Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Not Getting Stuff Helped Me Have More

I see a lot of children today with what, in my humble opinion, is a lot of stuff. Expensive stuff like game systems, designer clothes, phones, and computers. Now, I don't have kids, and so I probably don't know what is normal these days. I understand that peer pressure - what other parents are getting their kids - carries a lot of weight. BUT, I frequently find myself shocked and appalled by what I see in the hands of children these days. Why does a first grader need a phone?? Not only does that strike me as ridiculously lavish but also dangerous (how closely can you monitor who your young child is talking to if they have a phone of their own?).

Let me share my father's strategy toward material possessions, as I believe it has had one of the most positive impacts on my life. First of all, growing up, I rarely asked for things. I learned early on that toys, games, candy, etc. were special and rare treats that would be given to me when an adult wanted to be extra nice. Asking could actually decrease the chances of getting something. Good behavior, such as going to a store and being quiet, patient, and keeping my hands off of stuff, was more likely to lead to a happy surprise.

Second, and this is the primary parental strategy that I'd like to share, after 13 years of age, I had to buy what I wanted with my own money. That I earned. From working.

Basically, the rules were outlined like this: if you want something special, get it for yourself. The family shampoo is Brand X. You want special shampoo? Buy it then. We'll pay X amount for pants. You want more expensive pants? You pay the difference.

Of course, at the time I thought this was grossly unfair and bordering on neglect (I was 13 after all). I wasn't even old enough to get a real job. Also, I lived in a teeny tiny town where work options were limited. But, my dad held firm, and I wanted better stuff, so I soon found a number of babysitting jobs to earn extra money. (Interesting side note: my little brother started earning money at the same age by picking up golf balls at the golf course and painting lockers in the summer at his high school.)

Importantly, I was in a lot of extra curriculars as a teen. That restricted the hours I had available to work, which ultimately forced me to prioritize my time. Also, it meant I really had to save up. I earned most of my money in the summer (babysitting gave way to nannying as I got older) and I learned to hoard my money. I also learned, at an early age, to weigh the pros and cons of a purchase against depleting my meager savings or giving up one of my preciously few open weekend nights to babysit.

The older I got, the larger my contributions were expected to be. For instance, I could have driven the family vehicle* but I would have had to pay for my part of the insurance. I was never given a car of my own. At age 18, my parents co-signed a loan for me. I even paid for my own college, and that was a big motivator to get scholarships! No freebees.

*It was a minivan. There was little desire and even less motivation to work for the privilege of puttering around town in that beast.

Sometimes I think my parents were a bit too tough. an adult, I have impeccable credit. I was 22 when I bought my first house. R and I own our vehicles outright; we have a 2000 Subaru, which we paid off before we bought aforementioned house, and have decided it's not worth another car payment just to get a newer vehicle.

Let me share a much-abbreviated comparison: a good friend of mine got whatever she wanted as a child. As an adult, she has an advanced degree. She owes over $100,000 in student loans. She has a nice car and a huge payment she can barely make. She has great clothes and tons of credit card debt. I doubt she will ever own a home, her credit it awful. I realize that this is a sampling of one person's experiences, but I maintain that you can find many other examples.

Though I think that we will probably give our future children more than my parents gave me, I will definitely insist that we employ a similar strategy. I strongly feel like it helped mold me into a better prepared adult.

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