8 Habits That Plug Parental Spending Leaks

by Lynn Adams

DIY Landscaping for Less photo

Does your budget leak money due to unplanned spending on your kids? A child psychologist shares how you can plug leaks of any size.

When I was a childless child psychologist, kids made me money. Then I had two kids of my own, and they began to drain my spending money like two slow leaks.

You can establish new habits or tweak old ones to plug leaks of any size. The trick is to match your technique to your child’s developmental level, and then to grow with them.

1. Treat stores like museums.

Pointing with the index finger is a developmental milestone to celebrate, but it can cost you. Add in grunting and early vocabulary, and you have Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in your shopping cart: “I want the world. I want the whole world.”

But wait a minute. Pointing doesn’t always mean “give me.” Sometimes, it just means, “Look at that one-eyed stretchy purple alien!”

You can join in the fun for a child’s first two years. Say something like, “Yes, that alien is terrific! I wonder what his name is.” Very young kids usually forget the alien as soon as it’s out of sight. If they remember the alien in the next aisle or the next week, you can bring them back for a visit, like it’s a museum. The really special stuff can appear like magic in their Christmas stocking.

This technique worked wonders on my son, who didn’t seem to realize those impulse items were for sale until his two-years-younger sister learned to talk and let the alien out of the bag.

2. Be prepared.

Always have emergency snacks on hand, even beyond the diaper bag years. Snacks should come from home, not directly from a store.

Another trick is the hidden candy stash. Sometimes, nothing will lift the spirits like a mouthful of chocolate. Pull it out of your sunglasses case instead of reaching for checkout candy. You’ve set the long-term expectation that snacks are premeditated.

Sign Up for Savings

Subscribe to get money-saving content by email that can help you stretch your dollars further.

Twice each week, you'll receive articles and tips that can help you free up and keep more of your hard-earned money, even on the tightest of budgets.

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.

3. Shop alone when you can.

As kids get older and more persuasive, there’s no shame in avoiding the leaks altogether.

My husband, bless him, always tries to give me a few hours to “do something for myself” on the weekends. You know what I really used those hours for when the kids were in preschool and Kindergarten? I used them for essential errands to stores that market impulse buys to children: the pharmacy, the grocery store, the big box store, the hardware store, pretty much any store.

4. Hide catalogs from young eyes.

You know how Playboy used to arrive in a plain brown wrapper? I wish catalogs were that way. Thankfully, not as many make it into our physical mailbox these days since we all have inboxes.

Stake out your mailbox and hide all catalogs so your kids will be spared their version of porn, especially as it gets closer to Christmas. Kids don’t need to know what all is available to them.

While you’re at it, remove their Christmas presents from the manufacturer’s wrapping so they never see the little brochures that helpfully tell them how to “collect all ten” of whatever.

Have you overspent your way into debt?

Make a plan to get back out. Get How to Conquer Your Debt No Matter How Much You Have and create a debt payoff plan personalized to your budget and lifestyle.

5. Give opportunity rewards, not material ones.

The money may be small, but the message isn’t: If you please your parents, they will buy you stuff. Why not turn this around and make rewards out of things money can’t buy

For siblings, pay attention to what kids fight over. For only children, it’s what they pester you about.

Here’s my current list. They want to get the first turn to feed the pets, press the buttons on the elevator, enter the house, and take a bath. They also enjoy choosing what’s for snack, what to watch on TV, what bedtime story to read, and what board game to play. Their special opportunities include sleepovers with Mom and Dad or grandparents, sitting on Mom’s lap at dinner, a bubble bath, making videos with Mom’s camera, and a picnic dinner.

6. Set up a library day.

You might not need it when they’re really young, although there are plenty of board books at our library. But if you’re already in the library habit, you won’t be tempted to buy a shrink-wrapped package of Level 1 books at Costco when your first grader hates reading.

Purchases aren’t therapy. Kids are more likely to read one book they chose than a packet of readers that were “on sale.” For the record, my first- and third-graders have yet to cherish any book on their reading level. It’s all picture books and read-alouds.

7. Teach kids a little about retailers’ marketing tactics.

We call it “the askies.” As in, “Margot, did you see that those Frozen sleeping bags were at your eye level, not mine, on our way to the shoe section? Well, that’s meant to give you the askies.”

Then, instead of spending as much on the sleeping bag as on the shoes, we share a rueful laugh about how we’re too smart to fall for tricks like that.

8. Give kids wallets, not piggy banks.

Make sure your child has enough money to make her own purchases so they’ll learn how long they have to wait to replace that money.

At one point, my six-year-old wanted to collect a mob of Beanie Boos, which cost $5.99 each. Her allowance was $1 per week, so it took her six weeks to earn enough for one Boo. Perhaps that’s why she treated them like celebrities.

Start Teaching Your Children the Importance of Saving

Compare savings and money market account rates and open an account for them today.

Some of these savings may seem minor. But by starting with these habits, you’ll be teaching kids to plan, budget, and resist temptation while the stakes are still low, with the bonus of saving your own money for the really important stuff.

Reviewed October 2023

About the Author

Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Find more of her work at LynnAdamsPhD.com.

Sign Up for Savings

Subscribe to get money-saving content by email that can help you stretch your dollars further.

Twice each week, you'll receive articles and tips that can help you free up and keep more of your hard-earned money, even on the tightest of budgets.

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This