Binge on a Budget: Saying “No”

The very first word I ever said, my mother tells me, was NO!

And why not? Toddlers are primed for this. Observe Bitsy, perfecting the art: the steely gaze, the pursed lip, the sheer determination in those eyes. There’s a “No” building…go ahead, just ask her anything. Anything reasonable.

Wait for it. You know it’s coming.

I wish my toddler self could come forward in time and help me out sometimes.

As parents, we obviously say “No” all. the. time. Phone conversations with close friends and relatives usually come with their own soundtrack of continuous asides; you know, where the person on the line– let’s pretend that’s me– while speaking to you (in quotation marks) constantly turns her face away from the phone and says something (in italics) to someone else in the room with her. And they go like this. The following are real asides friends claim they have actually heard while on the phone with me.

“What was that?” NO, don’t talk to me, I’m on the phone.

“Yes, uh-huh” NO you can’t have ice cream right now. GET OFF OF THE FRIDGE how did you get on there?

“Oh really?” NO we’re not swimming right now– get out of the sink–NO! I’M ON THE PHONE.

“Wow, totally, yep” NO don’t change the baby’s diaper– NO you can’t have a beer!

“Oh, I’m listening” NO don’t eat that– “Oh no, not you, sorry.” NO, don’t touch that. NO, put that knife down.

“Sure that sounds great” NO! Stop licking your brother! NO, Don’t take my phone— (toddler gabber and/or insane giggling)


They don’t usually call me back.

Bitsy’s impression of Mommy getting ready to use the phone.

But where was I?

Oh yes. With all this practice saying no you’d think it would come easily. But saying No to items the kids want is a different ballgame from saying No to items you want– or even need– and I think that’s what makes sticking to a budget so grueling. It sucks.

When I was a kid about first or second grade, my parents bought a “stretch” house. I mean that it stretched their budget. We were new in town and new in school and they had two “new” used cars to shuttle the kids around in. This was a big house and yard, so I don’t want to pretend I was Dolly Parton with a Coat of Many Colors or something. But our parents couldn’t give us everything and there were plenty of bigger houses, better cars, and people who owned horses and boats around to remind us that “someone else will always have more and that’s OK. Be grateful for everything you’ve got.”

It was around that age that I got used to hearing “No, we don’t need that,” all the time. Every time we went to the store and I wanted something, as kids always do– “No, we don’t need that.” Gum. Candy. Pez. “No, we don’t need that.” A Magic Nursery Baby. “No, we don’t need that.” (Just kidding, Mom. I know you looked everywhere for that thing. Anybody else remember those?)

These days I am so grateful for that phrase. It taught me that it’s OK to say “No,” and it’s important to say no, not just to my children, but to myself. It’s OK, it’s important, and it’s necessary. No to the gum and candy at the grocery store. No to the fundraiser you can’t afford to support. No to the expensive indoor playplace when it’s $15 a kid and you have too many of them to pay that outrageous fee.* No to the third spa party another mom invites you to– and no to the products at the very first “spa party” you attend, because you thought it actually was a spa party and not just someone you barely know trying to sell you Arbonne. No to the invitation out of town you wish you could accept…but realistically can’t.

*More on free fun later.

Sometimes it’s easy to say no to these things, and sometimes it hurts. But if you need to say it, say it, and realize you aren’t the first or last person to stick up for sticking to your budget. Most of the time, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t have to explain yourself all the time, either. You only have to be polite.

Back in those 20s I mentioned in my first post, right around that time I was struggling with bad spending habits that landed me in a few K worth of credit card debt, I remember standing on the street with a friend of mine after a coffee date, whining about how badly I wanted an Estee Lauder make-up tray that was something like $100 at the department store I passed every morning on my commute. In high school, rolling in babysitting money and having no real responsibilities of my own, I actually bought myself $28 lipsticks and $100 face creams. In the real world, with rent, clothes, food and a transit card to pay for, I needed to set my sights a little lower– like on L’Oreal.

I will never forget what she said to me. I expected her to enable me, be encouraging and tell me that of course I needed twelve new shades of overpriced eye shadow, I worked hard, and so what if I carried a credit card balance that stressed me out, I deserved it! Instead she shrugged and said calmly and a little coldly, “Don’t be afraid to say no to yourself.”

I thought she was less than a friend for saying it. But it’s actually one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years.

It’s not always fun to say “no” so much. Obviously it helps to keep your eyes on the prize– the goal for which you are saving, for example, or the things in life you may choose instead of other material goods. I will also say it is paramount to constantly, constantly express gratitude for the blessings you have. If you neglect this personal focus on the positive, it’s easy to feel resentful when others in your social circle seem to have or do more than you.

When Sally complains about something we cannot have or do, I try to redirect her to the many wonderful things we do have. It’s true that my kids aren’t in summer camp, or swim lessons, or ballet lessons this year, and sometimes it feels like everyone else is. But I remind her that we finally have a swingset and they have tons of time to play on it.

As a toddler I thought that getting my own way was the be-all and end-all. But as an adult I have learned, “an attitude of gratitude is the key to happiness.”

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