One of the hardest morals to teach children is: buy things that bring YOU joy, not because thing(s) are popular and it seems like everyone around you has it.
Said another way, many people spend their money on things that are popular for a spell but add little long-term value to their life. Fidget spinners, collectible card games, expensive trucks not actually used for hauling things, and stylish electronics (apple watches, anyone?) are some examples that quickly come to my mind.
But of all the popular things I’ve bought, I’ve most regretted buying a place mat back when I was in fourth grade.
A. place. mat.
I bought this place mat at an annual harvest festival and dance hosted by a local Buddhist temple. Although I’m not Buddhist or Asian, I grew up in a predominantly-Asian state with a culture that was welcoming to all. It was natural for me to consume a scoop of white rice served in my daily public school lunches. I didn’t own a kimono, but neither did most of the community, so most of my classmates and I went to the popular festival wearing shorts and a t-shirt. We didn’t know the traditional dances, but we enjoyed eating delicious food and shopping the colorful wares sold at the temple during the festival.
My parents don’t like noisy, crowded events like this festival, so they never went. Since I still wanted to go anyway, I was expected–as always–to save up my own money and find my own way to the event.
The festival was only a couple of miles uphill from my street, so it wasn’t hard to get to by bike. But in my young mind, riding in an air-conditioned car beats an uphill bike ride in tropical weather. One year, the next door neighbors (a family with three kids, including one my age) had an extra seat in the new family van, so they invited me to ride with them to the festival that year. I happily accepted.
Most of that evening went the way I wanted. I ate delicious fried noodles, accepted a couple of andagi from the gigantic batch the neighbors bought, and I enjoyed people watching both on and off the dance floor. The girl my age had met up with two of her friends (my classmates) at the event, and announced to me and her family that the three girls were going to look at the colorful wares sold inside the temple. I tagged along with them as the fourth girl in the group.
In the temple, one of the girls–the most popular girl in our grade at school–found a place mat design that she loved and really, really, really wanted to buy. But she couldn’t afford the single place mat with the money she had left after who knows what she already bought. The place mats were cheaper when sold in a set of four, and there were four of us girls shopping together. So yes, I bought a place mat because it was the popular thing to do in that moment.
And regrettably, I only enjoyed it for that moment.
So how could I have avoided this mistake?
Option #1: walk away. So easy to say, and yet so hard to do. I failed at doing this over and over and over again. I didn’t walk away from buying a place mat.
Option #2: make an excuse. I could’ve told the girls that I wanted to buy something else instead. If I tried this method, I likely would’ve walked away with a place mat anyway. Peer pressure is much stronger than individual desire, after all.
Option #3: “purchase” something else. Also known as saving money for the things you and I really want to have.
The three options aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, I should’ve chosen all three options. I should’ve walked away from the situation because my excuse was to buy something else I actually wanted.
When I was in the middle of deciding on a place mat I didn’t actually want, I noticed a much nicer silk print hanging on the wall, in a design I loved, for a price I could afford. With 20/20 hind sight, I should’ve told the other girls that I wanted the hanging silk print instead, and backed up my words by actually buying that print.
While I unfortunately bought a place mat, I see that it was a fortunate way to learn a moral. Place mats are a lot cheaper than apple watches and trucks. While I did waste my money on a place mat, I listened to my heart and paid attention to my emotions after I bought the place mat, and recognized how much I regretted buying that place mat.
So you can tell your kids that they can always take Option #3. But lets be honest, kids don’t listen to their parents the first time. Or the second time. Or the few hundred times after that.
How do you help your kids learn this lesson? By discussing their purchases with them again and again, and turning it into an ongoing conversation, not just a question or an event.
Let’s say your kid went with you to the mall and bought a toy with their own money. An hour after they made the purchase, ask them if they’re enjoying it. A day after they made the purchase, ask them if they’re enjoying it. A week after they got the toy, ask them if they’re enjoying it. If a kid bought something that truly brings them joy, they’ll take the time to show you how joyful it is, whether that’s by telling you in so many words, or acting like they didn’t hear you because they’re engrossed in their purchase. If a kid bought something that wasn’t that joyful, you’ll soon realize that the kid has either literally moved on by playing with something else, or expressing desire for something else.
Every time your kid answers your question, turn it into a longer conversation (not a lecture) about why or why not they’re enjoying their purchase. Help your kid recognize how (un)important that purchase really was. Take the conversation further by asking them how they would decide on purchase in the future, based on the conclusions they just made in your conversation.
Another way to turn a purchase into a conversation is by playing a game of “remember when.” Remember when furbies were popular? How about Beyblades? When was the last time you thought about or played with either? Let your kids realize that it’s been so long that those things don’t matter anymore. Let them realize that something they once thought was “REALLY COOL” is now “REALLY LAME.”
This way, if your kid bought a stupid place mat, they’ll remember the event, and use the “lesson learned” in future purchases.