Monday, January 11, 2010

Scrimp and Save

“Novelist and Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus posed the question, ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’ His point was that everything in life is choice.”

- Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction)

My son loves to play video games. I’m not one of those parents who shun games for their violence or because of the accusation that they turn a child’s brain and body into mush. I make sure the ones he has are not morally bankrupt and I do pay attention to the warnings on the games. My son won Class Peacemaker for his “calming influence”, so I’m not worried. As for brain mush, I once read an article in the New Yorker, which asserted that problem solving in video games is supposed to up the IQ several points. And as for body mush, my kids are skinny and active.

But game systems are “Keeping up with the Joneses” on a small scale. We started off with a Game Boy we bought on eBay, which he gave away to a friend when, years later, received a new Nintendo DS. Then he got the Nintendo DSI, giving the DS to his sister. His first system for the television was a PS2. Then the PS3 and Xboxes came out, but I told him we couldn’t just rush to get the new one because we’d already devoted money to this console and these games. I made an exception for the Wii, which we got as a family present last year.

It’s difficult to say, “No” to all of my children’s requests. Before my husband began his new job nearly two years ago, we couldn’t afford a lot. We rarely took vacations and saved for when times were lean. There was no glory in the struggle, and we knew it was because of the career choices we made. We also knew that we wouldn’t be in our situation forever – a luxury many don’t have. And now that we make more money, we’ve grown into our income in the way that people accumulate accessories in a bigger house. It’s nice not to have to scrimp so much, and splurge a little more.

I tried to instill the ideas of delayed gratification and that money doesn’t buy happiness, but how many kids can be satisfied by those lessons?

My children clearly aren’t suffering without. If you perused their room, piled high with containers of toys, you’d hardly feel sorry for them. And since my husband’s new job, we’ve been more generous with them (Wii and DSI). When my husband’s iPod hit capacity, I bought him a new one for our anniversary, and gave the old one to my son.

But where does it (and should it) end? Many of my son’s friends have cell phones, (including the iPhone), but I’ve told him that he doesn’t need one because he’s always in phone’s reach. As a teacher, I know that students with phones are tempted to text and play games during class. Technology creeps into all of our lives, but what’s important and what’s a waste of time? My son has an e-mail address, which he rarely checks, but he wants a Facebook account. The minimum age for Facebook is supposed to be thirteen, so I’m making him wait. He’s got plenty of friends, so I don’t think lack of a cell phone and Facebook account is interfering with his social life.

My son was never a good saver. Around the age of six or seven, he began receiving a small allowance. He’d spend it as soon as he received it, and then ask to borrow on the following week’s money (Ah, credit). To make him more accountable, we stopped letting him borrow ahead, and had him put a small portion into his savings account. As he got older, he started saving for a couple weeks for something bigger. But in the last year, something has changed; he now saves for weeks and even months on end. Sometime in the late fall, he realized that he’d accumulated enough that maybe, if he could stick with it, he could save for an Xbox 360 Elite at $299. I know it’s not just that amount. This system forces people to purchase $60 games, and there are accessories needed on top of the price of the console.

The boy has not spent his allowance in months; he’s saved “tooth fairy” money, and even asked for gift certificates from Best Buy in lieu of toys and games for Hanukkah. I mentioned what he was doing to my cousins (one is an awesome saver, who owns two houses after just receiving a PhD, and he’s only about thirty-years-old) on Christmas Day. One cousin who my kids call "aunt", the saver, and a couple of other family members gave my son money on the spot. Were they encouraging him or trying to make up for my stinginess? Whatever it was, it got him closer to this goal. My husband is now going to help him list and sell his PS2 and games on eBay. Once that’s done, he’ll have enough.

This summer, I read, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, which I highly recommend. It talks about why Americans, with all of our purchasing power, are less happy than people in poorer nations. It turns out that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we feel. It’s made me rethink my relationship to material items. It has also generated discussions between my son and me. I told him that one-day, he’ll be an adult at his first entry-level job, without his parents’ bankroll, and he won’t have things right when he wants them. At the time, he really seemed to get it. My son is aware that many people he knows, who get what they want, when they want it are happy for about thirty-seconds before the wishing begins again.

I’m proud of my son for the lessons he’s learned and the saving’s he’s accumulated. I’m hoping that the lessons we’ve taught him will prevent him from amassing huge debt in the drive to immediately obtain the next big thing.

* hoping


  1. It sounds like your son has a pretty good head on his shoulders. I cringe every time I see a new gaming system come out. It's ridiculous what they charge for them, especially considering it will be (supposedly)obsolete in a year or two. My husband has been trying to talk me into getting a Wii, but we just don't need it, and I'm not willing to pay all that money for a game system. The only gaming toy I've ever had for myself alone (and not a family purchase when I was a child) is my Gameboy. The original, circa 1989. It still works and I even still play it now and then. This thing is 20 years old and still works just as well as the day I got it.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Surfie. My mother plays a Sega Genesis, which she only got because her Colecovisision (circa 1985) died.

    We got the Wii because it's more active. It's been a lot of fun - especially bowling, Wii Play, and Mario Kart.

  3. Hi

    I can't agree with your more about technology creeping into our everyday lives and these days starting much, much younger. I have a friend with a 9 year old daughter and she refuses to buy into broadband for her pc (she still uses dial-up) because she cannot bear the thought of her child glued to the computer at such a young age. Apparently her daughter's argument boils down to "but everyone's doing it".

    And it's great to know that your son is thinking things through and financially planning! And it's great that you're all doing this as a family - the best thing I suppose is that you all communicate.

    Take care

  4. Old Kitty, I remember using the, "but everyone's doing it," argument with my parents. Thank you for the kind words. You take care too.

  5. I wish I'd learned to appreciate the value of money when I was a child; theni I wouldn't have become one of those kids saddled with debt after college, trying to buy happiness with each new purchase.

    You guys have done an amazing job teaching the kids about the value of things and choices! As far as the wii goes, I think that's actually been a great way for everyone to have fun as a family, get in shape & interact.

  6. Thanks, Kathleen. It's often to convince ourselves that the next thing won't buy us happiness.

  7. It's nice that, as I advance in time through your blog, there are more and more previous comments, and some familiar faces that have become your regulars! : j
    A practical approach to money and possessions is an invaluable asset to give a child... It's one of the many things I'm thankful to my parents for.
    I wonder if, when he gets older, he'll look back with appreciation on that particular aspect of the education you've given him.

  8. Alesa, look at that - I actually have a few comments by this time! And there's Old Kitty, another faithful commenter.

    In this past year, it's been great seeing how much my son matured, and how responsible he's been with his money. And every December both of my children give their allowance to charity. This time, it's to give to ASPS. (Remember that cause I blogged about in the summer.)

    How great your parents taught you about money as well.

  9. I had a Gameboy, and then for some reason, it wouldn't charge. So we bought a new battery and it didn't work. So my grandmother, oh so kindly, gave me hers. Eventually the exact same thing happened to that one.

    I still have them both.

    Now I have my DS lite and I am perfectly happy with it. I've had it in the time it has taken my sister to go through four, her fourth being a DSi.

    The cell phone was the only thing I ever really, really just had to have. I was tired of the looks people gave me when I told them I didn't have one. Now I get those same looks for not having a Facebook and I enjoy it. Funny how life works.

  10. Brooke, people can go broke trying to buy every gadget out there. I think that's part of the reason e-books are so popular. People can cite lots of reasons, but I think the main one is it's another gadget.

    If you ever decide to go on FB, friend me.