See It, Want It, Buy It!

The Proven Method To Teach Kids (And Adults) Impulse Control Without Losing Your Sanity In The Process

Every parent dreads the grocery store candy gauntlet of the checkout aisle. It’s like an episode of American Ninja except you are negotiating the gauntlet with a toddler, a pre-K, and a cart full of groceries. You know you’re going to have to deal with the persistent nagging the moment your child sees the candy. Immediately they go into what I call the see it, want it, buy it mode.

The impulse buy is the marketer’s mission. Amazon’s “Epic Daily Deal’’ screams at us to buy it NOW at this great low price, or forever regret your dithering. Just last week I went to IKEA to replace two broken green plates from my dishware set, a shopping trip that should have cost me six dollars. At checkout I shelled out $57 to cover the perfect plant stand for my porch that I didn’t know I needed before I saw it on display.

Excuse me, but haven’t I earned the right to impulse buy when I want to?

The crucial question is, can we walk away without buying, and how do we learn that? How do we teach that to our kids?

Marketers target kids not because they have money to spend, but because kids are natural negotiators. They plead, whine, bargain, and rationalize until Mom and Dad shell out for what they want right this minute. The marketing bombardment begins innocently enough; it’s just a candy bar, or a fidget spinner. But the candy bar clamor becomes Lego longing, then it’s video games, branded clothes and the newest electronics.

There is always something else to want. How do you teach kids to make good choices and resist temptation?

The See It, Want It, Buy It Method To Teach Kids Impulse Control

We did not buy ‘stuff’ for our kids, except for a birthday gift and a Christmas gift. Since the kids knew this was how it was done in our family, they didn’t pester us to buy them anything. They bought their own stuff with a small allowance and some birthday gift money. They could make their own choices, AFTER the “see it, want it, buy it” interval had elapsed. The expanding Lego collection was often held up by this decree.

When Jake and Sam were about 6 and 10 years old, they would pour over Lego magazines for days, trying to decide between the huge pirate ship or Star Wars set. When they announced they wanted to order the Medieval Castle that came with a working trebuchet for $78 dollars, we initiated the two-week cooling off period. If they still longed for it after two weeks, and if they had the money, they could buy it.

This was our shopping strategy, too. Walmart puts toys in the grocery section for a reason.

On one shopping trip the kids saw Nerf Guns that they wanted right that minute. I reminded them we would not do the “see it, want it, buy it” purchase. If they still wanted it in two weeks, we would come back and make the purchase.

The return trip to the store was worth the effort; there were many times that the kids changed their minds about something they wanted. Most often that two weeks only cemented their desire for that toy. By waiting two weeks, they had a chance to decide if that toy they pined after was something they really wanted to spend their money on. More importantly, the wait fostered the important virtue of delayed gratification.

This two-week waiting strategy effectively teaches delayed gratification in a way that encourages thoughtful discussion and consideration, and is a powerful tool for more than purchases. Christine was seven when she begged me to cut her long satiny blond curls off; just thinking about it made me want to cry. We talked about why this was important to her. Even though I wished I had hair like hers, ultimately it was her hair, not mine. I asked her to discuss it with her dad, write down her reasons in her journal, and give herself two weeks to make sure she wanted her hair short. Two weeks later we celebrated Christine’s choice with a hair-cutting party.

Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash

The Needs And Wants of Teenagers

Our cash outlay for what our kids needed grew as they grew. Christine, Jake and Sam bought their own toys, but we took care of the necessities. We had to come up with some creative strategies when it came to clothes and shoes for teenagers.

Christine was delighted with cool finds from local resale shops; she could hit the jackpot at Goodwill for the same money she spent on one shirt at the mall, and often found used items in name brands at resale shops that she couldn’t have afforded otherwise. Jake, on the other hand, was happy to pull on a clean t-shirt and jeans. He had his favorites and didn’t need more. Our youngest son, though, had specific wants.

“Wants” is the keyword; the difference between wants and needs can be blurry, depending on your perspective. At 13, Sam was already brand-conscious; he thought he “needed” Nike high-tops at a price far more than we wanted to spend on a pair of shoes. Sam was also persuasive — a freakishly talented debater.

I bought myself two weeks of peace with the “see it, want it, buy it” two-week cooling off period.

He started badgering me as soon as the waiting time was up, but I was ready to make a deal. I told him I would pay $50 towards the purchase of shoes. He would pay anything over $50, and could choose whatever he wanted.

I’ll never forget that shoe-shopping expedition. In 1998, before the days of upscale sneaker shops like Undefeated, we spent two hours at Foot Locker in the mall. As he walked in the entrance my son zeroed in on a young sales associate dressed in the coolest high-tops. Sam has the admirable quality of being able to engage almost anyone in an interesting conversation, a skill he was honing as a kid and is capitalizing on now in his career.

Sam asked the salesperson what shoes he liked best, and why. The two of them, instant cohorts, discussed style, fit, and how dirty they would get if they were nubuck versus leather, or grey, black, white, or red. Most importantly, how COOL they were. Oh yes, and how much each pair cost.

He tried on a dozen pairs. We were surrounded by multiple open boxes of possibles when he decided on a white leather pair with a red Nike emblem and a sticker price of $95.00. I handed him $50 cash, and Sam strutted up to the register with his coveted prize.

I certainly could have bought the shoes for him, but I would have robbed him of the responsibility he had for a decision that involved the layout of his own cash.

Kids who learn to delay gratification make better choices with money as adults. Now, at 25 years old, Sam earns more money at his job than I have ever earned. He also has more shoes than I have.

Parental Tip: Candy in the check-out aisle is a pragmatic metaphor for parents. Don’t start what you don’t want to continue. If you never buy candy from the check-out aisle with your kids in tow, they won’t expect it. And it’s never too late to start a new routine.

For more information on how to teach your kids to save, get the free Smart Money Kids guide.

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