Family finances: how to tell your kids you’re broke

For Kenyans who don’t carry taxpayers’  money in sacks at dawn, the hard-hitting, never-ending ‘Njaanuary’ is here with us. Early disbursement of December salaries, coupled with the festivities and the high first-term school fees, leave most parents struggling with a lean budget.

“I started my year with an almost negative balance. I bet am not the only one. With 3 kids, 2 in school and one who just turned 2 years, it’s almost impossible in this country’s economy to remain afloat as a parent.

Fortunately, I opted to take care of all school expenditure last year in early December. Items such as buying uniforms for our second born who is joining her older sister in a new school, school fees for both, books and other accessories were all taken care of before we even traveled to the village for the annual Christmas celebrations,” narrates Njeri Wangari.

January is usually the time to tone down on luxuries and only irreducible minimums make to the budgetary discussion table. But do kids understand this? Do they stop wanting their favorite brand of ice cream that they were getting every weekend in December? Do they understand why you can’t get them a new pair of shoes while you just bought a new school bag for his sister?


Coping mechanisms

After indulging your kids for the past two months through that lengthy school holiday period not to mention the extra expenditure that comes about due to travels upcountry, how do you break it down to your kids that you are broke? How do you get them to adjust from getting treats to being content with not having to toast bread for breakfast?



This is the time most parents develop coping mechanisms to deal with the kids’ unending monetary needs. For some fathers, it is mostly “sina pesa” and that’s the end of discussion. No further questions, no further complaints. The judge’s decision is final. Hammer slam!

You can understand that, or sulk all you want for all they care. They don’t owe you an explanation. You will grow up and understand, and in the process, earn your own money and spend it on whatever you want. “Nimekuambia sina pesa, unataka niende niibe nikuletee,”  (I’ve already told you I don’t have any money, do you want me to steal?) Charity’s dad would always retort whenever she persisted.

Other fathers, however, allow room for negotiations. For instance, Ian’s dad always never had any money for luxuries. But a good performance in school could make money magically appear and you would get a ball or a bike once in a while.

Then there are those that avoid their families when their pockets become lean. They leave the house early and return late into the night. When they are in the house, they lock themselves in their rooms with strict instructions not to be disturbed.

Mothers are a little bit different. They calmly let you know that they can’t afford what you are asking for and can even promise to get it when money becomes available. “For us, our mom has always been direct with us. She lets us know when things become a little bit tight and ask us to reduce expenses around the house. If she had promised to get us something, she will explain that it wasn’t possible at the moment and would get it later,” Prudence Nyawira tells Afromum. 


Delicate act

How you let your kids know that times are lean is very important. It determines how they relate to you, and how they grow up. You are your children’s number one role model. Set a good example for them. Expect them to do as you do, not as you say.

Everyone is bound to face financial difficulties at times and there is nothing to be ashamed about and hide from your kids. Being open will also help them be good at prioritizing their needs and managing finances well when they come of age. While it is important to let them know when times are lean, how you do it is equally important.

Show them that you understand and care about them getting what they need. Ask them to list down what they want to be bought for them. Then sit them down and help them prioritize the items on their list. Help them understand the difference between what they need and what they want.

Discuss which needs are to be addressed urgently and which ones can be shelved for later after separating the needs from the wants. Let them know that that doesn’t mean the wants are done away with. They can always be revisited when there is extra money.

“I tell my daughter to list down the things she wants and keep the list for when I get money,” says Susan Mwenesi.

Janet, a mother of six, says she first makes her children understand the importance of what they are asking for from their own needs perspective. But how she approaches money issues in the house depends on the age of the child asking for something.

The aim is to make not feel guilty for asking for something. “For the older ones, I tell them we will buy what they are asking for when we get money and have settled all other important issues like their fees, uniform and the house rent,” she explains, adding that she tells the younger ones to pray to God to provide money for their desires. 



That way, when I buy what they had asked for, I tell them, “see, God is looking out for you”. It makes them also embrace prayerfulness. She further says.

Prioritizing on expenditure and how you break it down to your children is a delicate art. It’s better to start early in letting them know that mum or dad will not always have money. Sometimes, you may not even be able to afford the essentials.

When they understand that sometimes they don’t get what they ask for, then they start to appreciate what they have. It also teaches them to responsible for their finances when they become adults. These are tough life lessons that have to be taught.

It doesn’t, however, have to sound like a TED talk.

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