Every couple of weeks, as my son and I shop at our local retailer, he begs to stroll through the Lego aisle before we leave.
This kid could eat Legos for breakfast. He knows every set, down to the number of bricks in the box. He knows how the new police station differs from the old police station, which features are new and which ones have been done away with. Pull a random brick piece from the Lego bucket and he’ll tell you which set it belongs to.
What he doesn’t understand, in his 5-year-old brain, is why we can’t buy Legos instead of eating breakfast. Every time we visit the toy aisle, he eyes his favorite sets and turns to me, the wheels in his brain whirring.
“How much money do you have?” he asks.
He can see the shopping cart filled with new socks, tape, hair gel and poster board. There’s still plenty of room for a medium-size Lego helicopter to nestle between the strawberry jam and kitchen sponges. That magical card in my wallet seems to have plenty of money for another Lego set to grace his dresser top at home.
Instead, I shake my head. “I don’t have any money for Legos,” I say.
This isn’t a dialogue limited to my youngest son. My kids are in constant want of something: the newest game app, another pack of Pokemon cards, that rainbow loom thingy or whatever their best friend brought to school for show and tell.
This means many of our family conversations revolve around allocation of resources. Our children know more about supply and demand than a bean trader. My husband and I don’t want our kids to hear a simple “No, we can’t afford that.” We want them to understand that we choose not to buy (or visit, or experience) because we’ve chosen instead to buy, visit or experience something else. Not all spending is weighted equally.
We have tried (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully) to establish a pattern for spending and saving in our family. Our chief investments include a religious tithe, education, music lessons and travel. This is where we choose to spend the majority of our money (and for that matter, time).
What this means is I buy second-hand clothes and used furniture. We drive cars until they run into the ground. Eating out is a rare treat. We don’t do a lot of amusement parks or movies in the theater. And when we walk through the Lego aisle, we usually leave empty-handed.
On the flip side, we feel privileged to have really fantastic music teachers for our kids. We take special family trips a few times a year. We dedicate a lot of time and energy to our religious faith. We make conscious educational investments as well.
Not all families have this choice. I’m aware that many parents work to simply give their children basic life necessities. And we’ve been there too. Our years in graduate school didn’t afford any supplemental income, or any income at all. We did what we could to just get by.
Yet every family decides where to allocate their resources. I know families who give their kids opportunities in sports or dance. Other families live in humble circumstances so their children can have a private education, or just food on the table.
When we make deliberate choices with our resources, we create, either consciously or subconsciously, a family culture. We communicate to our children that certain things are important while others take a back seat.
When we say “no” to that doll, that milkshake, that new dress or movie ticket, we are given the opportunity to teach our children that we are saying “yes” to something else: a debt-free life, a student loan paid off, a future ticket to Disney, a fast-offering meal for a less-fortunate family, a special outing with Dad, a slot on the soccer team or an emergency savings fund.
Who knew a walk through the toy aisle could be so educational?