Breaking it to the Kids: ‘We Need to Cut Back’

Those money talks are tricky but entirely necessary. Here's why.

Most of us spend more money than we’d like during the holidays. Some families spend so much you wonder if they hit the lottery.

But there are also those unexpected hits to the family budget: fewer work hours, tires that have to be replaced, new jackets, boots and hats for the kids. In January, many parents are rethinking their finances and wondering how to get back on track without compromising their kids’ needs and wants.


Now is a great opportunity for children to learn about family finances. This information must be shared in an age-appropriate way, however. Your 6-year-old doesn’t need to hear Mom or Dad complaining about how broke the family is. This will either make your child worried sick, or he’ll simply learn to ignore you.

Actions do speak louder than words. If you’re fretting about finances while simultaneously spending big, your children may rightfully decide you are full of it.

Try to develop a spending plan that you can stick with. Team up with your partner, or even another parenting friend, to regularly gut-check each other so you aren’t going overboard. Once you are in shopping mode, it is easy to lose all restraint. We tell ourselves, “Well, while I’m out, I might as well pick this up. I’ve been meaning to for ages.”

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If you have drastic plans to reduce spending after the new year, talk to your kids about it. Consider including them on some family budget decisions. If they can take part in planning the family finances, they will be much more on board and invested in ensuring these changes are successful. Even if you’re dreading giving up your twice-daily trip to that amazing coffee cart, avoid sharing this.

If possible, make the planning more about what you will be doing than what you won’t. The presentation makes a difference. Take a moment to brainstorm some low-cost activities. Consider cooking an unusual dish as a family, find a great winter hike, rent a pile of DVDs or get books from the public library instead of buying them at Target, tackle some early spring cleaning for a garage sale or donation to a thrift store, or sign up to serve a meal at a soup kitchen.

Everyone wants to volunteer around the holidays, but not in the weeks that follow. Once you have some ideas, and have asked the kids for theirs, create a budget and a calendar where low-cost activities are scheduled and everyone can look forward to them.


If your children don’t yet receive an allowance, this could be a great time to start one and set some clear expectations for what they are responsible for buying for themselves. The value of money is often an easy concept for young folks to grasp, and they can become excellent little financiers as they debate spending now or saving for later. Consider this an investment. The cash in their pocket is going to mean way more to them than whatever is in yours.

Related: Anxious Kids Don’t Make the Grade

Most parents want their children to be happy. Generally this is a good goal, but there are times it’s OK and even helpful for kids to be irritated, annoyed, and frustrated. This is when they learn distress tolerance, also known as “you don’t get everything you want.” This is hard for some parents to withstand, but it’s a valuable skill.

No matter the issue, new habits are hard to establish, so get ready to manage some pushback if you make big changes to the family’s way of doing things. A little grumbling now can pay off big-time down the road. Both you and the younger ones will have a more thoughtful approach to how you spend your money and your time.

Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.

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