Kids, toys and the value of money

This past Saturday, I took my 3-year-old along in the jog stroller as I went for a run (my husband stayed with the baby). I really like getting one-on-one time with him. We had a great time talking to each other and enjoying a surprisingly warm and sunny late fall day. Jasper was good in the grocery store, despite the epic Trader Joe’s line. Then, as promised, I took him to the book store. We read several books together, everything was going great and then…he found the Thomas and Friends toy display.

Leave aside the question of why, exactly, so many toys are being sold in a book store. We are obsessed with the wooden Thomas trains at the moment. He specifically saw Gordon, with his tender, and he asked for it. I had already broached that we might buy a book. So now what?

I decided to buy it pretty quickly — a ridiculously over-priced purchase at $21.99. Then I spent quite a while afterwards pondering what I had just done and why.

Growing up, I rarely got toys or other things apart from Christmas and my birthday (since my birthday is in December, that left most of the year as a present-less void). I didn’t particularly like spending my own money on things, either. The result is that I would basically decide not to want things, or tell myself I couldn’t have them.

I don’t like all the decisions I have made because of this mindset. I’ve written before of buying clothes only on sale, and then not really liking or wearing them. But on the other hand, I really don’t like the idea of a kid being spoiled, either. Jasper doesn’t know how much effort it takes to make $21.99. For starters, this is because he’s three. But beyond that, he’s never had a job where he earns $4.90 an hour standing on his feet taking orders for Italian food until he reeks of garlic. He doesn’t know that it can take five hours of unpleasant labor to buy a little toy train, of which he has 10 similar ones at home (though not Gordon, as he told me in the book store, and which turned out to be correct).

Of course, the reason he has ten of them is that those $4.90/hour days were a long time ago. I have been pondering Twyla Tharp’s quote that “Once your basic needs are taken care of, money is there to be used.” My 401k is funded. I have an emergency fund that could last me a long time. My kids have college funds and we all have health insurance. If we have been responsible on all those fronts, what’s wrong with having fun with my money? And there’s nothing more fun than listening to my 3-year-old babble all day about how “mommy and me had fun at the bookstore! And we got Gordon!” Stuff doesn’t make us happy, but stuff you really play with turns into an experience. And he has played with Gordon non-stop since Saturday.

Aside from the question of being able to afford it, I also realized that being unwilling to spend $21.99 on something to make my child happy would be a bit selective. The night before, I ordered two margaritas when out to eat with my brother (to make me happy), and I’m quite sure the bill for those was around $22. I had pondered, on the same excursion in which we purchased Gordon, stopping by The Children’s Place, because Jasper “needed” new pajamas. I could easily have blown $22 in there. Indeed, I did spend more than $22 at the grocery store, mostly on items that we could have survived without. I probably would have bought him a Thomas book, even though I’m not sure that a book filled with television characters is particularly virtuous. So why would I draw the line at a toy?

I guess the answer is that I don’t want my son to grow up not valuing money. I don’t want him to feel entitled to toys. I really don’t want him to whine for them every time we go to the book store! I don’t want him to grow up to spend $21.99 on toys before he has an emergency fund, health insurance, etc. I want to teach him to live within his means, not just in a mindset of deprivation, but because he doesn’t suffer from a constant acquisitiveness. I want him to know that there is great freedom in having no debt, and building up enough wealth that he can make his own choices. I read the same horror stories as everyone else of grown-up young adults who rack up credit card debt and expect their parents to bail them out.

But these are all complicated questions. In the meantime, I’ve started looking on eBay for Thomas engines, so at least I’m not paying retail as I give in to these indulgences.


7 thoughts on “Kids, toys and the value of money

  1. Stop feeling so guilty. The kid is three! He is not even capable of learning (or caring) about 401k funding or health insurance. And he shouldn’t have to. He knows nothing about any of those things. He knows Gordon. And he loves him. If you bought it because you wanted to buy it for him, that’s one thing. If you bought it because you were afraid of a tantrum in the bookstore, that’s entirely different. I doubt that he felt entitled. He just really wanted Gordon. And you had the means to get it for him and you did. the end.

    1. @Diana- probably true. And he really does love the toy — he keeps talking about it and playing with it, so there we go. But like I said, I think I will start hunting on eBay for these trains…

  2. Umm, I question in general the value of toys to young children. WE buy them, they loose them or get bored of them so fast. I think if they are into something it is great to encourage their interests and trains are a kind of intellectual interest… I mean if he grows up to be like a civil engineer one day… you can pat yourself on the back…

    But things don’t buy happiness… and the ability to live on less and just know where your stuff is and really value say experiences over material things is good… But frugality has its limit… I mean how long will he be 3 and want to spend all day with you in the bookstore or be that into trains

    My daughter’s bday presents — half of them we didn’t even give her b/c I felt she couldn’t really enjoy that many gifts at once (she is only 2 and it is like overload for them) so I am giving them at xmas — this of course does not work once they know the difference… but nowadays a kid has a bday party and gets 20 gifts and where do you even put 20 gifts…

    I also have walked out of stores when she starts asking for stuff b/c I think window shopping is fun for a two year old and they go on to the next thing so fast…. by the time you get the toy home sometimes it is like they don’t remember.. and it teaches that just b/c we went into a store we don’t have to buy anything (umm store clerks do not really like this )

    At least he has a brother so all toys can be passed down (and of course girls love trains too!)

    More important than not buying things is maybe teaching them to keep their things clean and value their things so they last… I mean if you value what you buy and it brings you pleasure as this seems to … it seems good… and you don’ want all your money in your 401K — just for when you are old and your kid is not a kid and not interested in the bookstore with you…

  3. Of course money can’t buy love. And we want to teach our kids all the important things. But we also want to just shower them with love, and sometimes that means spending frivolous money on them because they want something.

    If you do it all the time, that’s likely a problem. But sometimes you just need to be extravagant. Parenting (like life in general) is a mixture of body, mind and soul– the physical, the mental and the emotional. All are necessary ways of expressing love.

    Don’t let fear rule you. “Perfect love casts out fear.” While that means something different in its full context, it turns out to be an excellent, general principle.

    1. @Miles – thanks for your comment. I like what you are saying. Why am I so worried about my child being spoiled? I want him to experience moments of great joy, and sometimes that involves spending money. Especially in ways that show I’m thinking about what he would like.

  4. OMG they want to put everything in the bath tub! They don’t know better and it is super cute, but not good for the books or trains!

    I’ve bought that chicken little book twice b/c it went in the bath tub. I used to skim read things while she was in the bath tub b/c I was standing right next to her and used to give her a bath in the sink… and then she started wanting to take the books in the bath tub… bad mommy for trying to multitask!

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