"No" vs "I can't afford it" - What I wish we had known
DH grew up with nothing, taught himself a trade, and has built a business over 40 years (with my help for last 20) that finally does well for us. (I also have always had a steady, corporate job that provides a respectable salary and benefits. When my SS's were young, DH couldn't afford a lot for them, but always did his best. Kids were frankly quite privileged. SS's had ski passes & equipment every year, played club soccer and club ice hockey and related summer camps and travel teams. They had dirt bikes and road trip/camping vacations. When I entered the picture (they were 8 & 12), the gear and the vacations got a lot nicer, as my salary was 2-3 times what DH made, and I contributed. But whenever they would ask for something DH did not want to get for them, or BM would demand for them, DH's stock answer was always "I can't afford it." This got us into a world of trouble and hurt that has lasted 20 years, and shows no signs of abating.
"I can't afford it" is an easy thing to say, but is open to vast misinterpretation, by both children and divorced spouses. BM would highlight things we bought, or trips we took, and characterize that as our greed/ neglect/ not caring about them. And then DH & I had 2 kids, and the comparisons got really nasty. I was resented for having a "private nanny" when SS's had been shipped off to day care. The difference being, both DH & I worked full time challenging jobs, whereas BM occasionally dabbled in a part time job, but needed kids out of the house during the day so that she could have a little "me-me-me" time. ("Mental health is important, y'all!")
You gotta do the tough work of explaining to kids that although technically you could afford something, it's not aligned with your values and here's why. Doesn't matter if you are talking about cars, college, or the $20 cash they constantly ask for for nonsense. "I love you but I think it's important not to get in the habit of eating out whenever you are hungry. Compared to making yourself something at home, it's expensive and can be unhealthy." is a lot more work than "I can't afford to give you $20 every time you are hungry and are too lazy to make yourself something to eat." In our case, the latter was said too often, and gave BM ammo to characterize it as DH didn't love his boys, was greedy and cheap.
Lately SS #2 has been enjoying revisiting all the things he was denied as a teen and young adult, characterizing it as our cheapness and greed. At one point, I told him it was unreasonable to expect us to buy a house/ new car for an adult child (he was 26/27 when he though we should do this for him. ) He said we had the money, but just didn't want to because we are greedy and cheap. I said I certainly didn't have the money to do it for all four of our kdis when adults. He actually told me we shouldn't have had an additional 2 kids if we "couldn't afford" to support the ones we already had.
Yep. He said that.