A 3-year-old’s Lesson in Spending

My 3-year-old's Lesson in Spending
The car my 3-year-old bought, and then realized it was a mistake.

Last week my 3-year-old walked up and handed me his little car, “I’m ready to give this to Ari,” he declared.  (Ari is the grandson of our next-door neighbor.  When my 3-year-old outgrows his clothes or toys, we pass them along to Ari.)


“Are you sure?” I asked.


“Yes.  I don’t like it any more.  I shouldn’t have bought it.  It was a waste of money,” he replied.  And when he said that my heart lit up.


It’s not that I’m happy that my son bought something he didn’t like.  It’s not that I want him to waste his money on toys that he only plays with for a single day and then wants to get rid of.  It’s certainly not that I want more cheap toys to end up in a landfill somewhere.  But in my 3-year-old’s words, I hear that he learned a lesson.


You see, a couple weeks ago my two boys joined their dad on a trip to the auto parts store.  My husband needed to pick up a part to fix our truck, and my boys joined him on the excursion.  While waiting for a part to be tested, they walked around and looked at the various things in the store.


My 3-year-old latched on to that little car and asked his dad to buy it.  My husband said, “No,” and relayed all of the reasons why he wasn’t going to purchase the car: we already have toy cars at home, it was cheaply made, it was overpriced, and so on.


At this point my 8-year-old stepped in and reminded my husband that my 3-year-old had enough money at home to buy the car.  So, my 3-year-old bought the car with his own money (well, my husband paid for it, and then my 3-year-old paid him back after they got home).


My 3-year-old played with the car for the rest of the afternoon.  After that, I didn’t see it again until we were cleaning up his space a couple weeks later.  As we were sorting through some of the art projects that had accumulated in a pile on his shelf [similar to THIS sorting endeavor], he came upon the car and made the announcement that he was ready to give it away.


So why did his announcement make me feel good?  The whole reason my 3-year-old has money at such a young age is to start to learn how to use it.  And part of learning how to use money is to make mistakes with it.


I want my boys to make their mistakes with money now, when they’re young and the stakes are low.  I want them to learn how to delay gratification and save for things they really want.  I want them to learn to evaluate purchases and how to decide whether any particular item or experience is a good use of their limited funds.  I want them to have to make trade-offs between their various desires.


And all of this needs to happen before they move out of my house.  They need to have a positive relationship with money before credit card offers start piling up in their mailboxes.  So we’re starting now, when they’re young.


My goal is to raise kids who function independently, who know how to cook, clean, sew, do laundry, manage their money, and — of course — many other things.  And while I’m certain that my 3-year-old has many money mistakes ahead of him, I also know that he’s paying attention and that he’s learning.  And I am satisfied.



How do you interact with your children surrounding money?  Do you let your kids make their own financial decisions?

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