1. Inoculate yourself. Before you enter a place with temptations, have a game plan. For little kids, you can keep it simple. As you prepare to walk into a store, you can say, “Today we are buying underwear for your brother, and that’s it. So if you see something you want, remind yourself that we are not going to buy it today.” You can add that you will do the same. Letting a child know what to expect and how to react prepares him to resist the urge to make impulse purchases (or throw tantrums about them). By rehearsing his response to the lure of a candy bar or a toy, your kid is (slowly) training his mind to ignore temptation.
2. Think about tomorrow. It’s hard to remember how cool the thing you’re saving for is when you’re staring at a bag of cheesy chips at the checkout line. But focusing on the long-term negative outcome has been shown to be surprisingly effective. “If I spend money on a bag of chips today, then it’ll take me longer to get those Legos that I really want.” When your kid is wavering, commiserate about how tough it can be to wait for something you really want, and give an example of a situation where you had to wait for something. Then praise her after you see her resist an impulse purchase.
3. Distract yourself. When your child throws a fi t at the checkout line in a store because he will “die if I don’t have gum you have to get me gum buy me gum you don’t love me buy me gum gum gum,” be ready with a story, a joke, an awesome funny-cat or crazy roller-coaster video on your phone, or a special secret that you want him to hear but must swear him to secrecy first. Once you’re out of the store, point out how you really admire that he was able to get it together even though he wanted the candy so badly. Even if he is still a little mad at you, he will realize that the distraction did help make the feeling pass.
4. Use your imagination. This is a quirky one, but it’s been shown to work. Encourage your child to think of whatever temptation she is encountering as not real but just a photo or a picture that she can put a “frame” around in her mind. Turns out, some of the most successful waiters in the Marshmallow Test did this naturally. It’s a little abstract for young kids, but some can get into it. Another strategy is to pretend that a treat she wants is covered in ants or worms. In a store, if a kid tells herself that a tempting toy is broken or junky or that a candy is spicy or booger covered, it can work.
5. Habits can help. Make saving automatic. Be consistent with this message: “The minute we get any cash—whether we earn it or get it as a gift—it goes right into our savings jar or piggy bank.” Don’t just rely on willpower; that’s the hard way. Instead, make it routine. But build fun splurges into that routine, too. (“We get ice cream after school on Fridays, so no need to ask to buy candy on Wednesday, because the answer is no. We buy special treats only on Fridays. That way we can save the rest of our money for the bigger stuff we want.”)
6. Ask “What would a smart kid do?” Sometimes it helps your kid to remove herself emotionally from a tempting situation by “stepping outside” it and asking what someone else would do. Let her decide who that person might be—perhaps a classmate, or her favorite cartoon hero, or just a hypothetical kid who’s smart. Kids like to give advice, and this technique allows them to think more coolly about their choices rather than act on impulse.