Why You Should Never Say I Can’t Afford It To Your Kids

Can’t afford that fancy camera your teenager has been lusting over for months? There’s no shame in that. Even wealthy people budget.

But you might want to think twice before you use the phrase, “I can’t afford it,” with your child. No, I’m not suggesting you LIE to your child. I’m saying you should use the opportunity to educate your child about managing finances and the value of a work ethic.

Think about the phrase: “I can’t afford it.” Basically you’re saying “Poor me.” It’s a phrase that has you casting you (and your child by proxy) as the victim. It’s asking for pity–even if you aren’t conscious of this fact–and it opens you up to a lecture by your child on how to better manage your money (maybe if you and Dad don’t buy takeout so often, you could afford that doll I’ve been wanting so bad).

“Can’t Afford” Conveys Negativity

Also, taking the easy way out and saying, “I can’t afford it,” tends to convey to your child that you’re bitter about your financial situation. It says you’re not happy with what you have. It implies you have emotional issues with money. Even if that’s not what you mean, it’s what that phrase says to your child.

“Can’t Afford” Conveys Passivity

In admitting you can’t afford something, you have put yourself in a passive position. You have no control over your own destiny. Things are beyond your control.

Making the choice not to purchase this or that item changes things and put you back in the driver’s seat, as an active participant in how you live your own life. The amount of money in your wallet doesn’t rule you, rather you rule by taking responsibility for how you spend what you have. If you choose to spend your money on rent rather than on that iPad your child so desires, you will feel empowered rather than victimized by your finances.

“Can’t Afford” Invites Advice

The next time someone says to you, “I can’t afford it,” note your response. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to come up with helpful advice. You may even find yourself judging that person. Maybe if you’d lay off the potato chips, you might think or even say out loud, you’d be able to afford the lean protein you need to lose weight, or, maybe if you’d get up off the couch and start a business, mow lawns in the neighborhood, you’d save enough money to pay for that trip to India.

If, on the other hand, your friend says to you, “I’d rather have potato chips once a day than rare steak once a week,” you don’t have a need to say anything. Your friend is an adult. S/he has made a choice. It’s his/her responsibility. End of story.

By making a choice on how to spend your money, you keep others from analyzing your budget and telling you how you might better prioritize your spending. That would include your kids (important point here: kids should not be giving parents advice on their finances–that’s impudent). You’ve made a choice. There’s no problem for anyone to solve.

What You Should Say

So you don’t want to say, “I can’t afford it.” What do you want to say? Let’s look at a few examples:

There’s a dress sale at a store you really love. You take an active role in your finances by announcing your choice: “I don’t want to spend money on dresses right now,” as opposed to, “I can’t afford a new dress right now, even on sale.”

You can say, “A new dress is not a financial priority at this point,” or, “New clothing hasn’t been budgeted this quarter.”

Or you might even describe the alternatives you discarded in making your choice: “It would have been nice to tour New England, but I’d rather put that money toward your college fund.”

How does this work age wise? Here is where it gets a bit tricky.Toddler asking, you can't afford to always say yes

With a toddler, for instance, you don’t want to talk about finances and choices. Rather, you want to offer firm limits. “Just say no” would apply here very nicely, said in a matter of fact tone. Don’t explain. Don’t apologize. Don’t use a harsh tone. There’s no need for any of that. Just lay down the law. You are teaching your toddler that sometimes the answer is no.

A child between the ages of 3-8 years is old enough to ask why, which can be a trap. You don’t want to go into a longwinded explanation that gives the child an opportunity to argue (or advise, see above). It’s enough to say, “This isn’t a priority item,” or, “That’s not in this week’s budget,” and then HOLD YOUR GROUND.

Please. Can we afford this?


Can't afford this. No.

Older children or teens have reached the point where they can understand financial planning and responsibility. This is the ideal time to flesh out the explanations so they begin to see the way smart people manage their purchasing power. Let’s say your child asks for something beyond your means. Instead of saying, “I can’t afford that,” you might say, “That’s more than I’m willing to spend,” or even, “If you can find it at a better price, I might be willing to buy this for you.”

The other day, for instance, one of my teenagers begged to go to a certain Jewish summer camp. I explained that while the camp grounds were gorgeous and the activities offered sounded amazing, his father and I had not budgeted for camp this summer. Then I suggested he look into camp scholarships. It was something he hadn’t thought about. He actually thanked me!

When you listen and consider and issue your decisions you’re teaching your child to do the same: to consider how much money he has in relation to wants and needs. This is an important part of your child’s education. You’re teaching your child not to buy on impulse, but to weigh all choices and stay focused on the goal and staying within one’s means.

Healthy Personal Choices

You’re demonstrating for your children what it means to have a healthy respect for money and that discipline and limits can be healthy personal choices. It’s okay to have chicken instead of steak. It’s okay to wait to buy that dress until the summer, when you don’t have to pay school tuition.

Nothing dire is going to happen as a result of any of these choices. You’re not suffering. You have everything you need. Planning and budgeting?

These are things that normal people do.

And you?

You’re normal.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Smarter Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

Reader Interactions


  1. s says

    While this might be great for some people, there are actually families out there that “can’t afford it.” Can’t afford to eat much, or anything other. Just because you say that you can’t afford it, doesn’t mean you can’t down the line. When I tell my kiddos that we can’t afford it, I just say, we can’t afford it right now. Let’s plan for this down the road or we might be able to do this later on.

    The statement alone is not wrong as long as it is backed up.

    • Varda Epstein says

      I think this may be missing the point. There is a better way to express this: “We haven’t budgeted for this item this month,” expresses a choice, and the idea that we are in control of our finances. You want to give kids the idea that a purchase is a choice. You don’t want to give them the idea that you’re helpless. Like you said, it’s fine to say, “We can plan to purchase this at a different time.” Just don’t make kids think that parents are helpless/out of control. It’s not a good notion to put in their heads. It makes them feel insecure. It makes them feel you’ve made poor choices.

  2. Pat says

    This is a great article and it I think it’s relevant even if you don’t have kids. I am thinking about having kids, but I have student loans, so it makes me wary. Kids don’t need every gadget. They just need love and support. But, I know I’ll have a desire to want to buy them anything they ask for. However, this is a way to help them be okay with having enough. I do have enough now. I can afford what I need, but yes, I definitely would like to work more on this personally before my insecurities get imparted on a tiny human.

    • Varda Epstein says

      I hear you. It is so hard to not give them everything. Even though it’s the wrong thing to give them everything. Good luck getting those loans paid off. I suspect you’ll be a wonderful parent, Pat!

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