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Thinking Before Buying: Rewarding Not Boring!

Updated: Feb 22


Prologue: Thinking before buying (TBB) is a skill that can benefit everybody. Karen discusses her work teaching it to children so that they can maintain the practice throughout their lives.


Karen Holland is the Founder of GiftingSense.org. We asked her to discuss some of the tactics she employs in her popular in-classroom interactive workshops, where kids learn how to think before they buy. Apparently, she convinces them that thinking before buying is a powerful and rewarding life skill!

Near the end of a typical Gifting Sense workshop, I’ll ask the kids attending how you win a hockey, basketball, baseball, or football game. “By scoring more than the other team” is the typical response. I then dig a little deeper and ask if there is more than one way to “...score more than the other team” because of course to win at most team sports, you must both score and prevent the other team from scoring. You must practice offence and defence. And so it goes with personal financial management.

So many people focus primarily on financial offence, making as much money as possible. Certainly, many children dream of becoming professional athletes or celebrities at least in part because of the large incomes associated with those jobs. And of course, income matters. But the scores (pardon the pun) of professional athletes and celebrities who made more money than the average person will ever see, and then lost it all because they failed to also practice financial defence, could fill a book. This is why I believe that thinking before buying (TBB) is the cornerstone of youth financial well-being, and why I spend my days volunteer teaching primarily 5th-9th Grade students how easy a habit it is to adopt.

Thinking before buying (TBB) really gets a bad rap. It’s associated with denial and going without. But the truth of the matter is that thinking before buying is a powerful and rewarding life skill. It does not mean that you never get to do or buy anything fun. All TBB means is that you plan your spending, which helps you:

  • Avoid disappointment (imagine loving every future holiday or birthday gift?),

  • Reduce waste (of not only money but also precious time), and

  • Protect the planet, because when we only buy what we really love and use, it doesn’t up in a landfill.

So for starters, try rebranding TBB in your household as something that allows your family to avoid both FOMO (fear of missing out) and buyer’s remorse. Buyer’s remorse is most often a function of speed. Thinking before buying is just a speed bump, preventing if you will, a personal financial accident!

Imagine how liberating it is to be able to quickly figure out how much something really costs, including, for example, sales tax and shipping, as well as how much you’ll really use and appreciate something before you spend a dime? Children are fully capable of concluding that the massive price tag associated with most professional sporting events is probably only appropriate for a very special occasion – but they need to be able to calculate how much safe transportation, snacks and souvenirs add to the ticket price and total cost of attending before they can make that conclusion. And I have seen many a ‘tween express genuine shock when they discover that they could either buy an iPhone 13, or an iPhone 12 and a brand-new television. But the first necessary step is understanding how much money each of those choices requires.

At Gifting Sense, we introduce young people to something we call DIMS (“Does It Make Sense?”) Scores. DIMS Scores are quickly calculated by answering 10-15 very straightforward questions on a digital worksheet. The worksheet distills the answers into a number between 1 and 10. This number allows kids to compare various purchases to each other, as well as understand if a possible purchase is more of a Want (DIMS Score 1-6) or a Need (DIMS Score 7-10). Children can also generate a PDF summary of all the math and thinking they have gone through when calculating the DIMS Score, which they can share with their parents when making the case for a purchase that might make sense.

The questions asked are very straightforward, such as “How much do the basketball shoes cost (including sales tax and shipping)?”; “How many times a month will you use the new backpack?”; or, “Do you know the return policy and warranty?” So calculating the DIMS Score for a possible purchase doesn’t take long – on average three minutes or less – but it slows down the pace of consumer decision making just enough to make sure that a child understands exactly how much money they are asking for and if the inherent trade-offs are worth it. At almost every age, kids are already surprisingly aware of money and trade-offs. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a classroom where at least a couple of students haven’t shared a time when their parents said “yes” to a request, with the proviso that the student chip in some of their own money, or that spending, for example, $100 on a hoodie, meant that their family would have to forgo the next pizza family dinner.

Teachers are often the first to open the floodgates when I pose the question: “Has anyone ever received a holiday or birthday gift that maybe wasn’t quite what they were hoping for?” The discussions that follow both normalize disappointment and underscore the tremendous importance of being able to politely ask for what we really want, will use, and appreciate. Because as you move through the effort required to buy, wrap and deliver anything these days, you realize that it takes time and money to buy even gifts no one wants!

And who among us hasn’t had this experience: We’re in a change room, wearing a pair of pants from one of our favourite brands, they fit us like a glove, and they are discounted by 70%. The only problem is they are orange linen bell-bottoms. How often can you really wear orange linen bell- bottoms? DIMS Scores make this sort of realization quick and easy. They help young people pause just long enough to avoid a consumer decision that probably doesn’t make sense – which gives them more future purchasing power for one that does! This is a perfect example of how thinking before buying isn’t about “not getting”, but rather about not purchasing things you can’t even really use. Big difference.

Parenting is not for sissies. It’s at least a 20-year journey along a path rife with tough moments and tougher conversations. One of the toughest can be having to say “no” to a particularly heartfelt request to spend some money. If you can get your kids into the habit of thinking before buying, you’ll likely be able to cut down on both the number of requests and the number of times you have to say “no”. As a parent myself, I understand this is what everyone prefers. My no-fail closer? “News-flash, your parents kind of dig you, they want you to be happy, so be thoughtful and organized, make it easy for them to give you the answer you want.” Of course, what everyone is really getting when thinking before buying becomes a well-entrenched habit, is increased family harmony. And let’s not forget that money-smart kids tend to grow up to be financially organized adults, who aren’t coming to their parents for “economic outpatient care”. But for now, let’s just leave it with thinking before buying is more rewarding, and therefore a lot more fun, than you think!


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