It’s the end of another calendar year; and as we approach the New Year, many of you will be moaning over depleted bank accounts and higher credit balances. Some of you will make resolutions to reign in that spending. Others will feel shame, guilt, a need to self-flagellate, to punish or torture themselves as penitence for out-of-control spending. And if you’re parents to once-bundles-of-joy-who-demand-expensive-gifts-but-get-bored-with-them-after-a-week, you might threaten retribution. “Because you don’t appreciate what I gave you, I’m giving you underwear and socks for the next three birthdays.”
There are alternatives. You don’t have to make New Year’s Resolutions to reign in out-of-control spending. You don’t have to inflict self-harm to punish yourself. You don’t have to threaten your children with utilitarian gifts. You can change the course you’re taking.
You can teach your children frugality. You can give your children a lifetime lesson they can implement during good times, and bad.
I’m not suggesting that you should teach your children to reuse tea bags, that you should raise hens in your backyard, or dumpster dive for precious morsels. No. I’m suggesting that you should teach your children that spending money is about making choices, about creativity, about self-control. It’s about making a change in a mindset, about documenting expenditures, and realizing that little things do add up. Those flavored lattes at $4.00/cup, those breakfast sandwiches on the go, those quick stops for prepared dinner food at the market all add up to a lot of money. And that money you casually blow could be saved for a family vacation, to buy something special, memorable, something the entire family can benefit from. It can also be used to pay off debt, your car and mortgage, college tuition, or any other serious expenses that arise. And major expenses do arise.
I first became aware of frugality in my 20s and 30s. I was working for a company that paid its employees once a month. That one paycheck had to last an entire month. We had little kids. We had to pay utilities, rent, car payments, and food from that once-a-month paycheck. So I joined a food coop, one where I could purchase bulk products. I shopped at supermarkets that carried bulk and set a grocery budget. And I shopped for clothing at consignment and thrift stores. I wasn’t a die-hard tightwad. But I noticed that not spending money on fast food and not running to the supermarket for one missing item and coming home with three grocery bags did add up.
Then I subscribed to a handy little newsletter called The Tightwad Gazette. Published by Amy Dacyzyn, a military wife and mother to six children, The Tightwad Gazette, a compilation in book form, created a cult following. Dacyzyn insisted that by documenting expenditures, by consciously journaling (yes like a food journal) where money was spent, one would cut back and save. She was living proof. She had a debt-free life, a Maine farmhouse paid in full, and she and her husband had raised six children on an annual naval salary of $29,000.
When my now-twenty-four-year-old daughter turned four, I decided to apply some of her principles, just to see if I could. I threw an enormous birthday party for my daughter with a $25 budget. Sure, it took some planning. I made homemade ice cream, a triple-layer chocolate birthday cake (to this day, it’s the best cake I ever made). I made prizes from the lids of orange juice cans, melted crayons, and aluminum foil. And the exhilaration that I could keep to that budget really taught me what I hadn’t been doing all along.
I don’t generally practice frugality like Amy Dacyzyn, but her suggestions are sound and the lessons she offers, that she passed down to her own children, make perfect sense and teach resiliency and creativity. What are other lessons your children could learn from frugality?
Self Sufficiency: Not all children will appreciate this. My older sons used to complain that there was nothing in the house but bulk food that had to be cooked. As teenagers, they were hungry, always hungry. And the food they wanted to eat, they wanted it to be ready for consumption in a second–not in an hour. Some of my daughters remembered the lessons of cooking from scratch, of buying bulk supplies, of always having staples and replicated those lessons in their own homes. Some didn’t. But they did learn self-sufficiency. Two birthdays ago, my 25-year-old son decided he was going to make me a birthday cake, as a surprise. He found a recipe, enlisted his 11-year-old sister, and gathered ingredients to make the cake. After adding five pounds of flour and a dozen eggs into a mixing bowl, he paused. “Something doesn’t feel right.” When he checked the recipe, he realized he’d followed a recipe for a multi-layer wedding cake, and not for a two-layer birthday cake. Rather than throw the entire fiasco into the trash, he adjusted. The cake, a purple three layer monstrous birthday cake was much larger than he planned. It fed over twenty people, and went into the family annals of storytelling. I could not have been prouder. The cake, dense, moist, slightly sweet, and grossly misshapen was delicious and illustrated how this child had internalized self-sufficiency.
Delayed gratification: The most difficult aspect of frugality for some kids is the delayed gratification. For one of my children, waiting for a special pair of leggings or boots from her favorite store is agonizing. The store in question gives out special dollars that are good only during certain dates. During the waiting period, I try to influence this child with shopper’s sense. I tell her that shopping before Christmas is crazy; the only time to purchase anything of value is after New Year’s when merchants are clearing out inventory. It’s when some stores slash prices by 75 percent. That’s when I buy most of the kids’ clothing, shoes, major appliances, gift wrap or anything else I might use in the coming year. It’s hard for me too. I have to plan, to resist impulse shopping like my daughter. But gradually, ever so gradually, she’s picking up the habits. When January approaches, she looks for store circulars, looks for the best buys on items she’s waited patiently for. And when I’m certain the prices on her favorite leggings couldn’t possibly drop any further, we buy them.
But there’s a more important lesson in teaching children delayed gratification. According to Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, “learning self-control, even over other [urges] is an important part of psycho-social development. It teaches young people how to delay gratification and certainly not to seek it at the expense of someone else’s physical, emotional, or social well-being.” As children grow into adults, there will be less parental supervision. And children turned adults will find themselves in situations with greater temptation and greater risk. Not exerting delayed gratification can lead to some pretty serious ramifications such as drug abuse, alcoholism, and unwanted pregnancy. By teaching your children lessons of delayed gratification, you are providing them with practice for life’s temptations during the adolescent and early adult years.
Setting and maintaining a budget: This is a hard one. My eight year old still doesn’t get that money isn’t always available if I stick my ATM card into the bank machine. He doesn’t understand that the dollar bills that shoot out of the machine are finite. What comes out must go in and once the money’s gone, it’s gone. Teaching children how to budget is a valuable life skill. Learning how to budget is learning how to live within boundaries. There are just boundaries in life we have to live within. It is our fiscal responsibility to live within our means, to not spend more than we make. With credit cards, it’s easy to fool ourselves that spending is limitless.
The simplest way to show a child a budget is two-fold. Give him a weekly allowance and discuss how much he has to spend. With paper and pencil, write down the weekly allowance, what items your child wants to buy, and show him how quickly the money goes and where it goes. Amy Dacyzyn encourages this method. If we keep a spending journal, if we write down where we spend every penny, then we’ll get a sense of spending habits, how much we actually spend, and where the money goes. It’s an essential lesson to pass on to our children.
Fiscal responsibility: Fiscal responsibility means that we take responsibility for financial obligations we have. We have to pay rent/mortgage, our phone bill, for water, electricity, and heat, for groceries, for clothing, and many other essentials. This is a life skill that many adults never master. Most importantly, we don’t write checks from an empty bank account.
Many of the above lessons seem grown up and some are just dry and boring for kids to retain. We don’t need our kids to cost-compare health insurance or cell phone plans. We do need to motivate them that frugality is a good thing, a life skill that providers freedom. So what are ways we can teach our kids about frugality without making it painful and boring?
Make it a game: Dacyzyn said that frugality became a game. She knew it was possible to buy essentials at the store. But how much fun would it be to get it for little to no money at all. By making it a game for her kids, by teaching them to look for deals as though it was all part of a scavenger hunt, she taught them to see frugality as a creative alternative, a game rather than a chore.
Set a goal: For all those little items you convince your child to do without, set a goal (with your child’s input) for something big to save for. For example, a trip to the beach could be the result of ten dinners at a restaurant. That xBox that costs hundreds of dollars–that could go toward the ultimate goal.
Give an allowance: If your child doesn’t have an allowance, give her one. Not only will you suddenly become a generous parent. Unbeknownst to your daughter, you will be teaching her how to budget without her permission. How evil!
Cost comparisons: After Christmas, look for free fliers from local stores. Stores routinely advertise store specials and while many specials seem similar in cost, there are always anomalies. Fliers are great ways to show your child cost comparisons between stores, between brands, and between items.
Flea market shopping: I have always loved flea markets and garage sales. This is where bargains on clothing and home furnishings can always be found. I purchased towels, sheet sets, clothing, chairs, paintings, and many other homegood items this way. Flea markets, while not always cheap, are fun and cheap activities for kids. My kids love some of the sidewalk sales in Manhattan, the closest city to my home. Items are never cheap but they’re carried by artisans, jewelers, potters, and designers. Sometimes the vendors, at the end of a flea market, will slash prices to move inventory.
Coupon cutting: This is a game for my kids. Whatever store we shop in, my kids search the aisles for coupons. Then we compare the coupons to store circulars. Sometimes it’s a game how quickly we can save $20 for a routine shopping trip. While coupon cutting used to be a fun Sunday pastime when I was a kid and the Sunday paper always had the coupons and fliers, there are coupon-cutting services that offer coupons for pennies and do the cutting for you. My kids do like shopping for coupons on the internet.
Frugality as a life lesson is actually a gift you can give your children. By teaching them how to live debt-free, how to delay gratification, how to navigate when money is low and save when money is plentiful, you are better-preparing them for the real world. And you are them lessons that extend well beyond the pocketbook.