Monday, July 11, 2016

Is the frugal life boring? On making meaningful experiences with your kids when you can't afford Disneyland.

Have you ever worried that you or your family might be missing out on memorable life experiences when you're focused on paying off debt? This topic has come up recently for me, and it got me to thinking about my own family and whether or not we are jilting our kids of a meaningful childhood when we have to say no to certain activities because they are not in our budget.

Even though it is a simple question, it does not have a simple answer. Everyone's life situation is different, and everyone's values are different. For some parents, it may be really important that their kids get into competitive sports because they saw the value of athletics in their own lives. For others, it may be that they had fond memories of growing up going out to eat at a certain restaurant as a family and want that for their own kids too.

On our way to a Kansas City Royals game, courtesy of my cousin's generosity and some free tickets.

As an Air Force brat, I grew up in a fairly simple home that changed every few years. While we would drive down to Florida to see my grandparents and swim at their pool for a few weeks, generally speaking we almost never flew anywhere for vacation. Birthday parties were small, quiet family affairs with a yellow Betty Crocker Stir n' Frost cake baked in a cardboard box with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. All three of me and my siblings have birthdays in the same week, so sometimes we would just have one big celebration and cake and open our presents.

My kids have been blessed to have relatives who sometimes pay for us to fly out to California. We have paid for the tickets when we could afford it, but as the kids get older and are involved in more activities, we are realizing that we can't afford to fly out every summer if we want to be able to afford other things like swimming lessons, Awanas, and general items like clothing. Sometimes when our kids are invited to birthday parties at venues, they wonder why we can't do that too.

Getting ready for the annual Cow Appreciation Day's free meals at Chick-Fil-A
The truth is, we do have extra money in our budget, but we're trying to put as much of that towards debt right now so that we have a chance of being debt-free when the expenses really start stacking up in middle school and high school. We set aside a modest amount for birthdays and Christmas, but my husband and I have not bought each other presents for any holiday or birthday since the first year of our marriage (and we're celebrating ten years this August).

I don't feel like we are depriving our kids, though, because ''meaningful experiences" have a different meaning for me. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, did not go to Disneyworld, and yet look at the volumes of books she wrote about her life on the frontier. To me, a meaningful childhood is filled with creative activities, learning skills that will serve you well in life, learning how to serve others, and most importantly, spending time with people.

My son's Darth Vader embroidery
I am glad that we have had the chance to take our kids to the California coast, but even if we didn't, I wouldn't feel like they were lacking in any way. The gift of a simple childhood and being content with small pleasures is a very big gift indeed.

Who's to say what they will remember? I went to Disneyworld many times as a child because my grandparents lived near there, but one of the best memories I have of my childhood was from fifth grade making homemade valentines with my mom for school. My mom helped us design templates of Care Bear bodies that had the different bellies, and to this day, that is one of the highlights when I think about growing up. I think it was because it was a cool craft, but also because my mom was there with us as we made them.

I hope that my children understand one day that we were trying to do our best on a limited budget. I hope that they remember things we did together, even if they didn't cost that much money.


  1. This is a difficult concept for me. It is hard to create a balance between doing what you feel is important (paying off debt) and making those special memories you hope your children will have one day. My oldest always wanted to go; it didn't matter if we were going on a road trip or camping trip or even to the grocery store - he just wanted to be beyond the walls of our home. My second son was, and still is, very competitive. Being part of a team and having that sense of community is very much a part of who he is. I can't imagine if he hadn't had the opportunities of playing sports, and to be perfectly honest it was team sports that kept him busy and out of trouble (he'd pick on the younger ones incessantly!). Personally, I do not have fond memories of one-on-one time with my mom like you do, which I think is awesome. My mother worked full-time, getting home around 6 each evening. I did try to make up for that with my own sons by doing simple things like going to the discount movie theater, meeting friends for picnics in the park, taking advantage of museum free days, etc. We did make sure our sons were able to go to church or scout camps, some even out of the country. The experiences they had were priceless, but it didn't involve the whole family. That I do wish was different.

    But, I guess in some ways the answer to your question could be 'yes'. Now that 3 of my 4 sons are no longer living with me, I realize very dramatically that we only get what seems like a short while to mold and encourage and create memories with our kids. I do wish we had made a budget item for family vacations and/or summer activities, and made that a bigger priority. I'm not saying that every summer we should have taken a major trip, but if we had made that the goal for every 3rd year (for example), the two summers before and after could have been focused on day trip excursions or inexpensive activities while saving up for that trip to another state or theme park or national park. As a teacher, I do see the disparity in those children who have these opportunities and those who do not. (As an example, I was tutoring a 4th grader, and she was to answer questions on a reading passage about a forest fire. She had no knowledge or concept of 'forest', and because of that she had a great stumbling block to lesson).

    Being debt-free is gold. Kuddos to you and your husband for making that a priority and staying the course. And I'm certain that however and wherever you decide to make family memories will be the right decision for you.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts and honesty. I do think it is a complex topic, and one that has different answers for different people. I am glad that we have taken the vacations we did, and we will probably try to do a "big" trip every couple of years, but avoid flying when we can to save money. My dad lives in the DC area and after we do American History we would love to see many of the sights there.

    I found your comment about the tutoring student and the forest fire interesting for a couple of reasons. It reminded me of students in California who did not know what snow was, primarily because California does not get a lot of snow. That was a different context, of course :). It's hard to give every child every experience, and is a privilege and a burden that every parent has to expose their child to as many different experiences as they are able. But if they can't do everything, I don't think the child will lose out - I have had the opportunity to see many places as an adult that I didn't get to see as a child. I also think that books help to expose us to worlds that we don't always have access to in our everyday lives.

    Your sons remind me of some of my own - my oldest is very competitive AND loves to go out :). Right now he is outside after dragging his younger brother outside to play hockey on the patio.


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