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Spending on kids: Why it helps to say no

It’s understandable why you may be tempted to overspend on your child, whether it’s something you want for them, like private tennis lessons, or something they’re craving, like trendy clothes or the latest electronics. But when we say yes today, it’s important to remember that there are always trade- offs. Could what you’re spending now, without a plan or a limit, do lasting harm to your own financial future—or hinder your ability to do something more meaningful for your family tomorrow?

“We fall into the trap of spending on material things or extracurricular activities because it’s easy to say, ‘This is how we live our life,’ without thinking about how it all fits into our larger financial picture,” says Chris Vale, senior vice president of products and solutions at Merrill Edge. “Discretionary expenses on what we ‘want,’ like a subscription to a premium cable TV channel, can quickly turn into what we consider ‘needs’ that are hard to let go.”

Plan your spending with the long term in mind

To avoid that trap and find reasonable spending limits, it’s always helpful to consider your most important long-term goals. In fact, there is no better motivator than the reality of missing out on something truly important for the entire family because you made the wrong impulse buy for your kids today. Take retirement: The average American family may spend as much as $245,000 to raise a child through high school. Yet the average retirement can cost three times that amount, which is something most people don’t realize, according to the 2017 Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study on retirement trends. That’s the kind of reality gap that really reinforces the need to establish a smarter family-spending strategy.

“Are you willing to pay for extra hockey ice time, but you aren’t paying for life insurance?” asks Vale. Keep in mind that providing financial stability for your whole family is one of the most important things you can do for your children and yourself. Before spending more on “wants,” consider these financial moves that may be essential for all of you:

  • Safeguard your family with an emergency fund that will be there when any of you need it. By helping you meet unexpected expenses or tide the family over if household income temporarily drops, this fund can be a crucial first line of financial defense. Experts recommend keeping three to nine months of expenses on hand, depending on your circumstances.
  • Boost the family budget by paying down credit cards and other high-interest debt. You can free up cash for both short- and long-term needs of children and parents if you can avoid paying the higher interest rates credit cards typically charge. Attack those card balances first, before moving on to lower-interest auto, home and student loans.
  • Take full advantage of a retirement fund match, if your employer offers one. Also, making the maximum pre-tax contribution can help keep you on track for retirement, depending on your age and financial circumstances. Your financial independence in retirement may mean a lot to your kids later on.
  • Contribute as much as you can to your kids’ college accounts. By doing so now, you might minimize the financial pressures later, when you could be less able or willing to shoulder their tuition and living expenses.
  • Have enough life insurance to support your household’s needs. Nothing could be more important to your children’s future than to ensure that you’ll be able to replace the financial contributions of your family’s breadwinners.

Set a spending plan that motivates the entire family

Once you’ve established these financial building blocks for your family, you may want to start funding other savings priorities, like a family trip or a pool. Like any great plan, it’s going to work better if you have shared it and have buy-in from everyone involved. So bring your family together to discuss the household budget in detail, select key spending priorities and set short- and long-term savings goals. Document those goals and post them on the fridge or somewhere everyone can see them. It’s all about staying on track, and it will help set up more and more moments when the best answer for your family’s financial future is a confident “yes.”

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The material provided on this website is for informational use only and is not intended for financial, tax or investment advice. Bank of America and/or its affiliates, and Khan Academy, assume no liability for any loss or damage resulting from one’s reliance on the material provided. Please also note that such material is not updated regularly and that some of the information may not therefore be current. Consult with your own financial professional and tax advisor when making decisions regarding your financial situation.

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