Treat yourself like a child to be more grown up

by Philip Brewer on 21 July 2008 6 comments

This post is about repurposing a trick that grown-ups use to manage a child's wants.  You know the one.  It starts with pointing at a substitute.  Then, the grown-up frames one of two questions, such that the answer is always "you don't need one."

Whatever the child wants--let's call it X--the adult can always ask one of two questions:

  1. You've got a perfectly good X--you use it all the time!  Why should I buy you a new one?
  2. You never use the X you've got!  Why do you need a new one?

Now, I'm going to say in a minute that this is a useful way to think about things, but before I do, I want to acknowledge that grown-ups often use this structure to play what amounts to a cruel trick.  Until the child learns the structure, there's the implication that the child could get his or her wants fulfilled by switching--abandoning use of something needs to be replaced in the one case, or going through the motions of using something that's not really useable in the other.  This, of course, is a futile maneuver, because the adult then merely switches to the alternate question.

Still, the underlying logic is entirely valid.  For pretty much anything you've got, you're either using it--which proves that you've got one that works and therefore don't need another, or else you're not using it--which proves that you certainly don't need another one.

I've had good luck in using this trick to manage my own wants.  And, since I'm a grown-up, I can do it without being obliged to go on and turn it into a cruel trick.

There's all kinds of stuff I want.  But, when I think of some new thing that I'd like to get, I can say to myself, "You don't need an iPhone--you've got a perfectly good cell phone."  I can then let my inner child and inner adult argue for a while, with the child explaining that my old cell phone has crappy internet features and the adult pointing out that I spend plenty of time accessing the internet on my computer, so why would I need to access it on my phone as well?

As the argument rages on, I can pay attention to either (or both!) sides of the adult's trick questions:  If I've got a perfectly good one that I use all the time, why do I need a new one?  If I've got one that I hardly ever use, why do I think getting a new one would make me any better off?

Since I'm in charge of my own spending, I'm in a position to let myself be convinced by my arguments.  After all, there are sometimes good answers, even though they don't work for children.  Some things that I use all the time need to be replaced because they've worn out.  Some things that I never use need to be replaced because the reason that I never use them is that I foolishly bought a crappy one that never worked well.

When I take just a minute, now and then, to treat myself like a child, I find it a little easier to make the grown-up choice.

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Guest's picture

This is a great post. I ask myself these questions all the time. In fact I am in the middle of writing a post about questions to ask yourself before buying a product right now. So this post was really helpful for me. Thank you very much

Guest's picture

This is *exactly* what I do every time I think about spending money. I didn't know I was treating myself like a child, but I go through this logic. I also ask if I really need the thing I want. Very often the answer is no. It seems restrictive at first, but eventually it becomes a fun little game. It's personally satisfying to resist the urge to spend. And exercising self-control is a rush!

Guest's picture

My problem comes with impulse buys as well. I think this is a funny approach to looking at how I can deal with my wants. My problem, however is that I don't have anyone there telling me I don't need it.

Philip Brewer's picture

That's the thing about being a grown-up--stuff like that you have to learn to do yourself.

Guest's picture

I put myself on an allowance to help with these random spending urges. I get a certain (small) ammount of 'crazy' money each pay check. This I can use to get coffee, buy new shoes, or whatever. It's really a great system, even though I sometimes feel weird to be a grown up and have an allowance...


Guest's picture
Christopher Smith

I can't find the figures online, but I remember that one of the surprising results of the "millionaire next door" study was that a significant number of millionaires (I think about 40%) don't use budgets! Instead, they let themselves use the paycheck-to-paycheck method of cash management, except that they put most of their money into a savings account first and then move only a portion into their checking.

I know that many people find a budget to be quite helpful, but I absolutely cannot keep up with one. Being essentially self-employed, I find the method of regular transfers out of my savings account to checking to be the best way to keep my expenses reasonable.