Back-to-school needs and wants

Before you hit the back-to-school sales, consider this simple trick to help your child learn a key financial lesson.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an editor, but the one thing I’ve noticed parents seem to universally correct their children on is the use of the word can as opposed to may. “Mommy, can I go to Johnny’s?” comes the plea and the response is, “I dunno, can you?” followed by the child’s exaggerated eye-roll and revised query, “May I go to Johnny’s?” It’s corny but it works — kids eventually do remember the difference between the two.

So, with back-to-school and the inevitable seasonal stock-up on the horizon, I’m planning to take a similar approach with my nine-year-old son Adam when it comes to the words need and want. “I need a new backpack!” Hmm, let’s see — is your old one broken or on the verge of collapse? No? I guess that means you want a new bag but don’t really need one. “I need new runners!” Are the old ones worn out or ill-fitting? I see that they are, so yes, I’d say you really do need new shoes.

Unlike the can/may scenario, which boils down to semantics and grammar, the ability to distinguish between needs and wants is a critical financial skill that will help your child in the future. While your buying decision may not change either way — depending on your budget, the backpack may end up in the shopping cart regardless of whether it’s a need or a want — you are providing your kids with the tools they will eventually need to budget their own money. How can they prioritize needs over wants if they can’t tell the difference?

It’s a lesson best started young, since it can become trickier to know which is which as kids mature and their needs/wants become more sophisticated. Is a mobile phone a need? Perhaps it is for some, but not for others. Yes, you need new running shoes, but you want the latest flavour of Nike Airs or Sketchers. (Again, not saying you can’t or shouldn’t buy your kid the “in” shoes if you can afford them — my parents bought ’em for me back when these Tretorns  ruled the day. But you and your child should be aware of the fact that it’s a splurge.)

I’ll give you an update on how Adam and I make out on the need/want lesson in a future post. And if you try something similar with your kids, let us know how it goes!


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada).

About the Author

Tamar Satov

Managing Editor, CPA magazine
Tamar is a journalist specializing in business, parenting and personal finance. She blogs regularly in this space with advice and anecdotes on her efforts to raise a money-smart kid.