Updated on 01.09.09

Teaching Frugality: The Power of Why

Trent Hamm

My three year old son has officially graduated to the “Why?” stage.

Most parents – actually, anyone who has spent much time around a three year old – know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s basically asking “Why?” about everything that happens, from the simplest mundane household things to complicated issues like the nature of life.

In other words, there’s a lot of explaining going on around the clock here at the Hamm household.

There’s another piece to this puzzle, though. With our little boy wandering around constantly asking “Why?”, we have become much more careful about our specific behavior choices. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

We’re at the grocery store. I’m standing there examining the different kinds of milk and my son asks what I’m doing. When I tell him I’m trying to decide what kind of milk to buy, he hits me with the why. Why am I buying milk? Why am I choosing the particular kind of milk?

We’re in the basement. An incandescent light bulb burns out, so I replace it with a CFL. The only problem is that when we flip the light switch, the bulbs light up at a different rate. My son notices and hits me with the why. Why do the bulbs light up at a different rate? Why do we have different kinds of bulbs?

We’re on our way to daycare and we see one of the neighbors headed off to a different daycare. I point the girl out to my son and tell him to wave. He asks where she’s going and when I tell him, he drops the why. Why does she go to that other daycare? Why don’t I go there?

With the why‘s coming in right and left, I’ve automatically begun to start thinking ahead about what I’m doing, coming up with solid answers for the things I expect him to ask. Doing that, of course, makes me think about why I’m doing things in the first place. Am I doing this for a good reason? Is this action setting a good example for my son?

Here’s the kicker: this is a key time in my child’s life in terms of learning how to behave and acquire knowledge. It’s quite important that I actually come up with correct answers to his questions, even if they seem simplistic or really repetitive. Even better, the answers (and anything we do to bring about the questions) need to indicate good, healthy adult behavior.

This is actually a great frugality motivator. My son has become yet another psychological tool that I can use to convince myself to make good financial choices. The ten second rule? The thirty day rule? Try the three year old child rule – if you can’t explain a purchase or a financial choice to a child without resorting to “because I said so,” it’s probably worth considering more carefully.

I’ve actually reached the point where I use this “why” question no matter what I’m doing and no matter whether my son is there or not. It makes me consider my actions much more carefully – and that results in better buying decisions and better life decisions, too.

One of the most amazing parts of raising a child is that you go into it thinking that you’re going to be doing all the raising and answering all the questions, but as time goes on, you find that the child often teaches you as much as you teach the child.

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  1. Johanna says:

    Although I am not a parent and don’t intend to become one, I liked this post a lot. Kudos to you, Trent. Your kids are going to turn out great.

  2. Trevor - 14 Year Old Money Blogger says:

    Thinking “Why” is not only frugal but also really good for the brain. Analyzing and understanding everything around you will help you out later on in life when things get complex.

  3. Charlotte says:

    Great post, as a parent of now teens it is even more important to understand that although they don’t say out loud the words “why” they are constantly analyzing our choice and asking themselves why.

  4. Battra92 says:

    Did anyone besides me read this and think of Buttons and Mindy?

  5. J says:

    I was initially excited when my daughter got to the “why” stage, and tried to give good responses. I later learned that in most cases, they just want some response and can’t cognitively deal with a “real” response.

    So your kid can ask about the CFL bulbs, and you can give the answer of “trees!!!!”, and it’s just as valid as explaining the real reason why.

  6. Chris says:

    Trent – great article.. Even if your kid isn’t absorbing fully the answers you give to the “why” questions, I must feel that it will help answer our own internal “why”.

    WHY do I put on this monkey suit every day to go to a job that I hate?

    WHY do I care so much what other people think?

    Why should I make my bed in the morning when I’m just going to sleep in it and mess it up again?

    Why can’t I get my butt out of bed and work out in the morning?

    Why do I waste so much time watching TV?

    Why don’t I read more?

    Why haven’t I taken a vacation in 4 years?

    Those are some of my “Why” questions. I still don’t have the answer to most of them, but your article spurs me to actively pursue them.



  7. Frugal Dad says:

    And when kids get a little older they hold you accountable. My nine year-old frequently tells me, “Dad, that is not very frugal!”. The worst part is, she is usually right!

  8. Great point!

    Now that my former 3 year olds are in college, I realize that they were watching us all the time. So it’s not only what you say; it’s what you do. In fact, I think they may have picked up more from what we did than from what we said. And believe me, they pick up any and all inconsistencies!

  9. Victor says:

    Sometimes I like to respond to the ‘Why?’ onslaught with ‘Why do you think?’. I have received some incredible answers from my 3.5 yr old! They really do understand more than I ever anticipated a child at that age to, and this response has spurred some great deductive reasoning from her. Plus, some of the answers are hilarious! =D

  10. Dano says:

    Great post. It reminds me of the rule Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, mentions he created for his inquisitive son…no one word questions. Although, I do not have children right now. I was inspired by the thought of helping our children reach beyond the why and formulate specific thoughts from an early age. Is this something you have considered implementing with your children?

  11. jakob says:

    Trent….this is some great commentary on the “why” stage….i think you’d enjoy it. He takes a while to get going but its well worth it.

  12. Trent-
    I live this everyday too – my oldest girl is 3.5. I love this age! Somehow I think answering all these “Why?” questions will make her smarter but that’s probably just me trying to be the best Dad I can be. Besides, I think it’s great for kids to be curious, especially if they can pull it off while still being polite. As you said, if she learns some virtues from it, like frugality, extra bonus.

    She’s stumped me once already. When she saw Richard Simmons on TV during a tease for The David Letterman show, she asked “Why is that man wearing that leotard?” I had no answer. I do the best I can.

  13. I’ve read this blog for several months and this post hit home because I answered (still do) honestly.

    Now my kid craves money. Too much.

    He’s 8 asking when he can start working and what can he do to earn money.

    So when you answer.. choose. Because your answer is molding your child. If you answer the same way every time, that’s all he/she will know.

    My recommendation, answer with multiple reasons and offer the alternatives and let them decide.

    Much like the “How did we get here.. On Earth?” question.

    I gave my Catholic answer and the Big Bang Theory with evolution, and let them decide.

  14. The Debt Guy says:

    I absolutely love this article. I am going to use it starting today!

    Before my journey to debt freedom, I didn’t think stop to truly think of why. When I did, I came up with a BS reason that I felt comfortable with.

  15. MarthaO says:

    As the mom of 4 teens and 1 pre-teen, I completely agree with you that everything you do AND say now will be reflected in the behavior and choices of your children throughout their lives. Parenting is the ultimate investment — how your kids turn out has everything to do with how much you ‘invest’ in them at these early ages. We have fabulous teens making great choices, who are clean, responsible and good thinkers….but they’re also picky eaters. It all is set early on and difficult to change later.

  16. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the “why” until after I’d already made a mess of my finances.

    Good thing it’s never too late. :)


  17. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    I don’t have kids (yet), but my wife plays this “why” role very well. We are both frugal in slightly different ways – she is on the small things and I am on the big things. It’s a nice balance to have when making decisions.

  18. Jules says:

    Have you read Piaget? It seems like you’re stressing out a lot about what the child most likely won’t remember at all :-)

  19. Barbara says:

    I totally hear you! My oldest is just about to turn 4, and now when we get to the eggs in the store she’ll pick up a box and ask me “are these from the hens with happy lives?”, so the explanations about buying free range have been absorbed at least somwhat.

  20. Penny Copperwyre says:

    I don’t have children yet, but I will make sure that I explain frugality and finances to them. As the eldest of a widow, I was privy to my mother’s finances, not the actual numbers, but some of the worry. She explained to me that she used my father’s insurance money to buy the house outright because, so long as she paid the taxes, no one could take our house. They could turn off the electricity, but we would have a place to live. On the less depressing side, she also showed me how to quickly tabulate sales and to rejoice in the second hand market. However, she protected my sister from these tips and my sisters finances are a disaster…. You’re well on your well to helping your son to a healthy financial future.

  21. Mandi says:

    @ Jules- Piaget is hardly the end all be all in child development. Further, that implies that you shouldn’t read to children before they can “remember” it, despite the fact the majority of literacy researchers believe that if a child is not in a literacy rich household before the age of two, he will never catch up with his peers. Trent is most assuredly doing the right thing by answering his son’s questions with honesty and clarity.

  22. alice says:

    I don’t remember my Piaget like I ought to, but it seems that most of the theories on child development say that either the things you say and do with young children matter, or the spirit of them matters. I don’t remember specifics from my own childhood that far back, but I definitely remember the way my parents treated me like an intelligent human being rather than a dumb little kid. It has definitely formed me, whether or not some theorist thinks I can remember it.

  23. Caroline says:

    Excellent post

  24. Dave says:

    Thanks for taking me back in time Trent.
    You are so RIGHT about your influence on them!

  25. Duncan says:

    Great post, Trent. I’m from Singapore and I read your blog (almost religiously everyday), but this is the first time I am moved to contributing by way of a comment. There is a certain resonance in a child going on to the “Why?” stage, and I do agree with Mandy in the above post that you are doing the right thing by giving your son honest and clear replies.

  26. Duncan says:

    With apologies, it should be “Mandi” in my previous post.

  27. Fred says:

    The ones that know WHY will always employ the ones that KNOW HOW!

  28. michele says:

    I have a 15 and 11 year old. This post made me smile. Great memories from what seems forever ago and yesterday at the same time. Just wanted to give you something to think about that I have learned,”I told you so” is healthy for our children,(all in balance) just wish I had learned that earlier than I did.

  29. Diane says:

    Great post! My 2 sons are in high school & college and I can vouch for the fact that kids WILL absorb, understand and remember some of the answers you give them for years to come.

    It DOES matter what you say in response to their questions. Be honest, and give them information on a level they’re ready to deal with. As they grow you can add to the earlier information and they’ll have something to build on.

    The time you spend answering their questions and later discussing things with them is very valuable. Start early, while they are willing to listen in order to build the foundation for important discussions in the future!

  30. conny says:

    why do you still have non cfl bulbs in your house ?

    why not change them all to CFL (where it was economically suitable in the first place) instead of waiting for a bulb to burn out and then replace them)?

  31. Hehe, I seem to remember my parents saying something to the effect of “Don’t ask why, just do it!” You have some good points on that though.

    Speaking of psychological tool, you could probably use him to help you for writer’s block too. Then he’d be a blog tool! ;-)

  32. Carmen says:

    Having experienced children up to and including eight years old so far, three is my favourite age :)

    Both my girls were so easy at three; fairly independent, highly communicative and able to do many things. Additionally, day trips and travel become much easier, enjoyable and light due to decreased ‘baby stuff’ needed. And at three, they are also still very cute!

    I think the tables then turn somewhere between 4 and 5, depending on when they start school. Oh joy!

  33. MM says:

    Child often teaches you as much as you teach the child.

    Here is the real kicker. The meat of the matter.

    Thanks Trent!

  34. MM says:

    “Child often teaches you as much as you teach the child.”

    Here is the real kicker. The meat of the matter.

    Thanks Trent!

  35. greg says:

    I make a every effort to answer my 3-year-old son’s why-questions. I explained him that heat is generated by molecules moving about, and showed him by rubbing his hands so that they got warm – which he enjoyed and wanted to do all over again. But although he is really fascinated by the water meter, I could not get across the idea that you have to pay for the water coming out of the tap. His response was “Daddy, let’s go to the supermarket and buy a bottle of water!”

  36. getagrip says:

    Whether your child really understands the answers or not, just three points. First keep the answer short and don’t make it a full blown lecture or you’ll get into the habit and bore them to death in later years.

    Secondly, if you can, make it a conversation at their level (sometimes asking what they think as others have suggested can lead to this). Half the time they don’t really care about the specific answer, they just want your attention, and they quickly discover that asking “why” is the fastest way to get you focusing on them rather than on what you were doing.

    Finally, answering the questions and developing that habit is your means for keeping youself in their lives when their older. I’ve had my kids ask me seemingly off-beat questions where if I were impatient or not in the habit of going further with it, it wouldn’t have lead to conversations about dating, dangerous activities (unprotected sex, drugs, etc.), the current economic metldown, death, religion, etc.

    As they get older, sometimes you’re the one who should be asking them “why”, and listening carefully to what they say.

  37. Gibson says:

    For the record: “Because” is not a good answer. Neither is “Because I said so.” Have reasons for what you do and ask your kids to do.

  38. Eva says:

    Must read book: Why Is The Sky Blue? by Sally Grindley. Also, if there is a co-operative preschool in your area, check it out (cue the “w” question). Enjoy! :-)

  39. Travis says:

    At the company where I work we use a Japanese system of continual improvement for customer service and manufacturing called Kaizen. One of the tenants is to ask the question “Why?” five times to determine a root cause of a problem. We have these “Why?” signs hanging throughout the facility as reminder.

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