What does it mean to be a consumer in today’s culture? Being both frugal and conscious has become a sign of the times, and kids are exposed, more than ever, to ways to save money, shop wisely, and conserve food and materials.
As a parent, you have a primary role of showing your child what it means to be a consumer in a world of constant advertising and spending. How can you promote a lifestyle that isn't reliant on buying and spending? And, for older children, what types of skills are needed to think critically and independently as a consumer?
Business teacher Eugene Martinez teaches marketing and selling concepts at Eastside Union High School District in San Jose, Calif. As a parent, he introduced the concept of consumerism to his children through modeling a frugal lifestyle. “At home, we taught our kids to consider making what we need, encourage saving up for something better later, and recycling,” says Martinez.
A family must have a good sense of evaluating the true value of a product before deciding to buy it, says Martinez. Assessing the value of a flat-screen TV or bicycle, for example, includes researching the item, comparing it with similar products online or in the store, and determining how long you’ll need—and want—this product. Before heading out to purchase something, the whole family should discuss how much you’re willing to pay, too. Sticking to the agreed price promotes budgeting skills and self-control.
“When my sons and I go grocery shopping, we always take a list. This helps us stick to our budget,” says Stacey Koehler, an education management professional in Lancaster, Calif. “Then we check each item on the list and compare different brands. Is the one in the commercial a better buy because of the commercial, or is the store brand better because it is less costly?” In addition to asking these types of questions, Koehler’s sons, ages 10 and 8, read price tags—and even understand what “per ounce” or “per pound” mean when selecting products.
You, too, can impart shopping and saving skills, and introduce this world of consumerism, to your child. Here are some starting points:
- Distinguish between “wants” and “needs.” To teach your child this difference, ask her to prioritize items on her current wish list by placing “1” next to the most important item, “2” for the second most important, and so on. Inform her that item “1”—her need—will be the only product she may buy. Another way to identify a need over a want is to ask: Do I already own something similar? If your child realizes she already has a pair of mittens but not a beanie, she knows to buy the hat instead.
- Practice calculations. At the cash register, estimate the total cost of your shopping excursion. “As we place items on the conveyor belt, we calculate approximately how much we have spent,” says Koehler. “Once, my 8-year-old was only seven cents off!” Over time, your child will gain a better idea of how much today’s products cost.
- Compare the goods. Chances are, your child knows how to search on the Internet, whether he’s researching for a history report or reading about new bands before downloading music on iTunes. Let him assist in comparing the specs, prices, and availability of products: a book title on Amazon versus Barnes and Noble, for instance, or a laptop model at Best Buy, Costco, and Circuit City.
- Conduct a test. Over the course of a month, purchase four brands of cereal: two less-expensive, “generic” brands, and two moderately priced, brand-name options. “Taste test” one kind each week, making sure to cover up the box (or transfer the cereal to a plain container). Ask your child to take notes about what he likes about each. At the end of the month, discuss the taste and quality versus actual cost of each. He may be surprised by his findings.
- Talk about taxes, fees, and extras. Koehler’s kids learned how to calculate tax (at 10 percent). “We are working on the actual tax rate, but for now if they use the 10-percent method they will always know how much they need to buy something, even if they have a few extra cents in the end,” she says. Also, discuss possible “hidden” or extra fees your child may stumble upon when they purchase something, whether it’s insurance for his DVD player or shipping and handling fees for clothes she is ordering from a catalog.
- Expose the dark side of holidays. At the mall, show your child how holidays such as Labor Day and Memorial Day coincide with major department store sales. Ask them to take note of when Christmas goodies are stocked on grocery store shelves (usually between Halloween and Thanksgiving) or when Valentine’s Day candies or Easter treats appear (in the New Year and early in the spring, respectively).
- Dissect persuasive media. Flip through magazines – women’s fashion and lifestyle glossies work well – and examine how a product or service is being sold. Jennifer Miller, aPhD student in the public policy department at UNC Chapel Hill, recalls assignments in elementary school in which she had to identify persuasive advertising techniques. Is a celebrity endorsing it? Are you pressured to buy it because everyone else has one? Do humor or fear persuade you to purchase? Or are you lured by a catchy slogan?
- Illustrate what you have. If you want to open your child’s eyes to the ugly and mindless side of consuming, volunteer together at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, says Koehler, to show that not everyone has the option of “wanting” something. “They will realize how good they have things when they see other children who really do go without,” she says.