How Much Money Is Enough?

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Credit Stuart Bradford

Most of us want our children to have the best of everything, but not too much of anything.

As a result, some families with much more than average impose a form of enforced (yet totally artificial) deprivation. Frequently the  “no” is not because they can’t afford it, but because the word “enough” is flashing on some scoreboard somewhere that only they can see.

Meanwhile, those of us who grew up hearing “no” a lot are tempted to say “yes” as much as we can, if we can possibly afford to. We want our kids to live better lives than we did as children — and better ones than we could afford last year.

Whether a family is affluent or struggling, however, every question about children and money and values eventually boils down to this: How much is enough? And how much is too much?

Consider one of the most recent objects of desire: The hoverboard. Before it became crystal-clear that its explosive battery was reason enough to ban it on safety grounds, parents struggled with the flashiness and the hefty price.

As I wrote a few months ago, the companies that sell them gamely tried to make these things a need and not a want. It’s transportation! No more expensive than a bicycle! For those of us who value at least a bit of modesty, however, we had to wonder whether being among the first kids in school to get a hoverboard was akin to being among the only grown-ups in town with a Mercedes. Nobody needs a Mercedes.

Social scientists tell us that we get more joy out of spending money on doing things than having things, and many of us do spend large amounts of money on our little people and their athletic pursuits. Plenty of children enjoy these activities more than anything else they do. Others, however, feel pressure to offer some return on their parents’ investment in the form of athletic scholarships or a college admissions boost. That kind of burden is too much, not just enough.

Still, there is no overarching, numerical definition of enough, even if you manage to limit American Girl dolls to just one or allow only a single new Lego set into the house each season. And no matter how precisely we may try to define the term, our parental understanding of it will shift even before we try explaining it to our children. Wanting more, as the financial planner Tim Maurer puts it in his new book “Simple Money,” is an affliction that is nearly universal and has little to do with how much we already have. “Our tendency is to move away from Enough — not toward it,” he writes.

This happens in part because of what surrounds us — and what we choose to surround ourselves with. If you haven’t yet chosen the neighborhood or town where you’re going to raise your family (or you’re thinking about upgrading or downsizing or a job change is forcing a move), consider doing a materialism audit of the places you’re considering. What sort of impact will those surroundings have on children’s definition of normal and how much they think is enough?

Everyone else might try two experiments. First, map out your own precise definition of enough in every category of spending that you do for your children. How much is enough when it comes to rain boots? Are the generic rubber boots at Payless or Target just fine, given that little feet will grow out of them pretty quickly anyhow? What if your children want fancy Hunter boots? Would you insist they use their allowance or birthday gift money to make up the difference between the prices of the Target or L.L. Bean boots that you consider “enough” and the luxury product that they want so badly?

Or will the high-end goods simply go on a banned item list? Most of us have one, even if it isn’t written down. Perhaps yours has violent video games, double piercings or weapons (real or fake). Mr. Maurer, having rebelled against a religious upbringing where so much was on that list, isn’t keen on making it too long (though he and his wife gladly ban in-app purchases and carnival games at amusement parks that require additional money).

As for everything else, Mr. Maurer suggests experiment No. 2: Forcing children to wait, for a good long while. “I don’t want my kids to buy something just because everyone else wants it,” he said. “More importantly, I don’t want them to want something just because everyone else wants it.”

We don’t control their minds, but we can introduce yellow lights and pause buttons. And so it goes with Mr. Maurer, whose 10-year-old son just successfully tried out for a competitive travel lacrosse team. The family happily pays for him to play. But the opportunity to upgrade to an optional $300 team helmet when the boy already had one that protected his noggin just fine led to some pointed family discussions.

It is that deep, searching dialogue itself that ought to be our end game, according to Barbara Nusbaum, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in talking about money and values with both children and adults. “They key is the mind-set to continually question and wonder in ourselves and in conversation with others about our choices,” she said.

So there can never be enough talk about enough. In the Maurer family, the conversation about how much helmet is enough helped everyone step back and consider the point of playing on a travel team in the first place. It isn’t about being a fashion icon and looking good on the field. The big idea is to grow as a person and athlete and teammate.

If their son does that well, then there’s always next year to consider the helmet.

Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times and the author of “The Opposite of Spoiled,” about parenting, money and values.