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Should You Tell Your Kids You’re Broke?

Should You Tell Your Kids You're Broke?
By Erickka Sy Savané
“Can we go see ‘The Lion King’?!” asked my five-year-old daughter, while getting dressed for school. It’s a question that comes up every morning when they start showing these Broadway theater advertisements. Yesterday it was ‘Cinderella.’ Usually I tell her that we’ll be going soon, but today I just wanna be honest. “We don’t have the money.”

She looks at me like, not that again, we never have any money. I want to say something comforting, but the truth is, money has been tight and a lot of those fun things we used to do when money was more plentiful have been put on hold. The money issue is being addressed, but sometimes we’ve been good to put three square ones on the table a day. It’s a reality that I would like to shield her from because while I want her to know that money is necessary to do and buy things, I don’t want her to start feeling poor, that without money she can’t have a life. It’s a concept that I’m still coming to terms with as an adult. One that started when I was young and saw my mother struggling to make ends meet.
So I have a real question about how to deal with my daughter during this challenging financial time. Do I tell her when I don’t have money for things or do I just say “No, because I said so,” like my mom did me? 
It’s a question I pose to my girl Milla during a play date. Milla is originally from Hungary and off of one paycheck, holds down a family that consists of her unemployed husband, two kids–ages four and seven–her hubby’s out-of-work brother, and two-year-old niece. She is never NOT broke. What does she tell the kids?

“Just last week I bought them some new clothes and didn’t realize that I had dipped into our grocery money. So I explained to them that milk for cereal was more important and I took the stuff back. It’s important that they know it takes time to buy things. That’s why I give them money for chores. Even if it’s making their beds and brushing their teeth. I want them to know the value of money.”

On one hand I get that it’s important to teach kids that money doesn’t grow on trees, but is seven and four-years-old too early to start earning their keep? What if they start wanting to be paid for everything? “Look ma, I wiped my a*s. Where’s my $5?”
Perhaps it’s wisdom from someone older that I seek. I call my friend PaMela who I know from a California Goddess group. She’s got four grown kids and from prior conversations I know she went through it.
During the toughest times, what did she tell the kids?

“Well, there were times when I had to tell them that we couldn’t afford a tree or presents for Christmas, but we would eat well. That was my motto. As long as they didn’t go to bed hungry…During those crucial times when our lights got turned off I told them that no one knows our situation unless you tell them, so always keep your head up.” 

The good news is the kids didn’t get too scarred because they’re all doing well. Two own their own Daycare businesses, one is a news anchor on the number 1 news channel in Hartford, Connecticut and one is a cable tech.

Okay, perhaps I’m making too much of this. It sucks to be strapped for money, but nobody is dying. The kids always have something to eat and they will survive me having to tell them no for a while. Sometimes I’ll explain that the reason is money, other times they won’t get the details. When I really think about it, a lot of times money isn’t the only reason I say no. Sometimes what they want isn’t necessary.
Once again, this is less about them and more about my insecurities around money and how it starts making me feel like my wealth as a mom is dependent on how much I can spend. It’s not true. PaMela shared a story about how they huddled around a candle and played cards when the lights got shut off. Far be it from me to romanticize the situation, but it sounded like it brought them closer together as a family. Maybe this is an opportunity to get creative and do some things we wouldn’t normally do. Funny, because just the other day I pulled out a deck of cards.
Game of Fish anyone?

This article appeared on

Do you believe in telling kids you’re broke?
Should You Tell Your Kids You're Broke?

Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in,,, and more. When she’s not writing…wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or

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