Follow these five steps to curb your little one's "I want" tendencies.
Little girl looking at earrings in store
Credit: Erik Isakson/Getty Images

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No matter where you are, it seems like there is something for your child to want. At the mall, it’s a video game or $.50 rides that last 45 seconds; at the zoo, an adorable stuffed animal; at the supermarket checkout, a pack of glitter pens; at the museum gift shop (which you have to walk through to exit the building), a cool puzzle.

If your child is constantly asking, “Can I have that?” and you’re not sure when to say yes and when to say no, we have a solution: letting kids make their own decisions and living with the consequences.

1. Provide for Needs, but Not Wants

According to Ron Lieber, the New York Times “Your Money” columnist who is currently working on a book called “The Opposite of Spoiled,” one approach, starting around kindergarten, is to buy your kids presents only at holidays and birthdays, and have children pay for everything else.

“The family needs to have a very specific and ongoing conversation about the difference between needs and wants,” Lieber explains, acknowledging that many things exist on a continuum. For example, many parents feel that books (within reason) are a need, not a want. Similarly, kids need a certain amount of clothing each season.

“Every family has to draw the line from when you cross over from want to need. These discussions become not just educational but wildly entertaining,” Lieber adds.

2. Use Allowance as a Teaching Tool

Once you establish this strategy as a framework, allowance can be your tool to empower kids to make their own decisions. How much to give will be based on your child’s age, your household’s financial situation and your family’s definition of needs and wants. (Here’s allowance 101, with suggestions for how much to give, and at what age.)

Lieber and his wife give their 6-year-old $3 each week, one dollar of which is designated for charity, one which goes into a savings jar and can’t be spent right away, and the last of which their daughter can spend any way she chooses.

Now comes the tricky part—staying out of it if your child wants to use his money for something you think is frivolous. “It’s okay to ask in the moment, ‘Is this a purchase you really want to make?’ but you have to hold your tongue and let them accumulate small piles of junk if that is important to them,” says Lieber. “We are dealing with [younger kids] who don’t have that much impulse control.”

Kids won’t become fully formed financial beings within weeks or months, but by giving them the power to make their own decisions and experiment with that power, they will become more financially savvy. “There is nothing like real dollars in the real world to teach real lessons,” Lieber says.

3. Decide if You Have a Spender or a Saver

Observe your child: Is she a natural saver who is great at self-regulating? If so, you’ll want to ask her questions about what she’s saving for. This way you can be sure you’re comfortable with what she wants to buy, and also use the conversation to teach simple research and math—talk about how much the item costs and whether you might be able to find it cheaper someplace else.

Using your account in the Money Center, you can help older kids set a Priority Goal and show them how long it would take them to reach it depending on how much money they set aside. Check in every so often to see if they’ve reevaluated, Lieber suggests. “One of the beauties of having them save and wait is that the intense desire for this or that almost always ebbs over time, only to be replaced by something new!”

If you have children who like to spend, adjust your response. You shouldn’t nag, but Lieber suggests going through their rooms and doing a clean up together every six months or so. You can ask, “You spent two dollars on this toy at the museum, and now we’re getting rid of it. Did you get your two dollars out of it?”

The beauty of this system is it gives you an easy out during those toy-aisle meltdowns. If they’re begging for something they haven’t saved enough to buy, the answer is simply no. “If they’ve reached a goal, let them see it through and buy the object of their desire,” says Lieber. On the off chance you were going to get them the same thing for Hanukkah or Christmas, just get them something else instead.

If you have younger children who are too little to understand allowances or saving, at least refrain from buying anything simply because they’re whining and crying. Otherwise, you’ll teach them that acting badly gets them a reward. Instead, be comfortable saying no, and dealing with the occasional tears or tantrums.

4. Make a Game of Buying

If your family isn’t ready to out-and-out stop buying any wants for your kids, there are other ways to create more mindfulness around buying.

When Lieber’s daughter was young and they brought her to Disney World, her parents let her buy one item of her choosing. That turned the trip into “an exercise of weighing alternatives and budgets and delaying gratification, and not grabbing the first shiny object that was appealing.”

Don’t forget your own behavior, since your kids are watching you closely. Every so often, it might not hurt for you to say something to your child, like, “I would love to have that dress in the window, but we are going to save that money because we’d like to go on vacation this summer.” The message will sink in eventually.

5. Neutralize Peer Pressure

Peer pressure around who has the most stuff can feel like it’s happening at a younger and younger age. If your child is upset that another kid has something and he doesn’t, try to remind him of the things he gets to do that other kids can’t. For example, maybe he’s on the travel soccer team that goes on fun day trips; Mom or Dad works someplace cool and he gets to visit; your family is taking a special trip over the break; or a parent or grandparent has a special skill and built him something special to play with.

The goal here is to remind your child that everyone gets to be first at something.

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