How Obsessing About Budgeting Has Made Me a Better Parent

Most days, I do two things. I try to be a good father. And I obsess about teaching people how to budget their money.

Lately, it’s become clear these two pursuits have much more in common than I once imagined. Not because having a budget means I can provide better, but because the budgeting methodology I obsess about has unearthed some legitimate lessons for me as a parent.

Being Intentional

It’s easy to go through your financial life without thinking too much about it. There’s rent or a mortgage to pay, food to buy, college loans to pay off. Next thing you know, there’s only a few dollars left, and well, you have to have some fun, right? Life simply claims your money.

When you put less important things aside, you won’t just save money–that happens, too–but you’ll experience a shift in your emotional relationship with money.

When many people try to solve their money problems, they make a common mistake — they begin by thinking about their money. Sounds reasonable, right? But they’re just thinking about needing more if it, or thinking about whether they can afford the thing that’s right in front of them.

Instead, begin by thinking about what is most important to you, then (here’s the intention part) line up your money with those deep priorities. It sounds almost too simple, but the results of this small shift are dramatic. And it’s very different than the way we usually treat our money, when money goes out on a first-come, first-served basis regardless of priorities. When you put less important things aside, you won’t just save money (that happens, too) but you’ll experience a shift in your emotional relationship with money.

I’ve been thinking about how life’s whirlwind can claim my actions as a parent. There are bedrooms to clean up (oh my, are there ever), dinners to make (every single night, apparently), homework to get done … the list goes on. It’s awfully easy just to respond in the moment to whichever is front and center.

Today my son came home from school, where he’s learning about simple machines — levers, ramps, pulleys, that sort of thing. He wants to be an engineer, and so he wanted to build his own simple machine out of scrap wood. Right then. At that moment.

My first reaction? Today? No way! It’s a wild week at work, and my wife is away (pray for the children), so my instinct was to put it off. But I realized that this was important. Important to him and to me. Spending time making that simple machine — spending time creating together — wasn’t going to happen by accident.

Delaying Gratification

Although overdraft fees and past-due bills often lead people to budgeting, a budget isn’t just about the here-and-now. It should prepare you for what’s coming down the road. A lot of our true expenses don’t happen regularly, though, and aren’t even predictable when they do, so budgeting for them doesn’t feel like an immediate win.

Putting money aside in March for Christmas shopping? It’s a long time to wait to spend it. Building up some money for car maintenance? I’ll be thrilled when I actually need it, but in the moment, it isn’t very sexy.

The key to making this work comes down to delaying gratification, which isn’t a habit that comes naturally. I’m human. I get an idea in my head and I want it now. But some things don’t happen all at once. I can’t begin to count the times I have fallen into this trap as a parent.

When I see something I want my kids to learn or achieve, it’s a powerful emotional pull. I want them to learn it right away. You know. Right. Now. But they’re kids, and life doesn’t work that way. Take something small — teaching our kids to tie their shoes didn’t stick on the first try. Or the twentieth. Maybe the thirtieth. Or not.

Here’s the thing. Each time we practiced in between was part of the eventual success, and knowing that can bring the gratification into the present moment. And it pays off. Just like the other day when I saw my son talking with his teacher in just the way we would hope. Because we talked about it. We practiced and encouraged. And waited.

Each time we practiced in between was part of the eventual success.

Admitting Mistakes

Accountability in budgeting is good thing. Rigidity isn’t. People give up on budgeting because someone taught them that each month’s budget has to be exactly the same, that you stick to it or fail. But it’s no good being accountable to a plan that isn’t working.

A budget doesn’t have to be inflexible. It can’t be. If a budget is a reflection of your priorities, your budget should shift as those priorities do. You thought you’d only spend $100 eating out, but it turns out that telling the waiter “bring me a few different things” at a tapas bar is expensive, and you spent $150. You can’t undo it, so make adjustments and move on. You learned something. You are now a better budgeter.

As a parent, this one can hit home. And hit hard. Each day is filled with ten thousand opportunities for mistakes. Admitting even one of them is a challenge. It’s hard to admit that what I tried didn’t work. Hard to admit to my kids (or my wife) that I’m still figuring this out and I’ll have to try something else.

Each day is filled with ten thousand opportunities for mistakes. Admitting even one of them is a challenge.

But could anything be more important? If I don’t admit my mistakes, if out of pride I stick to a plan that flat-out isn’t working, what good am I really doing my kids? So (sometimes with prodding, sure) I adjust, and hopefully become a better parent.

No, My Money Isn’t My Kids

As much as I don’t really like to compare money and my kids in any way (money’s just a tool, after all and my kids are, well, my kids), the analogy probably doesn’t end there. Whether you’re budgeting or parenting, or budgeting while parenting, there’s lots of little, day-to-day decisions to make. But remembering the end-game is key. Why am I making each of those decisions?

It isn’t about having the cleanest, I’ve-never-overspent budget. Or the cleanest room. It’s about making good decisions that get you where you want to be. It’s about bringing up great kids.

When I taught my kids how to budget, they picked it up much more quickly than I ever did. I’m starting to wonder if they’ll pick up this whole parenting thing more easily, too.