why children benefit from frugality

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As parents, we want to give our children the best start in life. We want them to be happy, to be educated, to have the opportunity to follow their passions and develop their talents.

And we want them to leave us alone for five minutes while we drink a cup of tea.

It is for both of these reasons that we find ourselves persuaded that more toys and more stuff is the answer.

And there is sooo much stuff available for children.

I recently read an article in the New York Times that showcased James Mollison’s photography of children’s rooms around the world. The point of the collection is to represent children living in poverty by contrasting their bedrooms with the bedrooms of wealthy American children.

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t want to glorify poverty in any way; there is huge difference between frugality and poverty. But what struck me most was the incredible excess revealed in the American kid’s bedrooms. I know, these photos don’t represent the average kid in the street, and the contrast is purposeful, but my heart went out just as much to the kids who have been given everything as it did to the kids who have nothing.

A life, where you don’t want for anything, is a life without desire. A life without effort is a life without achievement, personal pride and self esteem. A life without adversity is a life without growth and wisdom.

The benefits of less stuff

I’ve written a lot about decluttering lately. Children benefit just as much as adults from having less stuff.

Less stuff means less stress. Visual clutter is not calming to children or adults (and it just means more tidying and less playing).

Less stuff also leads to a greater appreciation of what we do have. Ten teddies can never do the job of that one, special, loved (and very smelly) teddy.

When objects aren’t easily replaced, we learn the meaning of respect. We learn about loss and disappointment and how to deal with those feelings. We learn about hope and enjoy the anticipation of new things.

Less stuff means repetition, doing the same things over and over: reading the same books a million times, playing with the same toys day in a day out. And this repetition is fundamental for a child’s brain development. By providing an excess of stimulus and variety (even though we have the best intentions at heart) we are interfering with this very important need for repetition.

Simply creative

Simple ‘toys’ encourage play much more than the vast majority of single use toys on the market. For example, a simple tin plate from the kitchen cupboard can now be a steering wheel, now a flying saucer, now a pool, now a hat… The possibilities are limited only by a child’s imagination, and given room to breathe, a child’s imagination is limitless.

A Fisher-Price steering wheel, on the other hand, is a Fisher-Price steering wheel. A toy that does not allow for limitless imagination. Sure, it has its place. A tired, cranky baby, a mother who needs to get dinner ready: a sing-a-long toy with lights creates a five minute breather in which to peel the spuds.

But by not buying lots of toys, by not spending lots of money, you’re giving your child a far greater gift.

We are pretty resourceful, you know. The internet is full of activities that we can do to fill up our child’s time up. But with all these toys and all these activities, how will our children learn to be resourceful?

Simple pleasures and special moments

When it comes to everyday activities you don’t want to set the bar too high because you rob yourself and your family of both simple pleasures and special moments.

For instance, if a young child is used to going to the zoo every week, that activity becomes ordinary; watching ants in the backyard becomes boring and what do you do for birthdays or special events to make those special occasions stand out?

It is much easier (and cheaper) for you as a parent to emphasise simple pleasures for the everyday and leave the more expensive and extravagant outings for special occasions.

In art, objects are enhanced by their negatives space. In typography, it’s white space that emphasises the text. In life, special moments are all the more special when punctuated by the ordinary days that precede and follow them.

And ants are actually really interesting to watch.

How do I learn to manage money if my parents can’t?

‘We can’t buy you that toy because we are saving up to fix the car.’

I’m generation Y – just. Apparently, we can’t manage our money. The combination of mobile phones and other need-to-have gadgets and easy credit has meant that we have a fairly hefty hand in the national debt crisis.

So what are our kids going to be like with their money? What are we teaching them?

Good money management skills, if you’re frugal. How not to manage money if you’re not.

But wait, there’s more

Frugality has many other benefits for children. They don’t need explaining, so I will list them below rather than ramble further:

  • Frugality can allow one parent to stay home to raise the children rather than juggling the work/day-care scenario.
  • A frugal diet based on whole foods is better for kids than a highly processed diet.
  • The frugal home that uses natural cleaners is less toxic. A house that isn’t spotless improves the immune system, allowing children to develop into strong and healthy adults.
  • Less toys means playing with the most important ‘toys’ of all: mum and dad.

When I first became a parent, a friend advised me that guilt comes as part of the package, and I have to learn to get over the guilt. Marketers know this. It’s easy to get caught up in the guilt that we may not be giving our kids every advantage in life.

The irony is, by not giving our kids every ‘so called’ advantage, we are giving them a more important advantage: resourcefulness, creativity and room to grow at their own pace.


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  1. Great points – I completely agree!

    You’ve reminded me though that we are overdue for a toy purge – we still have lots of our old toddler toys, many of them gifts from relatives, but my son is now 7! Perhaps a cleanup would be a good school holiday job!

  2. I love that saying, is it your or someone elses, I’m going to make a fridge magnet with it!
    Great point well made!

    LOL, I also need to have a “burge”. Many “younger” toys in need of rehousing.

  3. I made the quote up in a moment of inspiration. If it’s something I have inadvertently ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else and it was already in my head, I don’t remember it.

  4. Great post! Teaching kids about the importance of frugality and finance is so important. The trick is finding balance between talking about finance regularly and not at all. Talking negatively about people who are wealthy in front of children is something to avoid – while a frugal lifestyle is sustainable and wise, you don’t want to encourage tall poppy syndrome!

    1. Kirsten, that’s very true and very wise!

      I don’t think we should begrudge anyone their good fortune (or more usually, hard work)! I think it is very easy to give our kids unintentional messages without even knowing it (thinking of the financial messages from my childhood – like scarcity. It’s sad having a scarcity mindset – but I’m working on it :) ).

  5. When my children where little I had a treasure box which we filled with all sorts of things. The children loved to spend time making things so out of the treasures from the box, it was a wonderful way for them to recycle and use their imaginations. Many of the things they made took pride of place in the house for many months and friends would admire their creations. I really enjoyed watching my children and the fun they had.

  6. Viv, that’s a lovely idea! What was in your treasure box?

    I have started a craft box with recycled papers and foil and the like, for when the little fella is older.

  7. > I’m generation Y – just. Apparently, we can’t manage our money. The combination of mobile phones and other need-to-have gadgets and easy credit has meant that we have a fairly hefty hand in the national debt crisis.

    Na, I disagree. Generation Y has a birthdate between the mid-80s and the mid-90s. Even when they (I’m a bit older, by the way) are all spending a lot of money they don’t have, they have only been doing so since about 2005 when they became adults and could start borrowing money. And they’re only about 10-20% of all adults; and they probably didn’t have access to a lot of credit since they were only starting out. The crisis can’t be solely generation Y’s fault… Maybe the next one, if we don’t learn from this one… :-)

  8. :). I agree with you, I don’t ‘feel’ like I belong in the Gen Y category and I don’t think ‘we’re’ that bad either (not that I generally like categorising people, it’s all very much an over-generalisation!)

    Recent ING Direct reseach found ‘gen Yers’ to be the best savers and ‘Baby Boomers’ to be the worst My husband was quick to point out that the findings were probably due to gen Yers still living at home with their baby boomer parents, but I think we’re a little savvier than we’re given ‘credit’ for :).