October 23, 2022

How to Explain Needs vs Wants to Children

As parents, we're responsible for covering our children's needs like water, clothing, a roof over their head, and food. When the time comes to explain the essentials of needs vs. wants, it can be challenging, but not impossible.

Today as a working mother who promotes family products and services online as a profession, I made sure my children understood the difference between needs and wants early on. Here’s how:

Set rules and stick to them.

When the kids and I go out to buy something, we set rules ahead of time: 1) Always prioritize needs over wants, 2) we agree on whether they can buy something or not, and 3) what the purpose of the shopping trip is. That helps minimize them going around and picking up random things to buy. 

Kids will be kids, though, and they will almost always find something they really want. That's what wishlists are for! We take a photo of the item and link it to events where they receive gifts like their birthday, Christmas, or Eid. This gives them a chance to really think about if they need or want it, and with time they either forget about it, decide they don’t want it anymore, or they still feel they would like to get it.

Tantrums will happen, especially with younger ones. I’m now experiencing them with Zaid, my 4-year-old.

The key is to stick to your rules and communicate with them before, during, and after the trip.

I know it’s difficult, but no matter what you do, don’t offer alternatives and don’t give in. With time, they will learn, and it will get easier - promise!

Reframe their relationship with money.

My 7-year-old son Laith always spends his money but still feels that it’s a waste, even if it's on needs. My 10-year-old daughter Farah, on the other hand, saves her money and doesn’t want to spend any of it. I explain that there are certain things we “need” to spend our money on and that it’s okay and not a waste, and spending money on wants is okay. It’s important for kids to connect that idea early on.

It's useful to also discuss what is expensive and what is affordable. Saying something is “expensive” is an easy go-to excuse to not buy something and it doesn’t take wants vs. needs into consideration. I prefer asking them: Can you afford it? Not everything is expensive, but we need to first buy the things we need” and everything else is extra if we can afford it. 

Sima Najjar with her children Farah, Laith, and Zaid.

Explore what's influencing their spending decisions.

You probably find yourself trying to understand why your child “needs” a million PAW Patrol toys. The fact of the matter is that there are so many external influencers that push them to want to buy things, which is why it’s a good idea to explore that with them. An easy way is to ask: Is it because your friend bought them, or is it because you really need or want them? Once we are aware of the reason they want to buy something, then we can start knowing how to manage the situation.

With time, Farah started understanding that she’s sometimes influenced by her friends to buy things.

Recently, her friend started doing gymnastics, and she wanted to pursue it as well. I was so proud of her when she decided that instead of going straight to the place her friend goes to, she wanted to look at all the places that offered it before making her decision.

Walk them through their decision-making process.

We can’t get rid of all influences, unfortunately. Laith is most influenced by YouTube. Everything he sees on there he wants, and soon enough, his siblings to want the same. I still explain that ads are paid, and that even I get paid to sell and market things online. 

To help them make better decisions, we go through the process of how they decide to buy something they want together.

We look at the comments on Amazon and then decide if we want to buy the item or not. That will help them realize that we don’t just buy things because we want them, we should ask ourselves if they are needs or wants and research to be sure of the quality and other details.

Give them their own money to manage.

When we go out shopping, they have their own money to spend from. It makes them more aware of prices and teaches them to assess what they need and what they want. I leave the decision up to them, and if they run out of money or end up buying something silly that doesn’t last, that’s a lesson they won’t forget.

Allowances are key to help them budget and start making smarter money decisions.

There are so many things that influence children to spend money these days, and because their needs are met by their parents, it can seem a little challenging to explain needs vs. wants to them. The key is to start early and communicate clearly. Money can be a vague idea to them, which is also why it’s important to give them an allowance and the budgeting tools for them to learn from. And if you stick to your rules, you will help them become smarter with money in no time. 

By Sima Najjar - Entrepreneur, Writer, and Social Media Influencer

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