The “I Need It” Trap 

Helping Kids Distinguish Wants from Needs to Form Sensible Buying Habits


Financially Saavy Kids- Wants vs. NeedsI admit it. I’ve done it. And I’ll bet you’ve done it, too. We’ve probably all at one time or another said, “I need” when what we really meant was, “I want.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting something. It only becomes a problem when someone is unable to discern between wants and needs, and financially overreaches to pay for wants he or she believes are needs.

And in our culture, it’s easy to do. Every day thousands of messages are telling us that we need a new car, a new cell phone, a new outfit, a new home. Or that we need this item or that item in order to be hip, cool, successful, and/or healthy. Then add in the power of peer group pressure or our desire to be able to provide for our family, and perceptions of wants vs. needs can get very blurred.

Now think about all of this from a child’s perspective. They already face a lot of pressure just trying to learn how to navigate in this world. They don’t need to be influenced or tempted by advertising, promotions and media aimed at making them want things they don’t need.

Limiting their exposure to TV or media can help. But teaching children how to recognize the difference between wants and needs, and the real price that might be paid for those wants, is a much more lasting solution. It’s a lesson that will help kids be financially savvy for the rest of their lives.

If you know me, then you know I am big on communication. One of the methods I still believe to be the most effective in helping children of all ages learn and understand the difference between wants and needs is to talk to them about thesubject. Here’s what I mean.

When my children and I had decided we wanted to spend some weekend time together riding bikes, we needed to think about whether or not to buy new bicycles. Instead of just going to the nearest store, we talked about all the choices. First, did we really need new bicycles? Where did we think we would be riding the most? Would we be going on treks into the foothills, which then meant would we need a bike rack for the car? 

By involving them in the decision, my kids started thinking about the buying process in a different way. We had bicycles so our basic need was met. But if we were going to get serious about riding then maybe we needed to have better bicycles, maybe even mountain bikes. And that’s when I was able to provide them with a practical hands-on experience of wants versus needs.

Now, obviously, my children are not toddlers. But teaching kids as early as possible about the difference between wants and needs makes sense.

Start by explaining what needs are: Good food, a place to live, clothes, sturdy shoes, and a way to get around. Snack foods, designer jeans, $125 sneakers and a $1,200 racing bike are “wants.”

For younger children, maybe make the learning process into a game. For example, ask them to guess whether something is a need or a want when watching television or if they come home with tales of what their friends have. You might consider rewarding them with points toward a “want” when they get the answers right.

Teaching your children how to discern between wants and needs is one of the best and most lasting financial legacies you can leave them. Start now. And don’t forget to be open to learning some things about your own perceptions as well.

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