People help each other. I will discuss parents helping children. These comments apply to many other situations.
John helps his daughter Lily in lots of ways, but he can’t give her unlimited help. He has a limited amount of resources: time, money, energy, attention, creativity, etc.
When Lily is very young, John decides how to help her. He uses his best judgment. He tries to take into account Lily’s gestures and reactions, but he makes the decisions. He decides how much to help and which types of help to provide.
As Lily gets older, she can make verbal requests for help, and John is often responsive to those. And later she can start planning her life more and having long term goals that she asks for help with. How John helps is still partly his decision, but he partly lets Lily decide for him. Sometimes John does something to help that he doesn’t want to, or disagrees with, because Lily cares a lot.
Since Lily gets a limited amount of help, it must be budgeted just like any other scarce resource. Lily could benefit from more help than is available. Choices have to be made about which help happens and which help does not happen. John and Lily have to say “no” to some types of help that would benefit Lily because they don’t have the resources, like time, to do them all.
John and Lily will be better off if they know that helping must be budgeted and they try to understand the prices of different types of help.
In order for Lily to get helped effectively, cost and benefit must be considered. How expensive is a particular piece of help, and how big are the benefits?
Suppose John can provide 100 points of help per day. Having a 30 minute tea party with Lily and her dolls might cost 20 points, and having a 2 hour tea party might cost all 100 points. And going out to the park is 40 points, and watching Lily’s TV show with her and answering questions is 30 points, and making her an easy dinner is 10 points, and making her a hard dinner is 50 points, and so on. That means, for example, that Lily shouldn’t ask for a 2 hour tea party if she also wants to go to the park today.
Some days, John goes over budget. That’s unsustainable. he can’t help that much, on average, every day, but he can do it occasionally as an exception. If John helps too much and keeps it up for months, then his own life will suffer, he’ll be unhappy, he’ll be exhausted, and he’ll end up having a worse life and being less helpful to Lily.
For life to go smoothly in general, John and Lily need to be aware of the budget and make reasonable choices about which things to fit into the budget and which not to. That requires having some idea of how big the budget is and how expensive different types of help are.
The prices are just estimates, but they can often be pretty decent estimates. You can’t make perfect predictions, in advance, about how expensive an activity will be. For example, John doesn’t know exactly how tiring taking Lily to the park today would be.
Technically the budget involves many different currencies: time, money, energy, etc. An activity can use 3 points of time, 7 points of money, and 5 points of energy. To simplify, it’s often OK to just think of a single budget for help and hope things average out OK (some activities cost more money than average, but some are free, so overall if the help budget comes out OK then the money budget may come out OK too). If there’s a notable shortage of a particular resource (commonly time, money or energy), then paying attention to that budget can help. People are pretty aware of time and money as limited resources, but pay somewhat less attention to energy. Sometimes you have plenty of time to do something but you’re too tired. E.g., after work one day, John might have 4 hours of free time, but because he’s tired he doesn’t want to do much more than watch TV.
Typical families do a poor job of communicating about budgeting. Parents don’t tell their children much about money. The child doesn’t know how much money the parent makes or what it’s spent on. Instead of rational budgeting, parents help in socially normal ways with no overall plan. As individual things come up, the parent tries to help if it’s a normal way that parents help children, and the parent can help (the budget hasn’t already run out). Then when the budget runs out, the parent starts saying “no” to stuff and the child is disappointed. Then the parent talks about how much he already helped his child, and how much he does for his child in general, instead of talking about how to stop doing some of those ways of helping so that the child can get some more things of his choice without running into “no”. The parent doesn’t normally say, “I don’t have time to do that for you today, but we can talk about which things I can skip doing for you tomorrow in order to save time for it and for your other requests.”
Parents often find their children’s requests unpredictable. Some days have way more requests than others. This makes it hard for the parent to know how much budget to save for the child’s requests, vs. how much help to offer the child earlier in the day.
Children often don’t think about budgeting, they just want all the help that seems reasonable or normal to them, that they see on TV or see their friends get, or that sounds good to them. That doesn’t work and leads to disappointment. They would be better off if they thought about budgeting. A 4 year old can understand and think about some budget, and a 14 year old can do a lot.
Parents can think of helping their children in three different ways: asks, expectations and guesses. Asks are things the child asks for. Expectations are things the parent is pretty confident the child wants, e.g. because he’s asked for it a lot in the past or likes it a lot. And guesses are things the parent thinks the child might like. Guesses should usually be small things so it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t work out. If the parent guesses the child would like a big thing, the parent should ask the child about it before spending a lot of resources on it.
With babies, parents start out guessing. These guesses are informed by our culture. People know, in general, what kinds of stuff babies commonly like and dislike. That gives the parent some ideas about how to help. Then the parent sees how the baby reacts, and what happens, and can start customizing the help and having some expectations. As children get older, they ask for more and more things. Once they are adults and move out, they still occasionally get help from their parents, and most of that help is specifically asked for.
At first, the parent controls the whole helping budget. Over time, he gives up control of an increasing large amount of the budget to the child. This makes rational budgeting harder. When the parent makes all the decisions, he can have a master plan. Parents are often stressed and don’t do a great job at bigger picture planning, but at least they can do it, and do give it some thought. Once the budget has two people deciding on expenditures, it’s harder to control and plan. The two people don’t have all the same goals. So one person is spending the budget for some goals, and the other is spending it for different goals, so it’s not all being used according to one single plan. People fight over budgets when they have different goals: John is trying to get Lily to do the stuff John thinks should be done, and wants help budget spent on that, but Lily has other ideas and wants more of the budget used her way. It gets really bad when people’s goals contradict and they are using shared resources, so they end up using up the resources to work against each other.
It’s hard for 10 year old Lily to control the helping budget because she doesn’t control the help provided in the expectations or guesses categories. And it’s hard for John to control the helping budget because he doesn’t control the help provided in the asks category. Lily does have some control about expectations (John is paying attention to what she likes, what she wanted in the past, etc) and guesses (Lily has less control here, but John tries not to spend a lot of budget on this because, for that reason, it’s a riskier category). And John does have some control over asks – he can say no or he can discuss whether an ask is a good idea and maybe change Lily’s mind.
John and Lily often don't see the costs or benefits of help the same way. Sometimes Lily asks for something which she believes is easy, but it's hard for John (it uses up a lot more budget than Lily expected). Sometimes John offers help which he thinks is very helpful to Lily, so it's worth the price. Lily accepts because it helps her a little, but it's not actually worth the price.
The budget model of helping can help John and Lily understand that there are limited resources (rather than just trying to do socially normal help in an ad hoc way) communicate about the costs and benefits of different ways of helping, think about big picture plans and goals, and try to figure out a budget which will do a good job of helping with those goals.