It was an overpriced ballerina tutu that finally tipped us over the edge. Bought on a whim for my two-year-old daughter, that innocent confection of lollipop pink tulle and satin was the last straw; an ill-timed purchase that sent our bloated credit card bill spiraling out of control. Looking at our finances, my husband and I realised if we wanted to continue saving for a house deposit and treat ourselves to luxuries like, ahem, food and electricity, we needed to take action. Fast.
As a work-at-home mum of two preschoolers, that meant cutting down how much I spent on our kids each week. Raising children is an expensive business. Australian middle-income parents spend up to $458 a week per child – fifty percent more than the amount spent in 2009, according to a 2013 report by AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modeling. Although I was determined to spend less on my kids, I was also nervous about the prospect. I expected to feel constrained – guilty even – about denying my children their usual treats.
What I didn’t expect was to feel liberated and closer to my two children. Most parenting articles will tell you budgeting makes good financial sense. What they don’t mention is how much you actually gain from spending less. I used to spend a fair amount of money on kid paraphernalia that ended up as landfill: bargain bin toys that would go missing within a day, plastic ride-on toys now speckled with dirt and cobwebs, a $5.99 organic fig and pistachio muffin that went uneaten. When I cut these items out of my budget, I was forced to rely on the basics to entertain my children. At first, I stuck to our usual outings: playing at the local park, homemade picnics, the good, old-fashioned play date. Then I decided to get adventurous. I caught a train with my daughter to a nearby Chinese food precinct, where we ate pears and watched wizened men practicing Tai chi. During the school holidays, the four of us went for a bushwalk with the aim of making a photo journal of our trip. My iPhone currently has forty-eight blurry photos of bark, but it was worth it.
Not all outings were a hit. Storytime at the library proved disastrous when my son thought shelves were far more useful for climbing once you removed all the books. Then there was the time I spent an entire evening cutting up wrapping paper into little shapes for craft. The activity lasted five minutes and I spent the next week sweeping grimy little stars and hearts off the floor. Mostly, though, we roamed. We turned errands like posting a parcel into an important mission. The kids built a cubby house out of dining chairs and old blankets. I found an unknown plant growing in my backyard (Facebook came to my rescue; it was a Mexican Marigold.)
The main benefit of these outings was not the money we were saving, but how relational they were. Child development experts claim being outdoors is beneficial for children, not just in terms of their physical health, but also for developing imagination and mental wellbeing. My best conversations with my kids have been out in nature. Sometimes we would simply point out all the different things we could hear. Other times, we’d have intense discussions about what it means to have a best friend, or whether chickens on a farm were the same as the chickens we eat for dinner (I sweated over that one).
Without money at my disposal, I was also forced to abandon what I call my ‘bandaid purchases’. I wasn’t able to buy them a sugary treat when they were cranky at the shops, or purchase two of the same book to avoid fights. Now, I completely understand that a finger bun is a small price to pay for one’s sanity, but often I bought things we didn’t need because I just wanted my children to stop inconveniencing me. I didn’t want to have to deal with their public tantrums. I couldn’t be bothered saying, “no, you can’t have a sushi roll; there’s a perfectly good lunch waiting for you at home”, mostly because I hate making sandwiches with a passion.
Saying ‘no’ is the more troublesome route to take, but now and then, it reaps rewards beyond a healthier bank balance. Telling my kids we couldn’t afford the latest blockbuster movie figurine teaches them to be content with what they have. Asking them to wait until we get home for lunch – even when said in a death whisper the checkout – gives them the chance to practice patience. When I glimpse these character traits in my kids, I feel incredibly rich as a parent.
Of course, I don’t get it right all the time. There are times when I lose my cool – days when I’m dissatisfied and frustrated with the constraints of a tight budget. I hope, though, our financial journey means I’ll raise kids who are just that little bit more patient and thankful for what they have. Even if it may not include a pink ballerina tutu.