My 3-year-old is experiencing her first heartbreak. She's going through all the typical stages. Denial, sadness, stomping her feet, drinking too much juice, and throwing her sorrows to the heavens: "WHYYYYYYYY?" The usual things you'd expect someone to do to try to recover from a loss. The thing that brought her habitual comfort and calm is no longer an option.
She has broken up with her pacifier, MoMo.
MoMo was a little stuffed monkey attached to a paci. Well, I guess I should say he IS a stuffed monkey attached to a paci – he's still alive. He's just not in her grasp anymore.
You may think (as I did before having my daughter) that she should have given up a pacifier years ago. You may say, "If that's her only heartbreak, she leads a charmed life."
But I ask you, when was the last time you gave up something you love that you know is bad for you?
If it's so easy a 3-year-old can do it, why not you?
Children have habits and emotional attachments and coping mechanisms just like adults. For some kids it's a blanket or a bedtime routine. For my kid, her pacifier is her emotional refuge. For you, it might be shopping, or food, or TV.
Do I wish we'd done some things differently on our way to pacifier addiction? Yes. But outsiders often oversimplify the problem.
Clearly the donut shop owner who gave me and my toddler judgment face as we ordered a dozen donuts with MoMo in tow, has life all figured out.
"She shouldn't have that," she said as she boxed my six chocolate glazed.
What I wish I had said was, "Yeah, well she also shouldn't have these." And then I wish I'd shoved the box of donuts back in her arms and picked up my kid and swept out of the donut shop like Julia Roberts swept out of that store in Pretty Woman. "Big mistake. Big mistake. Huge. Do you have any idea how many donuts I consume?!"
Instead, because I really wanted a chocolate donut and because I also wished MoMo wasn't with us, I said, "Yes, we're working on it."
"You don't work on it," she spat. "You just take it away."
Cold turkey works for a few of us, but the rest of us need gradual change. We need to make small habitual changes that ultimately help us master family budgeting.
So you habitually over spend and other people's attitude is "just stop doing that." But it's not that simple, is it?
You over spend for your social life, when you go to dinner with friends and bring presents to their kids' birthday parties. You over spend for your own children, because they need back-to-school clothes and supplies. You over spend for your sanity's sake, because looking forward to shopping at lunch is the only thing that gets you through your morning meeting with Larry the Mouth Breather. You deserve to over spend, you tell yourself. You work hard. You're a good person. You've earned this. It's overwhelming to "just stop" and so you pull out the credit card and resolve to worry about it later.
That's what we did about the pacifier and my daughter. It felt overwhelming to figure out how to take her comfort away and frankly it was just easier on all of us to let her have it. But her teeth were paying the price of our enabling.
Here's how we approached weaning our daughter from her pacifier addiction--and examples of how they can also work for stifling bad spending habits.
People suggested we talk to our daughter about giving up the paci. We even bought a book about planting your pacifier and growing a tree. We very quickly discovered that talking about burying MoMo alive made my daughter cling to the paci more than ever.
Take some small action to curb your spending. Don't keep talking about it. Talking is not action. You don't have to come up with a detailed plan and have a lot of discussions about how you are going to stop over spending in the future. Today you can make your coffee or lunch at home.
Create a new addiction free environment.
When my daughter started daycare, MoMo stayed in her bag. She's never used him at daycare. She's never associated him with daycare.
Start a new tradition with your family or friends that does not involve spending money. Go to the park. Have a game night. Ask co-workers to go for a walk instead of out to lunch on Mondays and Fridays.
Get everybody on the same page.
With each new step my husband and I implemented in our plan, we had to present a united front for our daughter, and we had to hold each other accountable. It is easier in the moment to give in but it is harder in the long run. Don't be the enabler.
You and your partner have to work as a financial team, which is hard. Why is it so hard?! Encourage each other. You're stronger together. Involve your kids. You don't have to make them worry or put your problems on them. You can simply say, "We want to practice saving as a family."
Make "out of sight, out of mind" work for you.
Hide that sucker. Each morning, as soon as my daughter wasn't looking, we'd take the pacifier and hide him so he became less of a mindless habit. If she wanted him, she had to ask for him.
Take your credit card out of your wallet. By making it less convenient to use your credit card you'll use it less. If you need to, lock it somewhere. Have a discussion with your partner every time you take it out to use it.
Set increasing limits.
We decided that MoMo did not go outside or to the dinner table. Then we casually introduced these concepts to our daughter on the spot. So on our way outside, we'd stop her and say, "Oh, MoMo doesn't go outside. He might get lost." We slowly added in other limits like MoMo doesn't watch TV with us or MoMo doesn't watch Mom use the bathroom.
It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Set limits you can live with. Only eat out once a week. Don't use the credit card for buying clothes. Only spend X amount on back to school clothes.
Distraction is key.
When we took the big plunge, we set up a week of nonstop distraction. Monday morning when my daughter woke up, we hid MoMo out of site and we only brought him out at bedtime and in the car. The rest of the time we kept our kid insanely busy. We took her to the zoo, the park, to play outside, for ice cream, we never gave her time to think about MoMo. After a week she was pretty much in the habit of only having the paci in the car and in bed.
Then, when my daughter took the next step and stopped asking for MoMo, my husband started building her a playhouse and letting her help. It's given her something to focus on, talk about, plan and look forward to.
Find other things to do that make you feel good, and that keep you too busy to fall back into your old patterns. Make a family project out of cleaning out the house and then have a garage sale. Work out, volunteer, write, have a conversation, have a conversation about writing.
Stop calling it by name.
We started calling MoMo by his generic name. "The pacifier" didn't quite have the same emotional attachment of "MoMo".
It's not a pair of Jimmy Choos that you have to have to wear to your work party. It's 3 weeks of daycare. It's half your mortgage payment. It's a couple week's worth of food for your family.
We could talk until we were blue in the face but my daughter needed to hear the dentist tell her the facts. The pacifier hurt her teeth.
You can talk to an accountant you trust or to a friend who's good with money. But one of the best and hardest things is to recruit the truth of your own bank and card statements. It's a huge and sobering step. Really, truly, take a brutally honest look at the numbers. How much are you wasting on trivial things every month? How much is your debt costing you? Don't let the truth get you down or overwhelm you. Use it to empower yourself. You are taking control of your spending.
Maybe you find yourself in a financial situation you never thought you'd be in. It happens.
I do my best as a mom. My husband does his best as a dad. But we still found ourselves with a crooked teeth toddler attached to her pacifier. And other people made us feel incompetent that we hadn't figured it out.
Well, we did it our way. We fumbled through a long process of trying to help our daughter wean from a physical and emotional habit. Then we watched our smart, brave, strong kid do it for herself. Maybe that was the right solution all along.
And hopefully we learned a little about addressing our own bad habits in the process.
Photo credit: Joel Greijer