Frugality and the Challenge of Raising Children

My children get off the school bus each day at around 3:30. The bus stop is two houses down from our house, so as soon as I hear the noise of the school bus near our house, I know that the children will be in the door momentarily.

I try to be right there in the living room when they get off the bus, just to provide that little bit of reassurance, so I’ll jot down my thoughts on whatever it was that I was working on and head to the living room.

We usually start things off by going through backpacks together. Mostly, it’s a way to see if there are any notes from their teacher or anything like that and it usually provides a little window into their day.

After that, we have a “free reading” time. You can read whatever you want for 30 minutes. It has to either be a print book or a non-tablet Kindle (one of the black and white ones that mostly just display books) so that there’s no peeking at games or websites. I do this with them and we mostly read stuff from the library.

Once that’s done, we do a few household chores, making sure the pets have food or water, and then there’s a bit of pre-supper free time if there’s no homework.

They tend to do a variety of things during that free time. Some days, all of us will go to a nearby park and go on a hike. Sometimes, when the youngest child requests it, we’ll go to a playground together. Often, though, the children do more individual things.

My oldest son will often go outside and practice soccer kicks if the weather is nice or play Minecraft if the weather is poor. My youngest son usually reads more or tags along with one of his two older siblings. My daughter, though, she’s a different story. She usually starts drawing.

I usually take that time to do chores, but once a week or so, one of the children will ask me to do something with them. My oldest son will ask me to help with soccer skills, for example. My favorite one, however, is when my daughter wants me to sit down with her and draw.

I’m absolutely terrible at freehand drawing, so I used to draw a lot of mediocre landscapes and stick men, but lately I’ve discovered that I get a lot of personal joy out of so-called “adult coloring” pages. They’re basically just very elaborate coloring pages, often depicting a stained glass window or a paisley print or a garden scene or an ocean scene or something. The lines are thin and the spaces are tiny and numerous. They take a long time to complete, yet there’s something about it that I find very calming.

I’ll sit there with my daughter and sometimes my youngest son and occasionally my oldest son, all of us adding color to pieces of paper. Usually, it’s quiet, but I’ll ask a few questions about how their school day went as we all fill our pages with color.

Frugality in the System

So, what’s the point of this story? The point of the story is that, even though you might not directly see it, we make a conscious effort to weave frugality into our children’s lives as they grow up.

Even in this ordinary story, there are lots of little threads of frugality that you can see if you’re looking for them.

We strongly encourage the reading of books as a hobby. Reading is an incredibly inexpensive hobby. Even if your sole means of acquiring new books to read is by buying new hardbacks, the cost per hour of entertainment and thought is usually lower than $1 per hour. If you do anything else – buying paperbacks or used books or borrowing books – the cost goes way, way down from there.

Not only is it a frugal hobby, it’s an incredibly powerful one to have in an information economy. The ability to read quickly and efficiently and turn those words on the page into ideas in your brain is one of the most valuable skills to have today.

We use the public library. While we do have many books around our home, most of our reading is done from books that come from the public library. We visit the library every few weeks to return a pile of books and check out a new pile of books. Sometimes, we’ll check out DVDs and Blurays, too, and if we’re looking at a road trip in the future, we might check out an audiobook as well.

Keeping a frugal resource like this front and center in the lives of my children means that it’s much more likely that they’ll continue to use it in their lives going forward.

We play a lot of soccer, which is a sport that needs absolutely minimal equipment. You need a ball. That’s it. If we decide to actually play a game, we usually choose natural borders and goalposts. Most of the time, we invent our own mini-games which just amount to drills of some kind, like seeing who can bounce a ball the most times without it hitting the ground or a target competition.

Not only does this help our children stay physically active, it also shows them that you can be entertained with minimal equipment. You don’t need much of anything to be entertained.

Similarly, we make extensive use of the local, state, and national park services. Using trails, nature walks, playgrounds, and other such free equipment and services gets our family outside and exercising while also appreciating nature at zero cost.

While I’m far from the best naturalist in the world, I can point out enough elements of natural beauty and peacefulness and do it often enough that I can see the appreciation building in our children, so that they, too, will be drawn as adults to using those services.

We allow limited computer and video game play, but we don’t have an overabundance of titles to choose from. Outside of the occasional holiday gift or birthday gift or the rare occasion when they save up for a new game, our children do not get new video games or computer games. They share their game collections and those collections are relatively small.

What does that mean? They’ve actually defeated most of the games that they own and the ones that get the most play are the open-ended ones like Minecraft. They don’t just play a game a few times and discard it. Instead, games get consistent play over months and years in short sessions so that they last.

We strongly encourage raw creativity with minimal guidance and from minimal materials. Independent play is a big part of our parenting style. We want our children to be able to conceive of things to do on their own as often as possible, so we try to give them big blocks of free time, especially on weekends, to come up with their own non-electronic things to do.

We don’t load them up with organized activities or kits all the time. In fact, most of the time, we just encourage them to go look for projects or invent something on their own. Make up a game. Make up an art project. Take this box of random Legos and build something with them. The cost for such activities is very minimal and it encourages them to break through boredom, solve problems, and figure out how to entertain themselves without a nonstop flood of “stuff.”

I keep my schedule arranged to minimize child care costs. Most days, I work in the morning before anyone is out of bed, then work again during the school day. I’ve intentionally chosen to have my work day end before my children get off the bus so that we can minimize the cost of child care.

This is something that’s sometimes pointed out to our children, how Sarah and I have both made choices to maximize flexibility and thus minimize our child care costs. We don’t have to pay for after-school care for our children.

A family dinner prepared at home each night is a central part of family life (if at all possible). Almost every night of the week, we have a home-cooked meal for supper. Last night, for example, we had homemade pizza. Tonight, we’re having soup and sandwiches. Tomorrow night? A simple stir fry. We gather around the dinner table, eat together, and share our reflections on the day.

Again, this sets a precedent within our children’s minds as they grow that a family dinner made at home is not only the norm, but it’s a joyful norm. It’s a way to spend time breaking bread with people you love and people who love you, eating food that other people at the table have prepared for you.

We minimize the number of extracurriculars, encouraging our children to focus on one or two at a time to find what really matches their passion and then dabble in other interests on their own. Sometimes, our children discover something that they’re really interested in and that can grow into an actual extracurricular activity. They usually discover those things during school and grow that interest during the free time that we give them.

We keep a pretty tight cap on the number of extracurriculars, however, for several reasons. One is that overburdening them with extracurriculars can add stress to their lives during the one part of their life that should be low stress. Two, they’re not going to be passionate about every extracurricular if they’re involved in a lot of them. Three, choosing a small number to focus on is substantially less expensive, especially in terms of dollars per hour of personal investment.

All of these ideas touch upon core tenets of frugality, and all of them are embedded in the ordinary routine of just an hour or two of the lives of our children.

Goals and Principles of Parenting Growing Children

While that little after school period provides a nice window into our family life, it’s actually governed by a handful of principles that seek to achieve a few key goals. Our parenting goals are very straightforward.

First, we want our children to be able to know how to entertain themselves and enjoy their leisure time without spending money. Rather than simply throwing their hands up and saying that they’re bored and then throwing money at something/anything to provide entertainment, we want them to see how they can find leisure and find joy in almost anything that they have on hand. You don’t really need much more than your body, some open space, and a nearby library to have a deeply fulfilling life, because it’s all about what you make of the things you already have rather than longing for the things that you don’t.

Second, we want our children to be self-learners and self-starters, to be curious about the world, know how to feed that curiosity, and know how to take positive action on it. If you are able to teach yourself new ideas and new skills and you’re able and willing to look at life’s problems and respond to them by learning, you’re going to be able to handle most of the problems that modern life throws at you. Often, we let our children figure out things themselves, even surprisingly complicated things. My ten year old fixed a toilet this week. I gently gave him some guidance as to how a toilet should work, but he mostly just played with the tank’s innards until he figured out the problem, came up with a solution for it, and fixed it himself. His pride was obvious.

Third, we want our children to have the skills they need to be functional and independent adults. This includes things like a positive work ethic, the ability to teach themselves what they need to know to solve problems (as mentioned above), and how to handle the basic things that they need to do in daily life. What are the things that Sarah and I have to handle in, say, a given month? Teaching the skills and knowledge needed to do those things are at the center of our parenting.

Fourth, we want our children to deeply appreciate the idea of “bang for the buck.” If you spend money, make sure that you’re getting good value for what you get. One thing I often personally do is wait a few days and then reflect on whether an expense was actually worth it. Was the $50 spent on eating out worth it? I’ll often reflect on that with the children. “What did we get out of that $50 meal that goes beyond preparing a similar meal at home for $10?” “What did I get out of buying this book instead of just getting it from the library?” Good questions like these often don’t have any answers, which is a good indication that the choice wasn’t a good “bang for the buck” choice.

Finally, we want our children to know that they are loved and supported, but that love and support doesn’t mean that we’ll make life’s challenges disappear for them. Life is going to be challenging. They’re going to have hard teachers and hard professors and, eventually, hard bosses. They’re going to take classes that challenge their mind, they’re going to face social situations that challenge their values, and they’re going to face professional situations that challenge their heart. Mom and dad aren’t going to make those challenges disappear. Instead, we want to give them everything we can to solve those challenges on their own with the knowledge that there are always two people who love and support them, no matter what.

How Those Principles Become Frugal

One natural theme running through those principles and through everything presented here is frugality. Frugality isn’t just a “lesson” that we teach our children, it’s deeply baked into how we live our lives and the choices we make as parents.

Knowing how to self-entertain with limited resources leads to frugality. Our children are constantly challenged to find ways to entertain themselves and to learn on their own without someone telling them specifically what to do and without giving them a ton of supplies. They figure out fun on their own, without stuff.

Having the confidence to tackle lots of life problems on your own (like, say, repairing a toilet) is incredibly frugal. They don’t need hand-holding or coaching to tackle the things that life throws at them. They do it themselves, and when frustration turns to asking mom or dad for help, they get just a hug and a pointer or two. Mom and Dad don’t do it for them. It’s up to them to do it. That’s because, when they do eventually succeed – and they usually do – it’s incredibly rewarding and it’s an incredible boost to self-confidence. We don’t need to throw money at problems and we’re teaching them that they don’t have to, either.

Minimizing extracurricular activities and giving plenty of space to exploring new interests and ideas is incredibly frugal. Rather than investing a lot of money in a large handful of extracurricular activities, we try to give our children plenty of space to discover new interests on their own with a minimal financial investment. Instead of signing up for the baseball team, why not try out baseball on the playground? Instead of going to expensive art sessions, why not try to emulate a van Gogh painting at the family table? Try lots of things. Figure out what clicks in your heart, and learn that it’s okay if things don’t click, even if your friends are passionate about that thing. It doesn’t take expensive extracurriculars to figure out who you are and what you’re passionate about.

Making frugal lifestyle choices normal. Simple meals cooked at home? That’s the norm, and we work to keep it as the norm. Family movie nights together in the basement with popcorn we pop ourselves? That’s the norm, and we work to keep it as the norm. Family activities that center around free things, like hikes in state parks? That’s the norm, and we work to keep it the norm. Buying store brands and using them? That’s the norm, and we work to keep it the norm. We don’t make frugal things or free things into the exception. We don’t celebrate how we’re being “frugal” this weekend and then abandoning the idea by Monday afternoon. These low-cost methods – and many others – are normal at our house. Sure, we might point out the cost-saving benefits sometimes, but the frugal choice itself is the normal choice.

Discussing the choices we make when they’re no longer fresh or emotionally fraught. One of my favorite parenting techniques – and one I use on myself – is to take a decision made a few days ago, whether it’s a money-related decision or just a personal decision, and then go through it again. Was it the right choice? Did I get the best overall outcome? Was I swayed in that moment by some emotion? I do this constantly with my own choices in order to make better choices going forward, and I often do it with my children and turn it into a conversation with them. This isn’t just useful as a problem solving discussion, but it slowly awakens a similar questioning in their own lives that will inevitably lead them to a better (and more frugal) life.

Final Thoughts

Parenting is hard. You move from the sleepless nights with a baby to the flood of basic life skill teaching with toddlers into that period of older childhood and the teen years when you’re trying to mold those children into adults with a good set of tools inside of them to handle all of the challenges that life throws at them.

I don’t want my children to repeat mistakes I’ve made, financially or otherwise. I know they’re going to make mistakes in life, but I want them to have the best set of internal tools I can possibly give them to make a better set of choices than I did.

Maybe, just maybe, they won’t wind up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Maybe, just maybe, they won’t make giant career missteps. Maybe, just maybe, they won’t get caught up in a cycle of trying to impress others that inevitably leads to nothing at all.

All I can do is give them the best set of internal tools I can.

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