Buying stuff for the kids

photo-76Money and parenting are both fraught subjects. Mix them together and you have a recipe for strong feelings.

I wrote a whole chapter in All the Money in the World on the topic of what lessons to impart to one’s offspring about money, and while I wish I could say that cleared it all up for me, it did not. The problem is that my feelings are nuanced. My children are growing up in different circumstances than my husband and I grew up in. We both have rather viscerally negative reactions to the idea of spoiled, rich children. On the other hand, I can see that my own frugality (perhaps stinginess is a better word) can lead me to make poor choices. There is no point buying the brand of yogurt no one likes because it’s on sale. I could definitely have built my career faster if I’d been willing to pay for help earlier than I wound up doing so. We could have avoided a number of family tensions by paying for more childcare.

I don’t want my kids to feel entitled. On the other hand, I want them to know that money is a tool, and once your needs (including saving for the future) are taken care of, money is there to be used. And sometimes, using money as a tool means splurging on things because you know it will make other people happy.

Which leads us to stories of the giant panda and the Magic Tree House books.

My husband took our two oldest kids to Costco a week ago. He returned home with a gigantic plush panda (pictured). I was a bit surprised. If anything, in our last discussion on money, my husband had hammered home the desire not to raise entitled children harder than I had. When I think about spoiled rich children, gigantic plush stuffed animals figure prominently in the image that springs to mind.

He said it was on sale (it had a ripped seam; I stitched it closed). He said it was for our middle kid’s birthday (more than a month away). I suspect what happened is that the boys saw it, thought it would be really cool, and my husband realized that the sale price was the same as what we were about to pay for giant packs of steak and scallops. The cost was small in the economics of our household. The kids wanted it, so why not get it?

I went through a struggle with this same question later that week. My 6-year-old is obsessed with the Magic Tree House book series, and while he gets many of them at the library, he hasn’t been able to find the most recent two (#49 and #50). He asked if we could buy them. I hesitated — I don’t like just buying whatever the kids want, and I know he plows through these books in a few hours — but I said we might be able to. Then I went to Amazon right after our discussion and ordered them. It cost less than $20. That is a small fraction of what I’ve spent on shoes and clothes the past few days because I felt like I needed a back-to-school wardrobe, as if I’m going back to school anywhere. And while one of the packages I ordered is still sitting on my office floor unopened, the look on my son’s face when he opened his package was absolutely priceless.

I really have no idea how this will all shake out. My 6-year-old has been asking for an allowance (phrased as money for doing chores — its own can of worms), and is figuring out the concept of money and paying for things. That means we’ll need to settle on some things soon. Then again, there are only so many Magic Tree House books, and we probably won’t wind up with too many pandas, if for no other reason than that we’ll run out of space. As you can see from the photo, this thing is gigantic.

Do you buy things for your kids outside birthdays and holidays? What decision process do you use on whether to say yes or no? Do you give them an allowance? If so, is it for chores or not, and at what age did you start?

In other news: I had a column in USA Today yesterday called Work on vacation — so what? Yep, Americans work on vacation. It’s not the end of the world (and yes, I know that the world won’t end if we don’t work on vacation either). My being willing to work on vacation is one reason I’ve been able to take several weeks away this year.

I’m seeking sources for a story on how to use your assistant well. I’m especially looking for examples of how good assistants have made people enormously more productive. Shoot me an email if you’ve got a story: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

32 thoughts on “Buying stuff for the kids

  1. I buy books through Scholastic. It’s my monthly vice (or habit) during the school year. My mom had the same addiction– books were a necessity, and scholastic are so inexpensive. We don’t have MTH 49 and 50, but we do have #1-48, along with all the A-Z mysteries and several other series that DC2 reads over and over.
    We don’t buy toys pretty much at all because my in-laws I think are trying to make up for DH’s deprived (he didn’t find it so, but they lived in a trailer when he was little, and they make a lot more money now) childhood by way overcompensating with the grandkids. They buy too much stuff. (In fact, we stash the excess in his closet for birthday presents for other kids.) We also wouldn’t get a giant stuffed panda because it’s too big. If the grandparents weren’t so generous, we would probably do a little bit of summer buying because DC1 is a Christmas baby.
    Our 6 year old has an allowance, not tied to chores (which he has to do as a member of the family). He gets well under the average allowance (he gets 20 cents for each year of age, so $1.20 this year), but I think small amounts are good for teaching money management and limit the amount of candy that can be purchased.

    1. We have the same grandparent situation; we’ve rarely bought toys for our kids. Only when one of us (usually my husband) has something particular in mind that he wants them to have (usually something vehicle-related). I do buy books and puzzles, just because, throughout the year. Because of overly generous family, we’ve never actually bought either of our kids a birthday present, either. They haven’t noticed yet. We also have a christmas baby (older son). We are planning to get him a bike (if I can find one used) for an early early early birthday (or late-half-birthday) present.

      1. We should have gotten DC1 another bike this last Christmas (he outgrew the one they got him for his 3rd birthday)– we thought the grandparents would do that but instead they got him other things, big and small. (Why did they ask this year? I don’t know– usually they don’t ask.) Now that the weather is cooling down we should probably look into that again.

  2. Your post raises a number of interesting questions.
    1) Did you ever decide whether to give a significant portion of your family income to charity? (tithe, or similar) We give to our church, to community organizations and have supported a child through Compassion International for ~16 years. We just got a new child the age of our oldest son and hope this will help him to think about caring for others.

    2) What are your extended family obligations? Are there elderly relatives that need dental care and hearing aids, etc?

    Depending on whether I work (which has its own set of associated taxes and childcare costs), our family income is between the 85th and 95th percentile. I think it’s unlikely that our three children will all reach similar income levels so they will need to know how to be frugal.

    Birthdays in our families are close to Christmas so we celebrate half-birthdays. I suspect we may start providing gift cards which can be used for approved purchases (books at Amazon, etc.) throughout the year.

    Perhaps because we know many struggling single income families, I am careful how I spend in front of my children. They don’t yet understand that preschool and swimming lessons cost money but they happily clip random coupons from the Wednesday fliers with their coupons.

    I’ll be interested to see the other comments- my attitude toward food is, “If they’re in a situation where food is scarce, they’ll learn to eat what they can get very quickly.”

    My children don’t know what it is not to have money. We can fill the gas tank regardless of when pay day is. At least for them, I’m worried about their ability to adjust to a lower standard of living. If they have a higher standard of living, they’ll have to figure that problem out on their own. 🙂

  3. I struggle with this, too. We definitely buy the kids things outside of birthdays and holidays, but we try to limit it, and we talk about how we don’t need to buy everything we want, etc. But it is not an easy balance to find. I want to teach my kids that buying things won’t always make them happy, and that the happiness it does bring is usually fleeting- but that is a hard lesson to teach.

  4. I’ve been a single mother for the past 18 years and my exhusband chose not be involved in my sons lives – at all. Having all of the financial burden on me was, and still is difficult.

    Aside from birthdays and Christmas, I did sometimes buy them things. Usually little things like books, art supplies, etc. I would also bring them to the $2 Shop once in a while where they could choose a couple of things they wanted.

    I didn’t give them an allowance. Instead they each got a little money at the beginning of each school week. They could decide how to spend it and I encouraged them to save a dollar or two from this amount, but didn’t force them to. I wanted them to learn to budget this amount.

    I also was open with them about our household expenses. Not to worry them about bills, but so they would hopefully have a realistic understanding about money and responsibilities.

    As my children are now in their late teens / early twenties, I think they have a pretty good grasp of balancing needs and wants.

    1. @Jenn – I think taking the kids to a dollar shop and giving them a few bucks could be a way to teach the idea that you can’t get everything. But I’m especially intrigued about the idea of being open about household expenses. What age did you start doing that? One blog reader a few years ago noted that she’d done her father’s business book keeping for years, since she was a teenager, so everything was an open book.

      1. @Laura– My dad started teaching us stock investing around age 8 or 9. He always focused on Exxon, and any time it did something (mostly went up, spit dividends, occasionally went down, sometimes split, etc.) he’d show us. (Fond memories of getting Investor’s Daily at the corner store and opening it up to Exxon.)
        Now, I’m a big fan of index funds and ETFs (my first stock purchase was QQQ), but it’s good to know the basics of the market. I’ve heard people doing this with more “fun” stock like McDonald’s or Disney.

      2. @Laura,
        I’m not sure exactly what age I started having financial conversations with my boys. They were fairly young.
        I’ve had to have multiple jobs for a lot of the time to take care of my family, so I would have age appropriate conversations with them to explain things.
        I grew up clueless as to how much my parents struggled financially and how important it is to save and live within your means. I wanted to make sure my kids didn’t grow up in financial ignorance.
        On a side note: I was very open with many topics at age appropriate levels. I believe everyone, including children, make better decisions when they are educated.

  5. I always make my kid think about it for 2 weeks.. when they were little since I am relatively cheap I’d tell them the toy needs to sleep there in the store.. now I tell them think about it for 2 weeks if you still want it we will discuss.. then I remind them what I expect of them (brush teeth) – get up for ballet camp whatever it is… if they are with me in a store (joy of working motherhood is that they sometimes are) I stress that it is my money from working and I earned it and thought about what I am buying… I also try to stress gratitude and that material things are not a source of happiness… that we make our own happiness… I do better with this on things than food b/c I do have my own food issues and I use food as a reward or highlight in an activity and I probably shouldn’t do that… I always stress to my daughter that if she wants things she will have to work…

  6. another grey area would be what one buys that makes ones life easier but affects one’s parenting… I have someone who helps me with cooking and cleaning … so that said though if I feel a pizza dinner or something will make my life easier I usually go for it .. and probably should delegate more or be more strategic as often men are about my resources

  7. Nothing wrong with occasional splurges. “Occasional” being the key word, and so subjective.

    Some random thoughts:
    1. If you’re not ready for an allowance, give your child(ren) a Scholastic budget: you will buy (a certain number or dollar amount) of books this year. They learn to make decisions on allocating limited funds.

    2. Practice delayed gratification. Don’t buy something the minute your child wants it. Often times, my kids forget about a toy or video game as soon as they’re home. Maybe that giant panda will have lots of use in the next month. Maybe not.

    3. Practice going to the store and NOT buying something. We had fun outings at toy stores when my kids were younger to get ideas for Christmas and birthdays. They never (okay, rarely) begged for me to buy something that day because they knew they could just put it on their “wish list.” Over time, they could see that something they desperately wanted in October was crossed off their list by November.

    4. Try the “one in, one out” rule so kids’ rooms don’t get overwhelmed with stuff. We aren’t that disciplined but we do sort toys/belongings before Christmas and give away old things to make space for new things.

    5. Our kids get an allowance, and the opportunity to earn more money by doing extra chores. As a member of this family, they have to do their part regardless of whether they want their allowance money or not. They don’t have the option of saying no to doing dishes, cleaning their room, etc. But they can earn extra money if they do bigger jobs, like mow the lawn or weed the garden. (“outsourcing” within the family.)

    6. Perspective is everything. Give your children opportunities to see how the other half (or 90 percent) live. One volunteer experience made my kids see that not everyone can afford to eat every day. They even say “First World Problems” when they notice themselves complaining about something they don’t have.

    1. @Marci – great ideas. Closer to Christmas and birthdays we definitely have gone in stores and told kids, well, you can put that on the list. The easiest approach at the moment is we just don’t take them shopping much!

    2. as someone who works in latino marketing.. we don’t say first world.. that is very offensive to most folks born not in the US– you can say in another country etc.. b/c the question is .. what world do we live in .. we all live in the same first world as far as I know is not politically correct…
      the rest seems great!

      1. Thanks for letting me know, Cara. It’s one of those phrases you grow up hearing and don’t think about, but you’re right.

    3. I’m also intrigued by the idea of being open about family finances. I can see where it could backfire (if the kid sees what seem like astronomical amounts of $ and doesn’t get why $100 would mean much…because they can’t grasp the concept of saving for retirement or having an emergency fund). My parents taught me well how to be frugal, but our family’s financial situation was a big black box. My dad was great about buying me books about money management and letting me manage my allowance and babysitting money, but it would’ve been quite informative to see how money is managed in a real household and all the many considerations to take into account (vs. my own considerations for sweet valley high books and bonnie bell lip smackers).

  8. My kids aren’t old enough yet to ask for new toys, but I like Marci’s advice. For me, space and clutter is a big issue. I do buy toys outside of holidays but really try to limit it using the one in-one out rule. I also try to find a frugal substitute (see if we have something in-house before buying). I think it’s valuable to teach kids delayed gratification because this ability is crucial for successful savings / retirement as an adult. I know people who did not learn this as a kid and still can’t manage money as an adult.

  9. Oh, I want to add that parents can lead by example, too. A friend of mine buys a lot of expensive clothes/shoes/purses, which makes it harder for her to deny a child something if she’s constantly shopping for herself.

    1. @oilandgarlic – so I think this part is what trips me up. It’s taken me a while to get over pointless frugality. It is not a bad thing to have nice clothes if a major part of your business involves public speaking, for instance.

      1. I think Bill Cosby already covered this one for you- the clip is on youtube.

        “Your mother and I are rich. YOU are poor.”

      2. I definitely agree that quality work clothes are important but I guess I was thinking of people who have a closetful of clothes they don’t wear and shop a lot.

  10. I only have an 8-month-old, but I can only think of one toy my husband and I have bought him. Everything else… and there is a lot of everything… has come from his grandmother. Not sure how that’s going to shake out as time goes on…

      1. I don’t know…when the grandparents are really really overly generous, and the kids have rooms full of everything they could ever want, its the same problem as when the parents buy things. You are still left with the issue of teaching that “you can’t have everything you want”, or later, the concept of saving for things and making sacrifices. I can imagine a kid asking grandma for things mom and dad say no to, which misses the lesson.

        1. Recently we got into a little trouble when MIL discovered DC1 hasn’t seen the “just because” skylanders toys she’s been sending (along with clothes and toys for DC2). The ones that get you hooked into this pay for additional toys so you can play online thing. We are lucky that DH’s parents are so generous. I keep repeating that to myself.

  11. Love the scholastic budget idea. My kid is constantly asking for books and I generally say no, and give her a little money for her school book fair. But if she had a set amount for the year… interesting.

  12. My 7-year-old receives an allowance. It is $7 per week, and it gets divided into envelopes labeled Spend, Share and Save ($5/$1/$1). It has really cut down on what I call the “gimmies.” We went to the zoo gift shop on Sunday, and he used his own spend money to buy a stuffed animal. If we are on vacation, we usually tell him we will pay for a souvenir up to $20, and he can spend his own money for anything above that. He has become surprisingly frugal and has learned to comparison shop. He doesn’t have to pay for clothes, sports equipment or school items. My mother-in-law was very touched when he gave her $5 from his share money in her birthday card. The allowance is not tied to chores. I read pros and cons on this, but I don’t want to end up in a situation where he won’t clean or help around the house without being paid for it.

    1. @Natalie – that’s so sweet that he gave his grandmother birthday money! So generous. Whatever you’re doing it’s working 🙂

  13. Great topic, Laura, it really got me thinking…

    Natalie, I like your approach.

    I really hope our kids (4 & 3) grow up to become immune to the insane consumerism we see all around us. My husband and I don’t understand the obsession with having the newest/coolest thing (even if you don’t really need it). Our attitude is “if it isn’t broken, don’t buy a replacement”. I don’t think of it as frugality – to us, it is common sense. But, if you do have to buy something new, I am more than happy to pay extra for high quality. My grandmother used to say “I am not rich enough to buy cheap stuff”. I hope our attitude rubs of on our kids – after all, we got it from our families.

    I wonder how do people deal with teenagers, who “absolutely must have” the trendiest gadget/clothing. For my parents, this was easy: we couldn’t afford it and I understood it and was fine with it (but had to deal with sneers from my classmates). So what do you do if you CAN afford it – are you going to buy the “cool” stuff your child wants?

  14. This is something I struggle with a lot. I grew up in a “black box” situation financially as well where I had NO IDEA about the family finances – my parents did not think it was appropriate to share. I grew up privileged – private school, any college I could get into was fine for me to attend and not worry about finances, nice gifts at Christmas, etc.

    My parents always stressed the importance of charity and volunteer work, though (and still live this value in their 60s/70s) so I think I always had it in the back of my head that part of my responsibility is to give back, whether that be time or money.

    But in our family, I’m not sure how to proceed and we’re bumbling through as we go. I don’t buy many toys since the grandparents have it covered, plus the younger one has all the hand me downs from the older one.

    But we do tend to buy all the usual big gifts for Christmas/birthdays – tricycle, play kitchen, Balance Bike, etc.

    And I do buy books and puzzles just randomly (those are somehow in a separate “ok” category for me, probably because that was how I was raised!)

    I did recently make my 3.5yo save up for another set of Magformers, and she got paid 25 cents each time she put away her clean laundry. It took her AGES and she is so proud of having saved up the $8. (I figured I’d pay the other half) But in some ways, it seems like a pointless exercise. I mean, spending $16 on a toy isn’t going to break the bank here.

    Not sure what we’ll do about allowance going forward. She doesn’t ask me to buy her stuff when we’re out and about – that is one thing I CANNOT stand, so we started early on getting rid of that behavior. Time will tell if that sticks, though 🙂

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