Don’t make money memories unhappy ones

Associating costs with anger is a bad idea and can have lasting effects on children

Illustration by Gary Clement
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What one word can destroy the wonderful thing you’ve been planning, saving for, and figuring out for the longest time? Money.

I don’t mean the amount and how you’re going to pay — I mean merely uttering the word. The way you say it, the context, and why you bring it up can create money memories that will affect your loved ones for a long time — perhaps even for life.

Many of our financial behaviours are influenced by our past experiences with money, especially during early childhood. While it is important to talk about money, it’s detrimental to bring it up as a loaded, emotionally draining word.

Here is an example of what I mean: you have been busting a gut bringing together the elements needed to create a most wonderful experience for a family summer holiday. You spend energy thinking of an idea for a memorable trip and time organising the logistics to make it happen, and then shell out the money to pay for it.

You plan something, probably late at night, making sure to consider what they want, what they like, what they won’t do and what they will roll their eyes at. You’ve maxed out your energy and tolerance.

The little sleep you had was punctured with way too many ‘my brain is awake and won’t let me sleep’ moments where you’re remembering things to pack and realising potential conflicts — whether in the way of dates, personalities or time zones.

You add up the real cost, not the theoretical budget you had put together. Then you clock how many hours it took to arrange so far — hours you’ll never get back.

Then someone you’re doing this for says or does something that breaks you. It could be something like siblings picking on each other or you walking in on a mess. Your reaction is disproportionate to the perceived offence. Then you add the cherry on top and say: “do you know how much this is costing me?!” in reference to the big trip you’ve been planning.

Another example could be that the (expensive) thing you agonised over choosing as a special gift for your child is damaged through pure carelessness. Once again you lash out with “that cost a lot of money!” as a primary consideration.

Yes, it is important that children know things don’t simply magic themselves into existence. They should understand what it takes to make it happen, including a feel for cost or opportunity cost (meaning ‘if we do this, then we can’t do that’).

It’s all in the way you say it. Money being a default association with anger or things going wrong is a huge no-no. It is important for our young ones to understand that we can’t do or provide everything, and that they are part of that decision-making process.

Do this: carry around an index card or a little notebook for a week, and write down every time you bring money up in a way that is emotionally loaded and negative. Then spend time figuring out how you can change this.

Instead of referencing money and cost when not wanting a child to wreck something, reframe the conversation so it is about them not being able to do or use that thing. Ask how they would feel and what it means to them if it were to be broken or unsafe to use.

Then, by all means, throw in the cost element. But calmly, and perhaps in the context of how long it would take for your child to save up for it if it were to be damaged. If they do their part in looking after things, they last longer, and you get more time and money to do the things you love.

Yes, it’s simplistic. Sometimes simple sticks, and reminds us all of purpose — not just paying for things. Make your family’s money memories part of the good times too.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on