Spending No Money On Kids, For A Year- My Thoughts

A homemade Reversi game
Over the past few months, a few times I had read about an extreme frugality blog, and was contemplating posting my thoughts on it, but was hesitant to do so. I don't like being overly critical of people and the choices they make in life, and especially when their lifestyle is similar to mine. But after a few people contacted me asking me what my thoughts were on that blog, I decided to write a post about it.

This blog is called "Free Our Kids" with the subtitle "The toddler and me and our year for free". I have to say, firstly, that I think it's a great read, with so many wonderful money saving ideas, and I think the mom is incredibly creative and there is a lot to learn from her.

In summary, this blog is on its second year. The first year was an experiment a mom in England, named Hattie Garlick, decided to do- for a year spend absolutely NOTHING on her kids other than medical care, etc... This included clothing, diapers, kid specific foods, activities, etc. Instead, she would barter, make from scratch, accept hand me downs, dumpster dive, etc... The reason for this experiment was twofold- also because they lost a large chunk of their income, and as a way of reacting to the tremendous pressure in the whole "baby/kid industry" where people are encouraged to spend insanely large amounts of money on their kids to get them "everything a kid should have".
The second year, she decided to revamp the rules a bit, and included a "once a month 'get out of jail free'" pass. 12 purchases allowed for the kids for the year- and of those only 6 can be new, the other 6 need to be second hand purchases.
I read on the site (but can't find the page where it was written) that these rules apply only to their kids, not to themselves, the parents. The reason she said for this rule was that she already was pretty frugal with herself, and only spent on what was needed, but was more tempted to spend on her kids than she was on herself. I hear that, but....

So, back to what I said at the beginning- I was reluctant to post this, because I think that Hattie, the mom who writes the blog, is an incredible woman and I like her attitude towards life in general- her non preachy attitude, her love for thrift and living within her means, etc... I certainly don't want her to feel attacked by this post, and if you're reading this, Hattie, I want to apologize, since that isn't the intent.
But at the same time, I do have some critique for her and her blog, and I don't think her experiment is a good idea.

Instead of criticizing her specifically, I think I'll try to focus on why I would never do such an experiment, and how I think my kids, etc... would react should I try to do such a thing...

First of all, I think what she is doing is only really possible because her kids are very little- her oldest is 3, if I'm not mistaken, and her youngest is a baby, so their family is in a very different position than someone like myself who has kids aged 7, 5, 2.75, and 5 months.
At 3, a child is only vaguely aware of what everyone else around him has, what the norms are for their society, and doesn't care so much if he has what everyone else does. At 5 and 7? You bet my kids are aware of what is going on, who has what, what this friend does and what that friend has, and where they fall on that spectrum. So while a child is young and fairly oblivious, you might be able to get away with not spending a blessed thing on him, and he might not care (at least not too much); if you'd attempt to do such a thing with an older child, I can bet a hefty sum of money that this won't go over well. That doesn't mean that you need to do everything your kid wants you to do, and buy everything they want... but I've written before about my feelings about being forced to be different, "just because", and why I think that is incredibly harmful. While materialism should not be our goal, standing out like a sore thumb shouldn't either be, and its a good idea to live in a society/community where you won't stick out for living like you do... and I don't know of any societies/communities, that, as a rule, do not spend a thing on their kids... so you'd be ensuring that your child will stick out and feel different from his friends, and when he's old enough to care about this (and by 4 I am pretty sure they do), I think doing such a thing would be harmful.

Secondly, I am not sure that it isn't even a problem at the age that her son is at- 3. She wrote about an incident where her son really wanted a certain toy- whenever he'd see that toy, he'd ask again and again and again for her to get that for him, but she didn't. When someone wants something so much that that is all they think about, and they don't get it, it can definitely make them feel deprived, and I think feeling deprived is not a good idea, and it'll make things backfire and cause a lot of resentment in the long run. People do need to learn to tone down their expectations, because if the only way you won't feel deprived is by spending exorbitant amounts of money on luxury after luxury, you'll end up in lots of financial trouble... but giving yourself the occasional treat to pamper yourself goes a long way to helping you not feel deprived. I think, though, that kids are resilient, and that even if this mom is causing damage in her son now by depriving him of the things he really, really wants... she'll hopefully be able to undo that as he gets older and it won't hurt him in the long run. However, if the mom decides to stick with this challenge of hers long term, even as he gets older... I am concerned with how the kid will turn out.

For an experiment, I just has a conversation with each of my older kids separately in which I told them that for a year we won't be spending any money on them... and basically pretended that we were going to do this same experiment as Hattie's family... to see how they'd react to it. (I did tell them that we weren't really doing this, that there is another family that made the decision to do swo, but I just wanted to see how they'd feel about it.) They obviously weren't very pleased, thought it was a terrible idea and weren't sure why anyone would decide to do it.

That said, I obviously think it is important to live within your means, but I think there is a correct way to do it and maybe a less than great way to do it.

Here's the thing.
As a parent, I take the biggest issue with the aspect of the challenge that she will spend on herself and her husband, but not on the kids.
I can imagine such a conversation with my child, Lee:
"No, sorry, Lee, I can't get you a robot toy for your birthday this year- Dad and I decided that we won't be spending anything on you this year; why don't we make you a robot out of scraps from the dumpster this year?"
"But Mommy, I really want a robot with lights- can't I have it for my birthday?"
"No, sorry, we're not buying things for the kids. Not even for birthdays. That's the rule."
"But why Mommy? Why won't you buy things for us? Not even for my birthday?"
"Because that's what Daddy and I decided. Its the rule."
"But why? Why can't I have it?"
"Because so many people all over the world spend so much money on their kids and I don't want to buy into that culture; I want to not buy you kids anything to show that things aren't what's important; that you can have a great life without spending money on your kids."
"But Mommy, why are you spending money on you or Daddy, but not on us kids? Why do you get new things but we don't?"
"Because that's the rule of this challenge. That's what we decided."
"But that's not fair!"

And while "That's not fair" isn't a phrase I encourage my kids to use, because life isn't fair... deciding to spend on yourself but not on your kids... that's just not being fair. Why are parents any more deserving than kids? If you take on such a challenge, do it for yourself, not the kids, or at the very least, yourself and the kids... but deciding not to spend on the kids and yes to spend on yourself... Lets just say- that goes against how I believe a parent should act. A parent should put their kids first, not themselves. That's a mother's instinct, for a good reason.

I think that part of my issue with this is that as a parent, I really believe that telling kids "Do as I say, don't do as I do" isn't really fair. You want to teach your kids to be happy without spending money? Model that to them by doing that yourself. Don't impose rules on them that you wouldn't impose on yourself. Because that isn't fair. That's a way to breed resentment as well.

And even with the broadened, more flexible rule, the 12 items a year "get out of jail free pass"... this challenge is just too arbitrary, in my mind. To say "Sorry, we can't buy you this, because the year is almost up and we already bought 11 out of the 12 permitted things this year, so we want to save that last item for when we need it", just doesn't work for me. To say that we have x amount of things we're allowed to buy for the year is arbitrary, and seems to be missing the point, the same way I take issue with minimalist's saying "I'm allowed to own 50 things but no more". Make it about living within your means. Make it about not buying every thing just because you had your eye on it. But to arbitrarily choose a number of things you're going to buy seems a little silly to me.

I guess in short, while I do truly support that blogger's goals, I think her challenge is missing the forest for the trees.

I truly support not raising your kids with the values of the consumerism culture, to not teach kids that you need to spend money to be happy or have a good time.
That you can have great things without spending a lot of money, or at all.

I saw this graphic on Facebook, and felt it really suited my thoughts on the matter:

And more than that- getting free whenever possible. For yourself and the kids.

Like this past week, I dumpster dove a great puzzle for the kids, and my husband dumpster dove a book on outer space for the kids. They were thrilled with them, and had a great time doing the puzzle and looking at the book (it's filled with many photos of space stations, space ships, planets, etc...)
The kids and I were walking back from the park the other day, and saw the sprinklers were on, watering a patch of grass. My kids ran to play in the sprinklers! Good, clean (ok, maybe a little messy) and free fun!
Our family has really been enjoying playing our homemade Uno game together.
And I came home from a trip the other day with a big bag full of beautiful little girl's clothes for my baby Rose, that my friend's kid outgrew.
I think these are things that Hattie and I would both do, would both enjoy.
I do think the consumerism culture is destroying society. The concept that you can buy happiness via things.

But next week is my sons' birthdays. And yes, I will be buying them presents. Presents they like. Presents they requested. Presents that won't break the bank. Presents that have value and won't break down after a few uses. (I said no to my son's request for an electric car/jeep that he can ride in.)
I won't be dumpster diving their presents. I won't be buying them from the second hand shop. I'll be buying them new.
Obviously I'm going to search for a good price for the presents I get them. But I am happy to be able to pamper them, to treat them to nice things here and there.
And as much as my kids do enjoy the cool dumpster dived and hand me down items they get, that still doesn't match the excitement that lights up their face when they see we got them the exact present they were hoping for.

Reduce, reuse, reject the consumerism culture.

Model to your kids what it means to be happy with minimal amounts of money spent.

But don't get too caught up in the minutiae and make this an all or nothing game.

Make it a "less than average" and "the best we can do without hurting ourselves", not a hard and fast rule. Because life requires flexibility. Especially life with kids.

What do you think about the concept of that blog, of specifically not spending any money on your kids for a year, or the second year's challenge of only buying 12 things total for the year?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I did NOT read the entire post, a bit long for my patience, but I think in general I completely agree with you. I don't challenge myself at the expense of my child. I challenge myself if I feel it is a healthy and productive challenge to produce positive results. I don't mind buying my child a new backpack if his is ripped and no decent conditioned ones available other than new purhcase.

    But by you taking 2nd hand/broken/etc, what you're really saying is 'I don't want to spend money, I want YOU to spend it on me.' If anything, I think this will teach children to be MORE selfish, not less...here they assume they can get from everywhere else and keep their money.

    I prefer a healthy balance (which I do think you attempt as well) to teach children we don't spend unnecessarily (latest cartoon character backpack vs the generic hot pink style) and we don't 'waste' money, but I think not spending on a child, but spending on a spouse is a horrible way to go, if anything, it should be the opposite. an adult/spouse would understand where yo'ure coming from but a child wouldn't understand why he can't have anything... I have more thoughts on this but here's the jumble mumble firsts....

  2. Really well said. Part of the responsibility of bringing up a child is to prepare him or her for the real world out there. That doesn't mean we have to embrace every aspect of that "real world". We can still be anti-consumerist but I'm not sure how fair it is we impose that on our kids, especially if we buy OURSELVES new stuff when we want it. We need to teach our kids to handle money, wants and needs. Everything in moderation.
    Best wishes from England!

  3. Like your thoughts.

    When kids have excessive toys handed to them, they do not learn to be creative, or to play board games with one another. One of the first times I read your blog I was impressed with a game you made for them.

  4. You are absolutely correct Penny! Number one modeling behavior is the key to success in Amy behavior (and probably the reason your kids are so easy going and so appreciative of the little things, because they see you and your husband are as well, for example that gorgeous couch that you made basically for free). Its also true that the older they get they do feel deprived and singled out. I myself was that child and did grow up resentful and in some ways feel the need to over compensate when it comes to my own child. (For example my two year old son really wanted a back pack like his friends and this is at two mind you, and yes of course immediately I purchased it for him) anyways you're doing great at keeping your ideals. Keep up the good work!

  5. I also think that spending no money on kids is counterproductive to the change you want to create. I do agree with Hattie that spending money on stuff marketed as being "for kids" is mostly wasteful spending, though--and as long as kidlet will eat unsweetened corn flakes, plain Greek yogurt with fruit, and dark chocolate (he gets a little square), I see no reason to spend extra for things just because they have a cartoon on the package.

    I'll admit, though, that when I do buy kidlet things, it's usually for no reason other than he wants it. I mean, I can tell when he's just being curious and when he REALLY wants something, so it's not like I buy him things all the time. Although I do take him grocery shopping with me almost daily, so maybe he thinks I'm buying all the food for him? LOL. So far this year, he's only "asked" for a pillow pet and a toy truck. And I guess it also helps that he's just not into toy stores (yes, I have a toddler who couldn't care less about toys).

  6. Great post, Penny. I think you have a near-perfect balance between frugality and not buying into materialism, but still recognizing that our children are human beings with wants which aren't always needs. And when we give them their wants occasionally, after weighing up the circumstances, we show our children we love and care about them (obviously not as a substitute for love, caring, etc. which doesn't cost money). Actually I think occasional gifts/ splurges help raise thoughtful, caring children, who don't think they can have everything, but know they need to make choices in life.

  7. While I get a lot of what you are saying, in reading her blog, she doesn't seem to be depriving anyone of anything. I also seriously doubt this will carry on over the years as her kids get to school age.

    Her blog is a great read, and her voice as a writer is one that I enjoy.

    I think it's very easy to go hog-wild with frugality and such, but I don't really get that vibe here.

    Of course that's just speculation!

  8. I absolutely agree that, while this works with young children, it will be much more of a challenge later. As Miriam said, you strike a good balance between frugality and acknowledging that your kids live in a materialistic world. The lessons given now will help later, when they have their own money to spend and an Internet full of stuff to spend it on. Never mind the rent, focus on the fun stuff.

    We learned that the hard way. My husband was raised in a poor family, and since there was no money to spend on stuff or school activities, he missed out on any that weren't free. But it was a different time, and it was never explained to him why he couldn't do this or that or have whatever due to the embarrassment factor. He lived way out in the country, no rides to anything either, like a job.So what did he do when we married and he started earning money? Yep. He had to learn restraint, and it took a while. I think he spent his childhood obsessing about all the stuff he didn't have, as opposed to learning creative solutions and having the odd bit of parental assistance.

    With our daughter, we found our own balance, plus found a community where our spending values were shared. That helped a lot. And when she got married this year, she chose a frugal, home-centered wedding. We were so proud, and it was a beautiful ceremony, with everyone contributing to it.

  9. I think the blogger has the right ideas, but is perhaps a little too rigid in her application. One thing that you said is that the no spend challenge only applies to the kids, that really rubs me the wrong way! If her family's values are frugality and non-consumerism and their goals are to save money, shouldn't the entire family be subject to the challenge? I don't think kids really care whether their things are bought new, borrowed, bartered, handed down, dumpster dived, or thrifted, but they do care about appearances and perceived value. For example, if you hand a kid a game in a ratty box for his birthday, he's going to notice it. I remember one Christmas, when I was around 10 years old, where my mother bought me something from a garage sale for my gift and then told me, as I was opening the gift, that she bought it from a garage sale. That totally ruined my day. The message I heard was that I didn't deserve anything new and that I was worthless. She took the joy of receiving a gift away from me and made the event about her thriftiness. If you keep the focus on the gift recipient and their pleasure and experience receiving and using the gift, I have no problem with used or inexpensive gifts. I think of one blogger who does this very well,The Prudent Homemaker. She is very, very frugal and spends little on her children, but does an amazing job at creating wonderful gifts and experiences for them.

  10. I really like the concept. My kids are 12 and 14, and I can tell you there would be a riot at our house, because I have been frugal in some places so that I can be less frugal with the kids...getting bikes and summer camp, etc. I kind of like the idea, but with older kids that would understand the overall concept, and the why. Great, insightful writing. Well done!

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