A fellow personal finance blogger, who I deeply respect and admire, recently asked me how I help my children embrace the concept of owning less. She specifically asked how I talk to my children about “not needing everything that everyone else has just because you don’t have it.” 

I thought long and hard about this question and decided to send her a list of the steps I take to help my children embrace minimalism and reject consumerism.

I desperately want my children to think carefully about their buying decisions. I hope this will prevent them from turning into adults who mindlessly spend their money. I want them to understand that buying one thing today might mean not buying something tomorrow. I also want them to understand that when searching for joy in life you often don’t have to spend any money at all.

I spent much of my lifetime thinking about frugality in terms of lacking and deprivation where I should have thought about it more in terms of wise decision making. Rather than thinking I can’t afford something I now see it as I’m choosing not to buy it. I’m trying to teach my children to focus on the same.

So how do I teach my children to value what they have rather than constantly dreaming of wanting more?

First, I talk to my children a lot about the value of an item they want to buy. Rather than starting the conversation from a monetary perspective I begin by talking about joy. For example, do you feel joyful, or do you think you will feel joyful, when you play with this toy?

How exactly does this work? Well I start with toys my kids already own. My children and I review their toy stash every month. We look at all of the toys on the shelf and I ask; “Are you playing with this?” “When was the last time you played with it?” and “How did you play with it?”

The last question focuses on whether or not the toy can be played with in multiple ways. For example, blocks can be used to build a bank, an airport or a track for cars. Many multi-dimensional toys lead to greater creativity and greater joy.

I ask “Is this toy fun to play with?” and/or “Does your brother like to play this with you?” We may talk in detail about how the kids played with a certain toy and I make certain to point out how those train tracks were super fun to build in new and exciting ways, but that remote control car was boring after a few trips around the basement.

I hope that these conversations will help my children make better buying decisions in the future.

After the initial toy walk-through we weed out the toys my children don’t play with. My children sort the toys themselves, but we review each item before boxing them or taking them away. After loading the car, (I usually ask my oldest to help me with this task), my children drive to the donation center with me so they can see their toys being given away.

Sometimes I take unwanted toys to a consignment shop. I talk to my seven year old explicitly about how much we paid for each toy and what we could sell it for now. Most of the time his toys are worthless, but I want him to recognize that a grandparent, aunt or uncle may have paid $20 for a toy that we are now giving away. If it sells at the consignment store we talk about how much it sold for and he figures out the difference between what we paid and how much we recouped. He is aware that we never sell a toy for more than we bought it for.

Then we talk about better ways we could spend our money in the future to prevent wasting it or things we could do as a family that don’t cost any money at all.

We have similar conversations when we return home from a friends house. If we come home and my kids say “I really want ‘x'” then we talk about how often they would play with that toy and whether or not they have a similar toy that would work just as well. We also discuss imaginative play and try to figure out how we can invent our own version of that toy or play an imaginary game that would produce the same feeling of joy they felt at a friend’s house.

I often redirect conversations to free play. If you ask my children about their favorite games they’ll mention playing lava, which involves jumping on cushions and pillows to avoid touching the ground. Or they’ll talk about how much more fun it is to build a track out of bricks rather than using a prebuilt Thomas the Train track that only goes in one direction.

I want them to learn how to use their imaginations to prevent boredom rather than depending on a room full of toys.

Ultimately we play in ways that do not require much stuff. My children are happy to shoot baskets, play pirates or build new creations with the same set of blocks we’ve owned for years. I often point out the fun we had with very little supplies.

My children are by no means minimalists. Their toy shelves are overflowing with gifts from well meaning family members, but each time we open the conversation they begin to think a little more clearly about owning stuff that doesn’t bring them joy. Each time a toy is offloaded I want them to think about the clutter of that object as well as the price we paid to own it.

Over time I hope they learn that abundant joy is much more valuable than abundant stuff! In fact, I want them to understand that owning less is often the key to happiness.