Updated on 03.28.11

Little Steps for Teaching Young Ones Frugality

Trent Hamm

This morning, as my children were waking up, I was inspecting their dresser drawers looking for clothes. I pulled out clean underwear and socks for both of them, but rather than continuing through the drawers, I started digging through their clothes hamper, inspecting the clothes right in front of them.

I’d examine one garment, say “This is dirty,” and throw it in one pile. I’d look at another, sniff it, and then decree “This one’s just fine,” and put it in a second pile. I invited them to join in, too (though I kept an eye on the items they were passing judgment on, especially ones they decreed to be clean).

Soon, the hamper’s contents were sorted, leaving two piles. I threw the dirty pile back into the hamper, then began folding the clean pile. As I did this, I also described what I was doing: “Many of the shirts and pants and dresses you wear aren’t really dirty unless you get dirt or other stuff on them. You can wear them again.” To illustrate this point, I let them choose their clothes for the day right out of the clean pile.

As they were brushing their teeth and getting ready for the day, I did a similar sorting of my own clothes right in front of them, retaining some and putting others aside for washing.

Obviously, this sorting technique cuts down on the number of laundry loads that we have to do, saving money and time.

Perhaps just as important, though, is involving the children in this and explaining to them what’s going on so that they view such tactics as the normal way to behave. If this is simply how they do things as they grow up, then they’ll spend less of their money on unnecessary things and have more of their money for other (ideally better) purposes.

Here are some other things we do around our house to encourage our children to think frugally.

At the end of a meal, if there are items still on the table, I’ll ask our kids what they think we should do with it. They’ve learned that what we do with extra food is save it for leftovers, which we have for dinner roughly every other night.

When it’s time to drink a beverage, I encourage them to drink water because it’s both cheap and healthy. Our oldest child now simply gets water whenever it’s time for him to drink a beverage.

When it’s time to read, we use library books and accentuate their usage. I’ll almost always mention that this book came from the library for free or that we need to go back to the library soon to get some more great free books when I’m reading them a book that came from the library.

When I utilize one of them as a helper, I’ll point out things like the types of lightbulbs we use and why we use them where we do. “This is an LED bulb, which is perfect for outdoor use. It’s a little more expensive, but it uses very little electricity and it’ll last for a very long time.”

I also utilize them as helpers for things like garden work (something I’ll depict in a bit more detail later this week), which is almost purely a frugal project.

Life is full of moments to make better spending and time choices. If you’re a parent, those moments are often also teachable moments.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Wait until they are older! My 10yo will wear the same clothes until I tell him it’s time for clean ones.

  2. The last paragraph is a great summary of the article.
    While I like my children to drink water as well, they rarely just get water exclusively. My oldest loves her milk! Juice, however, is a “treat” in our house.
    P.S – I’ve also found that many of those same moments allow my child to teach me something too. :)

  3. Michelle says:

    Why would your clean clothes even be in the hamper? If they are perfectly wearable for a second or third time, why not hang them up or fold them and put them away right away?

  4. marta says:

    Michelle, that puzzled me as well. In fact it’s worse to mix the clean clothes with the clearly dirty and smelly ones because they will catch some of that unpleasant smell.

  5. DA says:

    Technically the library IS NOT free. It costs taxpayers money. The sooner your children know there is no such thing as a “free lunch” they will benefit. As Harry Browne says there is a price associated with EVERYTHING.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Trent, sometimes it is ok to let kids just be kids! And the library isn’t “free” you pay taxes to help keep that building open and full of books. I know that I grew up in a very frugal home where one parent rarely had a steady job. I worried constantly about money and our family even though my parents tried to keep life as normal as possible for us.

  7. Stacy says:

    I enjoy “free” books at the library – but I also make a small donation each year because the library is a valuable resource in our community and in my own life. Let this be a lesson in frugality AND generosity.

  8. Karina says:

    wow, some commenters are feeling a little snarky….

    It seems a bit draconian to me to sit your under 5 year old children down and gripe to them about taxpayer dollars and how the library isn’t REALLY free…aren’t Trent’s kids little, like 2 and 4? I think the aspect of responsibility of letting them pick their own clothes out is enough.

    Though I do wonder…why are their clean clothes in the hamper? That did strike me as a bit odd.

  9. Hunter says:

    It’s smart to use less of a resource if you can, even if it only saves a few bucks.

    Along with the laundry example, many of the cups, dishes, and utensils we use throughout the day are easily cleaned with a quick wipe. There really is no need to put everything through a one hour dishwasher steam cycle if it is not necessary.

    It all adds up. $$$

  10. Kathryn says:

    I really love that you explain these things to your kids & to the rest of us, Trent.

    My parents never explained any of their reasoning for anything. They always had an enormous garden. We children helped, but we planted, weeded, and picked when we were told. We were not given an explanation for why we did things, how to know when to do them, and frankly as a teen i resented having to do them. As a result, i am an incredibly challenged gardener. (Although there are other reasons for this, too).

    In the same way, bills were never explained to us, or on the rare occasion the cost of the bill was told to us, i did not know where that fit on my parents’ budget or how much my dad actually made. I’ve struggled with finances most of my adult life (tho better in the past couple of years, due to improved circumstances and finding your blog).

    I could go on and on about all that i did not learn. My mother considered it “her job” to keep the house neat & told me that i would not do the housecleaning/cooking/laundry until i went off to college. How she thought i would know how to do those things then is beyond me. I’m sad at all the opportunities we lost when i was a child and it warms my heart to hear of a parent actively seeking to instruct their children not just on the work but on the rationale.

    One other thing: We’ve been deeply disappointed with the LED lights we have bought. We’ve had 3 that are suppose to last at least 10 years burn out between 6 months and 2 years. What i’ve learned since is that the LED itself might last years, many of the other parts are cheaply made/manufactured and might not last any longer than a conventional bulb, tho of course it pulls much less electricity.

  11. Hannah says:

    On one hand I wish my boyfriends parents had ingrained in him that a towel used once is not laundry, but I would be pretty worried if he dug things out of the hamper after they had mingled with actual dirty laundry. It doesn’t matter as much for a little kid but once they get to a certain age I’d favor too much laundry over not enough.

  12. DA says:

    No griping. Just facts. Libraries are not “free”. Age appropriate education regarding taxes should not be off limits. If I called them welfare bookstores, that’s griping! ;)

  13. lurker carl says:

    Young children learn many things just by imitating the actions of their parents. Frugal parents are likely to raise frugal children. The children of wasteful parents don’t know any different.

    When the kids were toddlers, clothes were often worn more than once before washing in winter but seldom in summer. Sweaty clothes don’t smell in the hamper but will reek during day two of playing. Clean underwear every day, no matter what the season!

    They will also learn that most broken toys are fixable when Mommy and Daddy make a point of repairing them. The kiddies love to help, even if all they are able to do is hold various tools and parts for you.

  14. Pat S. says:

    Monopoly! Get them started out as capitalists as soon as possible.

    I also like the idea of buying shares of stock in their favorite companies and getting the souvenir copies framed…

    Just some stuff I wish I had learned about sooner.

  15. Wesley says:

    I would say that there is definitely a fine line though, if you go to strong at it as they get older they will stop seeing it as “Daddy teaching us to do what is right” and will start seeing it as “Daddy always telling us what to do.” At that point when they do start getting money they will swing the other way and start spending because they never could before.

    I know it seems like an extreme case, but I have seen it happen with people my own age (I am 23) and below. Even though their parents were great parents, frugal and raised them correctly, and the kids are great kids, once they got out and got “real jobs” all those frugal things their parents did became taboo. Of the three people I know that would fit into this description, one is horrifically in debt (multiple credit cards and the like), one is in that kind of in debt but still manageable stage, and one is only kept out of debt by a wife who is a pharmacist.

  16. Nancy says:

    A rule that we had in our house to encourage thrifty girls…If the item is from Goodwill/Salvation Army I’ll buy it. If the item is from a used clothing store I’ll pay 1/2. If the item is from the mall they pay the full amount. Fast forward decades later, almost all of my children’s clothing from wedding dresses to socks are used, and they look fabulous! One of my daughters worked at an upscale boutique where employees were required to wear $150 jeans. Guess where she got all of her clothes? You guessed it, Goodwill or used!

  17. Telephus44 says:

    Man, I’m still impressed that my son is learning to put his dirty laundry in the hamper. He already knows how to turn on the washer (and yes, turn it to “cold” so we wash in cold water). I want him to master good laundry habits before moving on to potentially re-wearing things. He’s 4.

  18. Kate says:

    I would imagine that the clothes were in the hamper because the kids didn’t know how to judge if clothes were clean enough to wear again or dirty.
    My son went through a “black” stage. Everything had to be black…at first I didn’t like it until I realized that black very rarely shows dirt. :o)

  19. Kai says:

    I think it’s less about telling the kids what to do, and more about telling them why mom and dad are doing what they do.
    My parents were excellent models for frugality, but they didn’t explicitly address any of it. It’s only in hindsight that I really see some of the things. So while they were excellent models, there wasn’t much teaching.

    I too can’t figure out your ‘take clothes out of the hamper and put away’ theory. That’s the most inefficient method I’ve ever heard.
    It’s obviously not just kids, since Trent apparently does the same thing himself. Why on earth would you throw your clothes in the hamper, and then pick them out again and go through them at laundry time?
    I take off my clothes at night, and then either fold and put away or throw in the basket, depending on whether the garment is re-wearable. Way more efficient than taking them back out..

  20. Kevin says:

    Wesley (#15) has a great point.

    My mother-in-law got divorced when my wife and her 3 siblings were all aged 10 or younger. As a single mother of 4 children, she became an expert in frugality. One of the tactics she employed was buying powdered milk instead of fresh (expensive!) milk. Growing up, my wife always drank bland, watery powdered milk instead of the real stuff. She had that frugality habit ingrained in her.

    Now that she’s grown up, guess how much powdered milk we drink in our home?

    If you guessed “Not a single drop in over a decade,” you nailed it! That was one thing she insisted on right from the get-go. “Never again.” It’s real milk, 100% of the time, absolutely non-negotiable.

  21. Lauren says:

    Another advantage of washing clothes only when “dirty” is that they LAST a lot longer! Over time, washing & drying is tough on your clothes. My husband and I try not to wash clothes that don’t need it. However, we almost always wash the kids’ clothes each time they wear them, because you never know if they might have gotten something sticky on it that you missed, and if you put it back in the drawer, you could end up with a drawer full of ants.

  22. Jules says:

    I gotta wonder, too–what are clean clothes doing in the hamper? I mean, sometimes my boyfriend tosses a shirt I plan to re-wear in the hamper if he doesn’t realize that’s what I’m planning to do, but mostly, if it’s in the hamper, it’s there because it wants cleaning. I don’t always immediately fold and/or hang up clothes that I plan to wear again, but they don’t go *in* the hamper, so much as on top of it.

  23. Hunter says:

    It’s interesting to read how so many people are accutely aware of the cost of libraries to the community.

    It seems that our local government is aware too. Whenever the budget needs to be balanced, the library opening hours are cut. The real saving is peanuts, but the perception to th community is that the government is being responsible.

    I don’t want to digress too far, but I think it is very short-sighted to limit library access.

    Now, what were we talking about?

  24. Ryan says:

    I really like the idea of explaining your reasoning to your children. There wasn’t too much explanation of important things like this growing up in my household. Start making children think at a young age about how they can make the most of their resources. Great concept! I will say that pulling a bunch of clothes out of the hamper after they’ve been sitting with some soiled and germ covered clothes is not something I would be comfortable doing. Instead I would point out that clothes do not necessarily need to be washed every time they are worn, and ask the children to keep any clothes separate after they’ve worn them if they think the clothes are still clean.

  25. kristine says:

    Yes, teach them to inspect their clothes when they undress, instead of putting them in with smelly clothes. Instead of re-folding, we have shaker hooks to hang our once-worn but clean clothes, so they can further air out.

  26. Cheryl says:

    #20 Kevin–I had cousins who always had powdered milk growing up. I buy powdered milk now, but not to drink, it’s only used in things. Besides, fresh milk is cheaper than powdered now.

  27. R S says:

    @ Trent, omg! You’ve just explained to me why I am the way I am. While some of my friends in college went nuts with the amount of choice they had in their lives, I didn’t. It never really occurred to me why I prefer water to juice/soda, or why I never attempted to wash every single laundry item after wearing it for part of a day, etc.
    I never even recognized those as things-my-parents-taught-me!

  28. Rachel says:

    My daughter and daughter in law only let their kids wear their p.j.’s once and then throw them in the laundry. When I asked them why they said wearing them more than once is gross. I said “well, those are clean little bodies going into clean p.j.’s and right into bed, how dirty can they get?” they still said it is gross. I guess they are not tired of doing laundry yet.

  29. SwingCheese says:

    Haha, I remember as a teenager wearing jeans for several days before washing them, much to my parents’ chagrin!!

    About the library: there is no reason why Trent couldn’t just say that it’s free to check out the books. It is free, in that no money exchanges hands (unless you’re like me and have a difficult time returning books on time and have to pay a fine). But he could just as easily mention that the library is run with tax money, which he and his wife pay. This morning, my son (2) and I were watching the garbage truck. We talked about how it picked up the garbage cans, etc., and as we were walking back into the house, I mentioned that we have this service because we pay taxes. I don’t expect him to understand what that means, and I certainly didn’t give a lecture about how taxes work, but I thought it might be beneficial for him to know that some services are paid for by “taxes”, and when he’s older, we can have a more detailed discussion.

  30. Brianne says:

    Some things don’t need to be washed every time: towels, sheets, pajamas, some sweaters, some jeans, suits. But once it’s in the hamper, it’s dirty. End of story. Even when we were poor and wouldn’t flush the toilet every time, we still washed the dirty clothes.

  31. Rebecca says:

    Rachel, my kids only wear their pj’s one night but mine still wear diapers or pull ups to bed and by morning the jammies smell like pee.

  32. Alice says:

    Trent, I usually agree with you on most things but I must take you to task over the laundry example you taught your children. If I have a garment that is to be worn again I put it in the dryer for a few minutes to freshen it up. You can do this on “air dry” or with heat.

    With children, it would be best to use the heat cycle to prevent germs from spreading. Please set up some type of system so that your children will not put the rewearable clothes in the laundry hamper. It’s more sanitary and there is less chance of getting dirt or germs on the ones you want to wear again.

  33. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with #30 & #32 & the others – This should be the first lesson; the next is to do the check when you get undressed at night. Undies & socks go on the hamper; other clothing is checked & either given to a parent to re-check before putting away (for the preschoolers) or into the hamper. If clothes have been in the hamper with undies, in particular, it probably is better to go ahead & wash them.

  34. New Reader says:

    We all know that libraries aren’t “free” but since we’re paying the taxes whether we use libraries or not, it sure feels more “free” than buying books at a bookstore. While leaving the library the other evening with my 12yo daughter, I reflected with her on how much money we’ve saved by her checking out each book in a series of six or seven. It was over $50 we would have spent on preteen fluff that she will only read once. I get what Trent is saying about having these types of discussions with our children. And in my case, my daughter hears enough about taxes, because I’m self-employed and predicting/paying my quarterly taxes is a common topic of conversation around the dinner table.

  35. Kathryn says:

    All the conversations about clothes in the hamper made me remember an old story.

    I was a live-in for a family of 2 children years ago. The 8 year old boy was very frugal and economical in his work (schoolwork, household chores) but the almost 7 year old girl was a procrastinator. It took her forever to do homework or chores.

    It was my job to take the clothes from the laundry shoot, wash, dry and fold them. The clothes then were taken to the kids’ rooms for them to put away. One day i guess the girl thought she had “just too much” to do, and i found her entire pile of clean, folded clothes down the laundry shoot!

    I wasn’t happy about that at all.

  36. Borealis says:

    Are their really people who go to the library for books? Usually the library is just full of people getting free videos and free internet.

  37. Kathy Robinson says:

    Gross, Trent. You are I guess sniffing for foot odor, bathroom-type odors on pants and undies, armpit odor? Clothes that are clean enough to wear again should be hung on hooks or a hall tree or even a doorknob when the kids (or you) undress. *That’s* what you ought to be teaching them IMO, not to rummage through the dirty clothes hamper for items that pass the sniff test…

  38. Borealis says:

    Biologically, there is nothing dangerous about wearing the same clothes for a week, month, or more.

    What are kids supposed to know about worn clothes? Mostly they learn that if you wear something then they should throw it into the clothes hamper. They don’t exactly know the whole clothing cycle if nobody tells them.

  39. Tally says:

    Ew, gross. My roommate does the going-through-the-dirty-laundry-looking-for-clothes-to-rewear thing, and frankly, he often smells.

    What my parents did with me when I was little was tell me how many days I could wear pants in a row, etc.

    Or do what all the other commenters are saying, and decide when you are getting undressed if the clothes should go into the hamper or not. But please, don’t go rummaging through the hamper!

  40. the duchess says:

    I have a system for the laundry dilemma – when I get undressed, things I wear ‘next to the skin’ – underwear, pantyhose/stockings/socks, camisoles etc. go right into the wash basket. Then, I turn the other articles inside out, hang them on a hanger for tops and shirts to air out a few hours on a hook I have handy near a window,or fold them over a chair for pants and skirts. I change into comfty casual homey sweats (which often double as pajamas) as soon as I get home from the office, which saves wear and tear and frequent washings of my business clothes. Just before I go to bed for the night, I put the airdrying items away in their respective drawers/closet. Now I know when I see an item inside-out in my drawer that I have worn it already, and try to wear it within a few days over choosing something ‘clean’. This really saves on the laundry piling up!

    It IS a bit of a relief to read blogs and replies like this – I have been told I am overly anal about frugal minutae like this, and it’s great to know others ‘out there’ think along similar lines!

  41. Evita says:

    Duchess, are you my sister ? I have had the exact same daily routine since I was a child! it makes things so easy and guess-free ! I never thought people did it differently !
    I can’t see myself going through the hamper and smelling the stuff there !!
    (I admit that I was kind of grossed-out by this blog post).

  42. Kate says:

    #36 Borealis
    Yes, there are people out there who actually go to the library to check out books. And if you went to my library, you would notice a steady stream of people who check out books. Granted, they are also using the internet (perhaps job hunting or working on college courses) or checking out videos. But people do indeed still check out books at libraries across our nation. For how long remains to be seen, though. As #23 Hunter stated well:
    “Whenever the budget needs to be balanced, the library opening hours are cut. The real saving is peanuts, but the perception to the community is that the government is being responsible.

    I don’t want to digress too far, but I think it is very short-sighted to limit library access.”
    I wholeheartedly concur.

  43. valleycat1 says:

    #36 Borealis – I’m with Kate. We live in a small, rural town with high unemployment. Our local library remains really busy checking out books. I use it regularly (weekly, checking out multiple books) even though I also have an ereader and shop the bookstores nearby. Our children’s story hours have expanded & it’s almost impossible to park nearby when they’re in session. Most of those kids then check out books. The children’s reading programs always have a lot of participants.

    Although I only have a few friends who go there, any time of day I go in, there are people in line with stacks of books. Our city cut library hours a few years ago but had to add them back & cut elsewhere due to the overload during the reduced open hours & public complaints.

    I never got the ‘cut the library hours first’ budget mindset – it’s a miniscule portion of the budget overall.

  44. Genny says:

    Never realized how much worry I have saved myself by having no sense of smell-only pjs get worn twice in our house-everything else in the wash after being worn once. I can’t do a ‘sniff test’ so I don’t mind doing lots of wash instead!

  45. MARY says:

    This clean/dirty laundry debate couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Recently, my 16yr old son starting doing his own laundry and I had been telling him forever not to wear his clothes just once.I think he thinks I’m being overly frugal about wasting laundry soap,water,etc. Will have to show him these comments. Wish you would debate about how long a hot shower should last-he is in there for what seems like 20 minutes!

  46. Kate says:

    Something else that should be mentioned in this post for when kids are old enough to do laundry is that the recommended amount on the bottle is about 6 times as much as needed to get clothes clean. Adding some borax boosts the cleaning power. Saves on laundry detergent and on the environment because there are less bottles to recycle.

  47. tentaculistic says:

    Borealis – yes tons of people use the library, although you may not realize the volume of people due to some really cool advances in technology that most libraries have adopted.

    1) The first – and the one I love the most most most most most – is Overdrive, a service that lets you download to your computer electronic library books (books you can listen to on the computer/iPod/MP3 player/etc, and books you can read visually on an e-reader/cell phone/computer). You can usually choose between 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days, and there’s a limit of 10 checkouts at a time per customer. Which, especially if you have several people in your family, is hardly a hardship. Also, if you live near a big metropolitan area, you can often get cards in the surrounding areas’ libraries (e.g. DC library cards are available to people in Northern VA and PG/Montgomery Counties MD), which is good b/c each library has a different pool of e-books. Generally if you’re reading a book in a big series (5-10 books), you’ll need to go library shopping to get all the books in the series – and very occasionally you’ll have to buy one or two on Audibles. Still worth it to me, I buy maybe 2 books a year and blast through hundreds of free books.

    2) Libraries now let you reserve books online, and if there are people who have submitted holds in front of you, they will shoot you an email or text message when your book has come in. You just traipse in, go straight to the desk, and pick up a whole pile of held books, and are back out the door in a matter of minutes.

    So yes, people use the library, although not as many as I wish would do so (it makes my stomach hurt when I hear about people who buy every bloody book on their Kindle, when if you have another eReader you can just get the same exact book for free from the library!! Although I’ve heard that Kindle will soon let you use free library eBooks).

  48. Kate says:

    tentaculistic: I have a Kindle and read samples of books and then if I like them/like the reviews I check them out from my library. :o)

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