You’re not alone. With 30 million Americans recently filing unemployment, many of us feel our financial situations closing in like a vise. Now, more than ever, we feel it: The cost of raising a child is high. And many kids in America might not be used to hearing some version of “We can’t afford that.”
Yet kids don’t need a Spidey sense to pick up on financial uncertainty. A friend of mine recently listened to the breathy whispers of her elementary-aged daughters one evening. The next morning, the two came out with it.
Turns out the girls had overheard my friend and her husband’s household budget talks the night before, including the added expense of private school.
Her oldest asked, “Will we still go to our school next year?”
When the cost of raising a child equals a tough financial situation
When expecting our first, my husband and I wandered into a piled-to-the-rafters Babies ‘R’ Us.
“How did Adam and Eve do this?” I wondered aloud, hand on belly. That question alone reminded me the cost of raising a child in America has become increasingly complicated. We may not actually need cereal bowls with built-in straws. Motorized toothbrushes. A walker shaped like a Jeep.
But even when sorting through wants vs. needs—a differentiation many of us are now performing anew—the power of comparison can feel overwhelming. Especially when your child is comparing their own former times to a new, stretched-thin reality: “Why can’t I go to summer camp this year?”
Or “Why are we buying shoes at a thrift store?”
Behind what our kids can see, many of us are first attempting to tend to what financial expert Rachel Cruze calls our “four walls”: Food. Shelter. Utilities. Transportation. And that’s before we pay MasterCard.
We’re attempting to make wise decisions amidst serious stress—and that, Cruze observes, can lead to regret. Fear is a terrible financial adviser, she reminds us.
So before responding to that tween tugging on your sleeve to see the next Marvel movie as soon as theaters reopen—first, sit down for some thoughtful budgeting and financial planning with your spouse.
And then remember the five tips below.
1. Your child takes their cues from you.
It took a gentle nudge from my husband for me to realize that, like a thermostat, I have the power to set the tone in our home through my own reactions. Maybe it’s not unlike adults watching the news: When we see leaders scrambling, we know something’s up.
That’s not to say, Project an image of total calm when you’re stressed—in short, lie. It’s highly likely your kids will face their own painful financial situation one day. This is a chance to model trust and wise planning.
It’s okay to calmly inform kids with an age-appropriate version of, Money is a little tighter right now. We’re trusting God to provide for us like He always has. (Give examples here.) But we’re working to make wise decisions.
2. Help kids see budgeting as a family project.
No, kids may not need to know what you make every year. And they don’t need to be chomping their fingernails over the grocery receipt or whether you can all afford haircuts.
But budgeting can be a family mission.
Recently, my husband explained to our kids that our grocery budget was tipping beyond what felt wise. We have preteens and teenagers, so he explained they may have a few less processed snacks in the cupboard, and we wouldn’t be purchasing pizza as often.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that the kids didn’t blink an eye when I brought home less of a carload from Costco.
Let the kids brainstorm ideas for your family to save and make smart choices for your financial situation. You might even be able to set their mind at ease: No, we won’t need to give up having lunch.
3. Leverage a bit of money wisdom toward your kids’ future.
So explain to kids that you’re strategizing to make smart money choices. Explain that budgeting is like a “money plan.” Talk about simple versions of concepts they need to know: saving, generosity, emergency funds, and child-friendly ideas of not spending more than you earn.
You could even throw in some biblical explanations for how you’ll make decisions:
The Bible talks a lot about planning wisely. So your mom and I are making a money plan, called a budget, so we spend money only in the best places. That means we might not get to do as many of the fun things, but our money will go to the wisest stuff, like paying for our apartment, instead.
It’s important to us to stay out of debt—that’s money we owe someone. The Bible talks about how the person who borrows has to keep serving the person they owe money to [see Proverbs 22:7]. It takes a lot of extra work to pay back money you borrow, because you pay extra money (interest) to borrow it. So that means we might choose not to do that family vacay this year so we don’t have to rely on debt for buying things like groceries.
Instead of just telling our kids, “We can’t afford that,” we aim to communicate, “I know this is important to you! But we have some more important priorities right now.” Because often, if we formed other budgeting priorities (i.e., not paying the mortgage), technically we could afford other things.
4. Keep perspective on money struggles.
Sure, kids in America might not be used to simpler meals, getting nothing for themselves at Target, or skipping going out to eat.
There’s genuine loss to be had—genuine pain our kids will feel as their normal shifts, as a certain brand of wonderful memories and pleasures will be foregone.
But allow me to shed a small amount of global perspective. COVID-19 is predicted to throw nearly half a billion of the world’s population into extreme poverty—living on less than $1.90 per day—setting back the eradication of poverty one to three decades.
Yes, it will be tough for our kids to wear old clothes longer, to say no to elite sports. But our children will eat. They will have shelter and education much of the world would envy.
5. Remember simplicity can be great for kids.
As we shave our budgets, our kids will grow in the gifts of resilience, perseverance, and simplicity.
Because despite the pervasive cultural norm that more things and experiences equal more happiness for our children—what if less for our kids could be more?
Lifestyles of greater simplicity could actually snip our kids’ ties to materialism and finding their identity or life satisfaction in what they have. That lifestyle could grant us more time to spend with our kids. Hand them the gift of hard work rather than entitlement. Release us all from cravings that manipulate us.
Our kids’ challenges have always held the hidden treasures of stamina, of overcoming.
Is it possible that, though the cost of raising a child is high, the possibilities of a slimmer budget could prepare your kids for a more resilient, stronger future?
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.