Posted January 14, 2009 07:38 pm - Updated January 19, 2009 12:29 pm

Teaching Frugality: The Power of Why

My three year old son has officially graduated to the “Why?” stage.

Most parents - actually, anyone who has spent much time around a three year old - know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s basically asking “Why?” about everything that happens, from the simplest mundane household things to complicated issues like the nature of life.

In other words, there’s a lot of explaining going on around the clock here at the Hamm household.

There’s another piece to this puzzle, though. With our little boy wandering around constantly asking “Why?”, we have become much more careful about our specific behavior choices. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

We’re at the grocery store. I’m standing there examining the different kinds of milk and my son asks what I’m doing. When I tell him I’m trying to decide what kind of milk to buy, he hits me with the why. Why am I buying milk? Why am I choosing the particular kind of milk?

We’re in the basement. An incandescent light bulb burns out, so I replace it with a CFL. The only problem is that when we flip the light switch, the bulbs light up at a different rate. My son notices and hits me with the why. Why do the bulbs light up at a different rate? Why do we have different kinds of bulbs?

We’re on our way to daycare and we see one of the neighbors headed off to a different daycare. I point the girl out to my son and tell him to wave. He asks where she’s going and when I tell him, he drops the why. Why does she go to that other daycare? Why don’t I go there?

With the why’s coming in right and left, I’ve automatically begun to start thinking ahead about what I’m doing, coming up with solid answers for the things I expect him to ask. Doing that, of course, makes me think about why I’m doing things in the first place. Am I doing this for a good reason? Is this action setting a good example for my son?

Here’s the kicker: this is a key time in my child’s life in terms of learning how to behave and acquire knowledge. It’s quite important that I actually come up with correct answers to his questions, even if they seem simplistic or really repetitive. Even better, the answers (and anything we do to bring about the questions) need to indicate good, healthy adult behavior.

This is actually a great frugality motivator. My son has become yet another psychological tool that I can use to convince myself to make good financial choices. The ten second rule? The thirty day rule? Try the three year old child rule - if you can’t explain a purchase or a financial choice to a child without resorting to “because I said so,” it’s probably worth considering more carefully.

I’ve actually reached the point where I use this “why” question no matter what I’m doing and no matter whether my son is there or not. It makes me consider my actions much more carefully - and that results in better buying decisions and better life decisions, too.

One of the most amazing parts of raising a child is that you go into it thinking that you’re going to be doing all the raising and answering all the questions, but as time goes on, you find that the child often teaches you as much as you teach the child. 

The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at