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Are my kids spoiled? How do I teach my kids about money?

One mother’s perspective on teaching kids about money if you think they might be spoiled....

As an adult reflecting on my childhood after some conversations with my kids, I was trying to remember my perspective back then on our family finances. I never thought we were wealthy growing up. Definitely not rich, probably closer to poor. It is funny to me as a mother to hear my kids talk about “who is rich and who is poor”. It is usually related to the size of one’s house or the kind of car their parents drive. Looking back it is interesting to reflect on my childhood perspective, especially now that it is a topic brought up by my step kids.

My mom was very frugal. She clipped coupons and used them at the grocery store. We shopped at decent department stores, but I remember her making me wait for that outfit I was just dying to have until the next sale. She wasn’t much into giving into our “instant gratification”. She liked my sister and I to save up our money we made from monetary gifts from grandparents for the holidays and our very, very humble weekly allowance, which led to my sister and I constantly conjuring up multiple side hustles before we were even 10. Those still haven’t stopped by the way.

When it came to eating out at a restaurant, it was a treat. She believed in home-meals and nightly dinner around the family dinner table. Conversation was supreme priority. Now that my mom has passed away, I would easily trade a nice meal out for one of my mom’s comfort home cooked healthy meals. I think that is a pretty common feeling coming from any kid who goes off to college too. Mom’s cooking is missed.

That’s the thing about being a kid, you don’t know how good you have it. Mom would let us go to a restaurant on special occasions, maybe every other month, but there were rules. We weren’t allowed to order a soda for $3.50 because she would explain that we could get a soda at Circle K for 59 cents or have a can that only cost 10 cents at home. Bummer. We could order the steak if we were sure we could eat it all but no appetizers or dessert. If we really wanted a treat after dinner we could drive through McDonald’s and get a soft serve cone for 69 cents. What a treat it was when my friend’s parents would invite me to go out with them and we could order appetizers, anything on the menu, and any dessert we wanted!

It wasn’t just my mom, she was the oldest of 8 siblings and I have 23 first cousins on just my mother’s side. When the cousins would compare notes, it was the same with all of us!! All my aunts and uncles all had obviously been raised by the same parents and read the same book “The Millionaire Next Door” - you know that popular book in the 90’s that gave all the statistics of how the real wealth belonged to the people who didn’t live in the mansions or drive a Mercedes. They were the rich people who you never knew were rich, in fact you might have thought they were poor. It clearly became a competition between my mom and her siblings of who could claim being the “poorest”. This didn’t really sit well with my sister, cousins and I at the time…. where poor was embarrassing in our young minds.

Were we really poor? I remember my cousins and I discussing this quite a bit. “I think we are the poorest in the family, my mom makes me take coupons when I get a haircut”. Someone else would chime in “oh no, we are definitely the poorest of the family, my mom made us share a meal because she says we each never finish ours.” My sister reminded me the other day of how she was 16 and had bought the wrong jalapeno pepper at the grocery store, it cost 25 cents and my mom made her drive back and return it for a refund. We had a good laugh over that one. I could go on and on. We would complain and compare, consoling each other that even though we were kind of poor we still had a great time together and thank goodness we all had “hook ups” in the fashion industry because good style and sample sales were life.

As we got a bit older our family would start doing family trips to Hawaii. What fun, and unexpected! And maybe we weren’t really as poor as we thought if we could go somewhere as luxurious as Hawaii. We thought only the rich or celebrities went to Hawaii. Most of the people we knew in our neighborhood went to the Grand Canyon or drove to Mexico for holidays. Did we win the lottery or something? Who cares our parents all drove 8-year-old used Camry’s? We were going to Hawaii with all the extra airlines points they had saved! Our family rented a house right on the beach. We were really living the life now! What was going on? As soon as we got off the plane our family drove straight to Costco and not some posh resort restaurant, ya, that didn’t surprise us. Seemed a little strange but there were about 15 of us kids and they decided to buy some stuff in bulk before heading to the rental house. My mom told us how she had read that milk and eggs in Hawaii were “very expensive”. We had a wonderful week together with our whole family snorkeling, hiking, laying out, barbecuing at the house. Lots of quality time together that didn’t cost much. I think we had one night where we dressed up and hit Haleiwa Joe’s, a well-known “fancy” spot on the North Shore of Oahu. It was fancy for us but still none of us even asked if we could order a pina-colada, a fruity Hawaiian drink and would never have even tried to ask if we could go to the luau where it was all you can eat and drink for $80 each. With all of our parents together, especially the moms, we were outnumbered. We would have been shot down before we asked. Looking back now, I don’t remember feeling like we were deprived of anything. We were living the high life as far as we were concerned. Wow…maybe our parents aren’t poor after all. (We still joke around now as grown adults about our parents not letting us get bottled water at the stores in Hawaii and all being forced to drink the tap water. We all seem healthy now so I guess it was ok).

Years went on and as we matured, we realized our parents weren’t poor at all. They were living like “The Millionaire Next Door” and we had no clue. All of our parents, aunts and uncles, had immigrated to this country as children, got degrees, worked multiple jobs, saved every penny and reinvested them. They had financial advisors and portfolios. They let us in on it little by little as we got older, mostly to use it as “teachable moments” about saving and investing…boring things at the time like “opportunity costs” and “compounded interest”. By the time we realized it, we were all hustling, hard-working, college bound young adults with our own savings accounts because we didn’t want to be poor like our parents were! It also started becoming clearer as the family trips got a bit more luxurious and Europe and exotic locations were happening more and more often (we still never pushed our luck buying fancy wine). The cars in our family got a little nicer, instead of used Camry’s, they started buying used Lexus’s. The houses got a lot bigger and really close to the beach, but the furnishings were all still bought on sale and the dads chipped in and painted the house themselves versus hiring an outside company. The frugality was still there, and that was ok with us, we were starting to get it.

I just got home from taking my step son camping this past weekend. I am a huge believer in boys being out in the wild, learning to fish and shoot and survive off the land. As he builds the tent we are going to sleep in that night, I see his confidence soar. When he uses his pocket knife to open a sweet coconut for me to drink, he presents it to me like a diamond ring with a huge smile on his face. We drove home and stopped for a nice lunch on the way home after eating camp food the last couple days. I let him get a hot chocolate too, just because. I’m a little more of a softy than my mom was.

I didn't birth they but I am crazy in love with them and I know I spoil them probably a little more than I should. I think there were times I went overboard in the beginning and then I realized I probably wasn’t really doing them a lot of favors. I get a little embarrassed with my family at times when they ask, “you really bought them that?”. I thought I was being frugal with them, no one wants to raise spoiled kids. Am I contributing to them being spoiled? What would my mom think? I had to ask myself.

Once we got home and unpacked the car from our camping trip my son says he is hungry. “Perfect,” I told him. “I have a ton of food in the fridge and can make us all something”. “I want Jimmy John’s sandwiches”, he said. I denied that idea, we had been buying food for camping and eating out the past few days. “It is only ten dollars!”, he argued with me. “I have food here and can make you something”.  He got upset, his face started turning red. What was going on?

“Why do you act like we are poor, it is only ten dollars? My mom would let me order it! Even my sister says you act poor when we both know you aren’t,” he proclaimed.

Oh my goodness! What has happened here? This sounds familiar. I tried to make a deal. “If you want it so badly I can give you a list of chores for your allowance and you can buy it yourself, but we have food at home and I am getting ready to make dinner”. He wasn’t having it. He got even madder and I saw the tears build up. I knew this was my time to exit. I am not a yeller or arguer with them. I hate repeating myself ten times just to get in a verbal back and forth. I made my exit to my room and thought about what he said. “Why do you act so poor?”. It could have been a manipulation tactic but I am ok with them thinking we aren’t wealthy, and thinking we are poor is even better.

I remember telling my mom when I was 12 I couldn’t believe we were so poor I couldn’t even get a GUESS book bag like everyone else at school. She balked at the $23 cheaply made bag with the huge logo on the side. I think that was one I had to save up for myself.

Deep down, my kid angrily telling me off that I was acting too poor, I loved it. I smiled thinking my mom would have had a good laugh over this one too. He will get it later, especially when he gets “The Millionaire Next Door” in his stocking from me one day, just like I did.

-Natasha Nelson Stubbs



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