Talking about shopping

August 31, 2011 | Viewpoints
Dori Zerbe Cornelsen |

In the retail shopping world, the dog days of summer are no longer known as “August,” but rather “back-to-school.” This has become the year’s second largest seasonal shopping event behind “winter holidays” (not “Christmas”). Advertising campaigns have made the link between these high seasons of shopping, suggesting that back-to-school for parents is “the most wonderful time of the year.”

When Statistics Canada reported that sales edged up slightly in May, retailers anticipated a stronger back-to-school shopping season. This wasn’t the case in the United States, where the National Retail Federation (NRF) predicted a slight dip in back-to-school spending.

NRF president and chief executive officer Matthew Shay suggested, “Families aren’t opposed to spending on what they need, but parents want their children to take a good look around at what they already have before deciding what to buy for back-to-school this year.” When the dust settles, the question is, how did families negotiate what children need in this highly charged season of buying?

Without routine communication between parents and children about money, it is tough to settle spending disputes in the middle of a seasonal rush. Instead of hoping that money issues will just resolve themselves, families need to have regular values-based money conversations, according to Nathan Dungan, author of Money Sanity Solutions: Linking Money and Meaning. Dungan’s research has found that adolescents whose families openly talk about money issues are less focused on spending and have improved self-esteem in comparison with other adolescents.

Dungan encourages families to first talk together about money assumptions, such as how to distinguish between needs and wants. Everyone experiences “gotta have it now moments,” Dungan says. Being able to step back and decide whether something is a need or a want is an important life skill. Finding a good balance between the two is another.

Here’s a suggestion: Parents and children could go through back-to-school purchases and talk about which were need items and which were want items. If different conclusions are reached, this provides the chance to talk about the values that help each person tell the difference between the two. It can also be very enlightening for parents to invite children to talk about how they experience household spending with regards to needs and wants.

With this foundation, parents and children can begin tackling other questions together, such as:

  • Do brands really matter?
  • How does peer pressure affect the spending decisions of every family member?
  • What are appropriate technology needs?
  • Can we all agree to spend less on ourselves and share more with others?

Given that the largest seasonal shopping event is just around the corner, this could be the perfect time for families to start talking about money and values. There are resources to help with this, including Dungan’s book ( and MFC’s First Things First (

Let good conversations begin!

Dori Zerbe Cornelsen is a stewardship consultant at the Winnipeg, Man., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For stewardship education and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit

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