Subjecting children to voluntary financial discomfort

I read a lot of personal finance blogs. One of my favourite blogs for a long time is Mr Money Mustache. I loved his blog so much that I read every single blog post from the very beginning. Every. Single. Post. This was a few years ago. Recently I thought I might revisit his posts again – from the very beginning.

I came across the term ‘voluntary discomfort’ again, but but it resonated more with me this time around. It is a concept that I currently do with my own children, except I called it ‘manufactured frugality’. Voluntary discomfort sounds so much nicer though.

What exactly is ‘voluntary discomfort’? MMM describes it in this post. Here is my take on the phrase.

Middle-class families in developed countries have luxuries that most people in the developing world can only dream of. In middle-class homes, we have running water, shelter over our heads, food at our convenience, a warm bed, and a relatively safe and peaceful existence. We have mod cons such as an oven, stove top and microwave oven to heat up and cook food. We also have a fridge (or two) and a freezer (or two) to keep things cool and fresh. Many of us have friends and family who nurture our soul.

We essentially have the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs satisfied. Without professing an in-depth knowledge of Maslow’s theory, I consider the lower two levels of needs (physiological and safety) survival needs. These are needs that must be satisfied for us to survive on a daily basis – food, water, shelter, air. The upper two levels of needs (self-esteem and self-actualisation) are what I call self-improvement needs. These higher level needs are not necessary for us to continue to exist, but they are necessary for us to live a fulfilled life. The concept bridging our survival needs with the need to attain fulfilment is the need to feel love and belonging. Without love, we will merely seek to survive for no other purpose. We will not lead a fulfilled life. If we didn’t belong to a group (however that group may be defined) we do not feel a sense of wanting to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

For many middle-class families, the three lower levels of needs are taken for granted and we inevitably pass on this attitude to our children. This is to be expected because if the human race is to advance, every generation should do better than the generation before.

However, when things become too easy for too long, we become complacent. It is often the hardships and failures we face in life that builds resilience and fosters our desire to improve ourselves if we wish to avoid the same hardship in the future. Children are the same – if we continuously ensure our children have an easy and fun-filled existence, they will not grow in their resilience or develop a desire to overcome hardship.

Children in middle-class families are growing up in an environment of luxury that protects them from difficulties in life. Voluntary financial discomfort is one way we create an environment to build our children’s financial resilience and financial wisdom. Unlike real financial hardship, voluntary financial discomfort is embraced with the parent’s love and support. Our children are exposed to financial discomfort but are guided by our wisdom and support as they try to overcome the financial difficulty themselves.

What type of financial discomfort am I referring to?

Different families will have different financial discomforts they can voluntarily adopt. A discomfort for one family may be a luxury for another family. There is not a one-size-fits-all definition of discomfort that applies to all families.

Voluntary financial discomfort
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Here are top 4 areas that any family can adopt an attitude of voluntary financial discomfort.

Voluntary financial discomfort #1: Toys

Many of our children have way too many toys and chances are, the kids have bought very few or none of those toys themselves. Some parents will insist that their children don’t always get what they want. This may be true for requests made at that point in time. But those requested toys often find their way into the children’s toy box eventually. We justify these purchases as birthday gifts, Christmas presents or rewards for good behaviour. Children will learn very quickly that they always get what they want. There is no hardship they need to overcome to get the toys. They simply ask for it and eventually, they will get it. Voluntary financial discomfort imposed over toys, on the other hand, gets a child thinking about whether they really want the item to begin with. They will initially want the toys as they don’t realise the hardship to come. But once they are exposed to the financial discomfort they need to overcome in order to get the item, they will think twice the next time they want to buy a toy.

Voluntary financial discomfort #2: Family holidays

Holidaying with children is expensive. The bigger our brood, the more costly it is to go on family holidays. Yet we can’t argue with the benefits of travelling with our children. Children learn a lot of life skills while travelling and parents also get to experience their second childhood (think Disneyland). There’s also no denying that travelling is a luxury that many can only dream of, mainly due to the cost of travelling with a brood.

Why not ask the children to contribute to the cost of family holidays? Asking them to pay for their own costs will give children an appreciation of how much it costs to have a family vacation. Rather than being jealous of their friends going to exotic places year after year, they will instead be grateful for how hard their parents had to work to pay for the family holiday. They are also likely to appreciate the holiday more as they had to work to pay for their share of the costs.

Voluntary financial discomfort #3: Clothes

Theoretically, children in the age group of 6 to 12 years old shouldn’t need that many clothes. Yet many children have drawers overflowing with clothes. Young children aren’t usually fussy with their clothes. Present them with a limited range and allow them to decide. Tthey will always be happy to choose from that range. As children approach 12 years old though, they start to be more fashion conscious. Asking older children to pay for the additional clothes they want is one way of imposing voluntary financial discomfort on them. If they are asked to pay for additional clothing, they will need to earn their own money. This will make them think twice whether they still want those ‘cute’ shoes.

Voluntary financial discomfort #4: Food

Many of us have an abundance of food. So much that we are actually throwing much of it away because we simply buy too much or cook too much. We also tend to give into our children’s requests for food they like, especially if they don’t seem to eat much of any other food (we wouldn’t want them to starve). We also give our children way too much junk food. Voluntary financial discomfort over food involves rationing food – all kinds of food – the healthy and the unhealthy. For healthy food, work out what your family needs and once the ration of nice food has run out, the children will simply have to eat something else. For unhealthy food (such as junk food) ask the children to pay for their own junk food. This will make them think twice over wanting junk food in the future.

What area of your children’s spending have you adopted voluntary financial discomfort? Share with us in the comments.