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.