of 4) I think the younger children in a family often become more spoiled. I’ve noticed it in many other families too. At least in some cases, it seems that the older kids probably get more time from their younger, more energetic, less affluent parents. Then the younger kids get more material goods to make up for the lack of time their parents have for them individually, and/or they’re benefiting from the additional income most people have later in life.

  29. Johan says:

    Doesn’t that go for adults as well – focus on what you have, not what you might find yourself wanting at the moment? If you do that, it becomes much easier being frugal. Especially if the focus is on people, not things.

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