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Raising Frugal Children

As Published In Professional Organizers Blog Carnival
Raising Frugal Children

Next to buying a house or a car, having kids is the biggest money drainer that most people will experience in their lives. Children these days are expensive — in addition to the basic costs of clothing and feeding them, you’ve got summer camps, private schools, piano lessons, video game systems, and birthday parties to think about, as well. Or do you? Perhaps the key to making child-rearing more affordable is tempering expectations — both yours and your child’s.

Teaching Kids (And Parents) About Money

According to data from the USDA, you can count on your child costing you between $150,000 and $300,000 by the time he or she graduates from high school — that’s not counting college expenses! But a lot of that has to do with HOW you raise them. If your children are used to getting everything they want the minute they ask for it, the price tag will be a lot higher than if you start setting boundaries early on.

A good part of your job as a parent is to determine what’s reasonable and affordable, then set the limits accordingly. Growing up should be about learning life skills that will help you thrive as an adult — and the most important of those is the joy of “delayed gratification.” But it’s also important that you as the adult examine society’s basic assumptions about child-rearing “necessities.” Following every new expensive parenting trend (even those endorsed by the schools and women’s magazines) is not always the healthiest or most frugal attitude. You can raise happy, confident children just as easily (if not more so) on a budget.

  • learn to say no (your job as the parent is to set limits — you lay down rules designed to protect your children’s best interests and teach them values — you don’t let your kids run around in the street because it’s dangerous — you don’t encourage them to eat ice cream for breakfast because it’s bad for their health — you wouldn’t allow them to track mud into the house or jump on the sofa until the thing collapses because it creates more work and expense for your entire family — so why on earth do you let them drive you into debt by endlessly giving in to their every material whim?? — kids who are given too much too soon develop a sense of entitlement, always thinking that they “deserve” more — and entitlement is a hard habit to break — the child who owns 5 different video game systems, 3 bikes, and a playroom full of toys he never touches is going to grow into a man who needs expensive cars and houses and gadgets to feel good, even when he can’t afford them — overindulging your children materially is as damaging as allowing them to overeat until they become obese — all you’re doing is setting up unreasonable expectations that are going to follow them into adulthood and all the way to the poorhouse — you might say, “but they really want it” — so what? — they might want to practice lighting fires in the garage or go a week without brushing their teeth, and you wouldn’t allow that — for a good portion of your children’s lives, you know what’s better for them — you teach them valuable lessons by drawing boundaries, and the same goes for dealing with money)
  • make them earn that allowance (I’ve never understood the point behind giving children a weekly allowance for doing nothing — in my mind, the whole purpose of an allowance is to reward kids for helping out around the house, while teaching them to enjoy the fruits of their labors — by the time a child is old enough to earn an allowance, he’s old enough to do chores — kindergartners can help set a table or pick up their toys, grade-schoolers should be able to feed a household pet or load the dishwasher, older kids can take out the trash or wash mom and dad’s cars — allowances are there to help prepare children for jobs and paychecks as adults, and I don’t know too many grown-ups who get paid for doing nothing!– plus, that child is going to appreciate and value the money he receives more when he’s had to put in a little sweat-equity to earn it — you can bet that a kid who raked leaves for 3 hours to get his allowance will be a lot more cautious about blowing the whole wad on something frivolous, than the child who was simply handed a fistful of cash!)
  • teach your kids to budget (as your child matures into an adult, a good understanding of money is going to be crucial to his success in the world — there’s nothing worse than a 19-year-old college student who gets behind in his rent or racks up ridiculous credit card bills that mom and dad have to pay because no one ever taught him how to manage his finances — so start now by setting your kid up on a budget — a reasonable arrangement is one in which you take care of his basic needs, in terms of food, clothing, school supplies, family entertainment, and the like — but any “extras” have to come out of his allowance or afterschool job earnings — this includes high-end sneakers that cost more than you’re prepared to spend on shoes, ring tones, cell phone apps, video games, outings with friends, trendy clothes that will go out of fashion next season, and maybe even the monthly payments or insurance for his first car — then teach your child how to prioritize expenses and plan for costs that will be coming up down the road — if he gets a $20 per week allowance and really wants to buy a $60 video game when it’s released 3 months from now, he should be expected to forgo other expenses in the mean time, saving his money up for that big purchase — be willing to engage in discussion if there’s some debate about what’s a “necessity” and what’s a “luxury,” but hold your ground — if your child spends his money foolishly, then doesn’t have enough for something he really wants later, it will be a lesson learned)
  • curb the urge to spend (so much of our spare time as a society is spent engaging in activities that encourage the spending of money — we watch infomercials, the Home Shopping Network, and TV shows filled with product placements and advertisements — we receive fliers in the mail and coupons in the paper, telling us to act now, because this sale expires soon! — we surf the internet and get daily online alerts of special offers — we spend hours on the weekends, wandering through shopping plazas and big-box stores, searching for the latest greatest life-changing products — people no longer go shopping because they need something specific — shopping has become an endless and fruitless search for the next “thing” we just can’t live without — every time we are introduced to something new, we have an immediate, “I want that” response — and you know that if adults are susceptible to buying things they don’t need and didn’t even know existed, kids are ten times as vulnerable — the best way to prevent them from coming up to you every other day with a new request is to limit their exposure — turn off the TV, limit their time on the computer, and send your kids outside to play instead of to the mall — the fewer things they see available for purchase, the fewer things they’re going to want you to buy them!)
  • help children learn to love “used” (as a child, I was inducted into the world of yard-salers, thrift-store shoppers, and consignment fashionistas — I learned early on that if I had a limited amount of pocket money to spend, I could get more bang for my buck if I bought board games and books and sports equipment used — and the good news is, there’s nothing out there that you can’t find second-hand — take your kids on outings to trade old video games and movies and books for “new-to-you” ones — help them find the best prices on Ebay and the Amazon Marketplace, instead of going to the mall — take them back-to-school shopping at a hipster consignment store, where they can get the hottest name brands for a fraction of the price — and if the idea of “used” initially embarrasses them, remind your children that no one else has to know it was gently-worn — and the compliments they get on the first day of class will make all their worries disappear)
  • question the supply lists (teachers these days often give parents ridiculously long lists of “required supplies” for class — many of these ask families to provide basic essentials like kleenex and paper towels and hand sanitizer — pretty soon, they’ll be asking children to bring their own TP to school! — some suggest that kids need items like dry erase boards and electric pencil sharpeners and glitter for art class, which really should be provided by the school — and others simply go overboard with the quantities, requiring children to buy 5 dozen pencils or 8 packs of loose leaf paper or 6 different brands of markers for the start of the year — these lists began as a way to help parents make smarter shopping decisions, but they’ve been blown all out of proportion in recent years — talk to the teacher about items you find extraneous or unnecessary — make it clear that you’ll outfit your child with everything he or she needs, but you’re not going to waste money buying out the store “just in case” — start with the essentials, then ask to be notified when and if your child needs something special for class — but do not be bullied into spending more than you can afford, — there is no reason your kid can’t learn and participate and create with just the basics)
  • inventory before you shop (some parents immediately run out and buy everything on the supply list as soon as they receive it, like some Pavlovian back-to-school response — but how much of what’s “required” do you already have around the house? — gather everything together from your kid’s room, all the various book bags and pencil boxes, your office, and the craft area — your goal is to compare and consolidate — if the supply requisition asks for a bottle of glue and you have three partial bottles, pour them all into one and cross that item off your list — lay out all of your loose crayons, toss the broken stubs, and see if you can pull together an acceptable assortment of 24 — empty binders holding outdated information and recycle them for the new year’s schoolwork — find 50 blank index cards among the miscellany of papers in your home, and you’ve got the equivalent of a full pack — hell, locate enough odd sheets of loose notebook paper, and you may not need a shopping trip at all!)
  • learn to re-use (there’s always a big pressure, usually sponsored by the stores selling supplies, for kids to have everything “new” at the start of each school year — how ironic, when you consider that most of those products are simply marketing vehicles for the latest movies, television shows, and toy lines! Wink — besides, kids’ tastes are so quixotic and changeable, it’s pretty much pointless to try and keep up — I mean, if you get school supplies decorated with Dora The Explorer this year, what ever will you do when Dora’s out of fashion? — the trick to buying items kids will use over and over again is to avoid the fads — better to choose a style that can make the transition from one year’s pop culture to the next — and with items that need to be reused from year to year, durability is a higher priority than price — it’s far more frugal to splurge on a higher-end brand that’s built to last, than to have it fall apart after one season and need replacing — this is especially true with book bags, backpacks, and lunch storage containers)
  • stock up (your children are going to need school supplies all year long, so why not buy for the entire year when you find a good sale? — set aside a closet or cabinet for educational “paraphernalia” and plan to keep it filled from the first day of kindergarten through to graduation — buying in bulk is almost always less expensive than shopping for smaller quantities — and you save yourself having to run out to get more of something at regular price when Johnny runs out the night before a project is due — but I’m not just talking about those “back-to-school” sales or tax free weekends — many businesses raise their prices before discounting them so as not to lose money, or push you toward expensive brands which are going to cost more on sale than others might even at regular price — off-season sales are better, like the deep discounts you find on Black Friday or during the January inventory reductions — you might even luck up during some random sale your local office supply store offers because they’re overstocked in one particular area — always keep your eye out for bargains, and be prepared to load up when they come your way)
  • stop chasing the technology (in my day, back-to-school meant a new lunchbox and a Trapper Keeper, but now kids seem to feel they need new laptops, cell phones, iPads, and more in order to learn — well, guess what — not everything has to be “new” just because it’s a new school year — they’re going to whine that their friends have one, they’re going to promise to be good, they’re going to insist that they can’t function without the latest app/feature/upgrade — but when it comes to expensive electronics, you need to make it clear up front that this purchase will have to last your child for several years, regardless of what new technology comes out — you might also talk to your school about borrowing or renting laptops if purchasing would put too big a dent in your budget — with classes becoming so dependent on the internet for basic learning, these sorts of programs are popping up all throughout school districts)
  • cheaper schoolbooks (throughout my public school education, I was always provided my books for free — however, shrinking budgets combined with the popularity of homeschooling and private education have placed the burden for purchasing textbooks on parents — and once your kids hit college, materials fees can rival what you’re paying for tuition — but it’s silly to pay full-price for new textbooks, when you can find the same edition for less on the used market — of course there’s always Amazon, but search the web and you’ll find dozens of companies that both buy and sell used textbooks — and the earlier you start shopping, the better your chances at a full stock and a good price — so ask your school for a book list that includes ISBN numbers as soon as possible, preferably before the end of the previous school year, so you have plenty of time to shop around)
  • save on school clothing (who says you have to fill your children’s closets at the start of fall? — it makes more sense to buy those staples you know they’re going to need throughout the year, as you see them go on sale — you can often get a better deal on things like jeans, tees, socks, sweatshirts, outerwear, and underwear on Black Friday or during the January clearance sales — and who says school has to be a fashion show in the first place? — many school districts are now suggesting the exact opposite, imposing dress codes that severely limit a child’s wardrobe options — while this might irritate your teen, it’s going to save you money in the long run — simply inform your child that you aren’t buying any clothes for them that do not meet school dress code guidelines, and if they want the latest hippest fashions to wear out on the weekends, they can purchase them with their own money — you also don’t have to completely replace your child’s wardrobe just because the fads have shifted since last year — provide your children with classic base pieces, then teach them how to accessorize — the fine art of mixing and matching means fewer outfits to buy)
  • avoid the uniform blues (many districts have moved to uniforms to help parents save money and also cut down on classroom distractions caused by “fashion wars” — however, buying new from the school store can get expensive after a while — try to only buy the pieces that are specific to the school from the school, like a jacket or tie with the school insignia — you can even ask to buy the insignia separately and attach it to an item you already have in your child’s closet — or check around your town and on the internet for uniform banks and other places that sell used — those jackets and plaid skirts are so well-made that you can easily get several seasons out of them — also remember that many uniforms involve nothing more than khaki/navy pants/skirts paired with white/blue button-up shirts — you can shop for these at the same sales as those whose children wear jeans and tees to class — and if you simply must have “new,” either shop online for discount school uniforms or postpone your shopping until after school starts — many times, once the rush is over, the price drops)
  • extracurricular items (when a child participates in any sort of “extracurricular,” he or she may be given school-provided uniforms, but will still be required to purchase a few supplies — every kind of sport has different shoes and pads, marching band means another pair of shoes and possibly gloves or suspenders, performance arts could require a variety of leotards or taps or ballet slippers — those items will last a lot longer if you only allow your child to use them for that particular class or activity — no wearing those $200 specialty track sneakers to go hiking! — also search for buy-one-get-one sales, which let you outfit your child for all his many ventures at half the price)
  • ask for free tutoring (if your kids are struggling with their studies, you might pay $20 an hour for a private tutor — but many districts offer free afterschool tutoring sessions with teachers, all you have to do is ask — also check with your public library or community center for both in-person and online tutoring programs for kids who live in the surrounding neighborhoods — if you are military, your kids can get free access to help at Tutor.com — and hundreds of thousands of students are eligible for free tutoring under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but less than 15% of them are taking advantage of the program — there are lots of options out there, but you have to be persistent to hunt them down)
  • take advantage of online classes (trying to help kids get a leg-up for college and the job world has become a multi-million dollar industry in this country — but even if you’re frustrated with the quality of the schools in your area, there’s no reason to have to pay for private tuition — more and more online public schools are popping up, offering free virtual courses in everything from the three R’s to advanced physics and speaking Chinese — these are a great supplement for the child who wants to take special class outside of his normal curriculum, or who just needs a little help getting caught up on a particular subject — and many universities offer non-credit courses through the internet to anyone who wishes to download the class materials)
  • a better private school option (a lot of people are, quite rightly, disappointed in the quality of education their kids are getting at the local public school — they want to have more say in their children’s curriculum, they’re tired of being at the mercy of moronic school boards who are too concerned with their own agendas to worry about teaching kids — private tuition is just too much for most families to swing, but there’s another option available in charter schools — also known as “schools of choice,” these are public schools with public funding, so there are no tuition expenses — charter schools are meant to be legally and financially autonomous, without fees, religious affiliation, or selective student admissions — they are run by their own school boards and are free from some of the regulations and statutes that might apply to other public schools — in return for this freedom, the school is held accountable for producing certain results, as set forth in its charter — these kinds of schools may be founded by teachers, parents, activists, non-profit groups, universities, or some government entities — if you’re looking for a schooling option that allows more parental involvement without tying you to a lot of expense or a particular religious affiliation, this might be the solution)
  • limit their activities (a lot of what makes raising offspring so expensive is a well-meaning parent’s attempts at giving that child evertyhing he or she never had — you want your kid to have every possible opportunity, so you sign her up for soccer, band, ballet, Girl Scouts, softball, 4-H, Spanish club, swim team, debate, and baton twirling — not only is your schedule so crazy that no one has time to breathe, but you’re now broke from all the added costs! — every activity comes with a price tag, whether it’s for uniforms, annual dues, equipment, field trips, or just going out for ice cream after each game — an easy way to teach your child good time management skills and frugality is to limit the number of activities — each semester, allow your child to pick just a few activities — maybe one sport, one academic club, and one civic group — or you might even go so far as to ask what their ONE favorite activity is and focus all your efforts solely on that — you’ll definitely spend less on group participation, and your child will learn how to prioritize)
  • find alternatives to fees (sometimes, your child is going to want to participate in activities that really stretch your budget, possibly even to the point of breaking — that doesn’t mean you have to say “no,” but something’s got to give — talk to your kids about what’s really important to them, and suggest that they might choose to trade their birthday and holiday gifts for the cost of that activity — ask grandparents and other relatives to sponsor camp fees, equipment, and uniforms in lieu of the more typical annual gifts and it’s a win-win for everyone — many times, you can also reduce expenses by participating in fundraising or volunteering efforts for that specific activity — you might have a car wash or work a concession stand or sell raffle tickets to cut down on costs — look for creative opportunities to partner with your community — when I was in high school, band members handed out food samples at the local grocery store to earn “credits” toward an upcoming trip, and the store donated money to the band to cover our travel expenses)
  • prioritize sales campaigns (I understand that school budgets are suffering, and that fundraising has taken the place of government dollars in many districts — but kids shouldn’t have to put all their other activities aside in order to bring in revenues for the district — my friends’ children seem to be in a constant state of selling something — candy, calendars, Girl Scout cookies, coupon books, gift wrap, candles, scratch-off cards, you name it — unfortunately, it’s mostly parents and family members who end up buying all this stuff, so that’s sort of defeating the purpose of trying to defray costs — and in most instances, the school is only getting a fraction of the sale — so why not just ask people to write the whole check directly to the school? — not to mention the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and if every weekend is taken up with a fundraising event, you’re kid is probably involved in too many activities — support one or two really good fundraisers a year, ones where you know the school is getting all of the money, and let the rest go)
  • get involved (so many of the decisions that affect a parent’s wallet are made at PTA and school board meetings, amongst team coaches and troop leaders, even by neighborhood groups — so if you have a problem with what you’re being asked to pay for, take on a leadership role and start shaping policy — you might disagree with the fact that your child’s teacher insists you supply her with paper towels, ziploc bags, disinfectant, and copy paper — or you may think it’s ludicrous that cafeterias are restricting what kids can bring in a packed lunch, requiring them to eat the more expensive food served by the school — don’t just sit at home and bitch, join the committee that deals with this issue and try to bring about change — or if there is no committee, form one — when parents abdicate power over to teachers and administrators, they aren’t doing their children’s educations or their bank accounts any favors)
  • lower the bar (I remember when a child’s birthday party meant just a few friends, cake, balloons, and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey — now, you’re expected to invite every kid in the class, hire clowns and musicians, set up a petting zoo, inflate a bouncing house, and have the whole affair catered with enough food to feed a small country — the level of competition and has become ridiculous, each mom or dad trying to “outdo” the other in order to show what amazing parents they are — you can see it with birthdays and bat mitzvahs, the presents kids receive on Christmas morning, the cars they buy 16-year-olds — this sort of thing is contagious, but the same is true of the opposite — when one parent puts a halt to the escalation wars and consciously explains that decision to both their kids and the other parents, suddenly things change — the pressure is lifted and the community regains a sense of perspective — I’ve even seen that return to simpler, less-materialistic ways become a movement within the neighborhood, a source of pride among those who want to teach their kids some values)
  • go easy on the school pictures (of course you want to keep a record of your child’s progress through life, but that doesn’t mean you need to break the bank every time school pictures are taken — some districts are now scheduling multiple photo sessions each year, as well as picture-taking for different sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities — first off, there’s no law that says you HAVE to buy the school photo at all — there’s nothing stopping you from taking your child’s portrait yourself and having copies made for all the families at a much reduced rate — or rather than paying the higher price-tag for in-school pics, you can take your child to Target or J.C. Penney or one of the other department store studios for a free sitting and a super-affordable pack of prints — you might also ask if you can help out on school picture day, as many districts provide those who volunteer with reduced-price or free photo packages — if you do intend to buy a package, plan your strategy in advance and buy no more copies than you absolutely have to, or you’ll end up with a drawer full of extras every year — figure out exactly who needs a snapshot of your little darling and what size would be most appropriate — most folks are entirely happy with wallet-sized pics, so don’t get talked into lots of upgrades and extras and big 8 x 10 prints — and just remember, much as everyone on the planet loves your child, they don’t all need a picture every year — save the prints for those who are really going to treasure them)
  • avoid the cafeteria (school lunch prices continue to rise as quality circles the drain — it’s healthier and less expensive to pack that mid-day meal yourself, as long as you don’t resort to “convenience foods — giving your kid leftovers, a sandwich, homemade soup, or even cut veggies and hummus can cost you as little as $1.35 per meal — while snack-packs, single serving containers of pre-packaged foods, and microwave meals are at least as expensive if not more than the cafeteria lunch)
  • stop playing chauffeur (adults have gotten into a bad habit in this country of catering to children’s transportation whims — every time a kid asks to be taken somewhere, that automatically means some grown-up has to get behind the wheel of a car — what happened to riding your bike to a friend’s house, walking to the store, carpooling to the football game, and riding the school bus? — start requiring your children to figure out their own locomotion once in a while, especially the older ones — you might even allow your teens to take your car a day or two a week when they know they’ll have afterschool activities, as long as they arrange their schedules so they can drop you off an pick you up at work and will pay for the gas — and at the very least, require your kids to plan ahead and let you know when they’ll need a ride in advance so you at least have the option to make other arrangements — no more popping up at the last minute saying, “Can you give me a ride?”)
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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Trudy Hanley says:

    Will pass on your website address to my daughter. She’s a single Mom of four children and your tips are great! She’s heard them from me but a little back-up will be extra incentive. Many thanks!

  2. Sharon says:

    Hi what you are saying is so true. Kids grow up rotten if they are too spoilt. Besides, they will get a rude shock when they can’t provide for themselves a life that is close to what they had been given at home while growing up.
    Thanks for the post, to easy to forget these points and get caught up in the keeping up with the jones syndrome, so to speak.

  3. Janet says:

    This is all good advice, but having raised two kids, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier said than done!

  4. Ruth says:

    We personally give the kids a weekly allowance just so they stop asking us for a handout ALL. THE. TIME. They are expected to help with chores around the house just because they are part of the family.

  5. Ramona says:

    I think that an allowance is a great idea, Ruth — not just to keep them from hounding you, but also to teach them about limits (“you can spend what you get and no more” kind of thing). I have a friend who also encourages her grade-schooler to put some of that allowance in savings — whatever she saves and doesn’t touch for at least 6 months, mom and dad match in her savings. She’s turning into a little financier right before their eyes!

  6. Jennifer says:

    Don’t have any! CQ

  7. Ramona says:

    Amen to that, sista!

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