Do this one thing to save money on your kids

by Katy on August 14, 2016 · 23 comments

The post first appeared over at Clark

Unless you live off grid without the influence of media, your children are likely to have favorite characters that steer their wants and needs. Be it Disney’s Frozen, Star Wars or Cars, there are endless products emblazoned with these characters. You can easily spend thousands of dollars indulging these purchases, because what’s cuter than a $299 Cars bed or even this $3999 Millennium Falcon version? Add in the bedding, pillows, posters, backpacks, lighting, wastebaskets, rugs and artwork, and you’ve invested a ton of money in this theme.

Instead I recommend that you choose attractive but neutral stuff for your kids that will outlast each new whim. You can certainly add in a few accessories to complement their current interest. Pillows, posters and a couple of stuffed animals won’t set you back much, plus they’re much easier to change out when your kids’ interests naturally evolve.

I spoke to one mom who chose a neutral high quality backpack for her kindergarten age son, and then added a “Herbie The Love Bug” patch for customization. As his interests expanded, she would pick out the stitches and sew on a new one, and by fifth grade her son’s five-year-old backpack featured a “Beatles” patch. She explained that “I doubt he would have wanted to carry a Cars themed backpack as an eleven year old, and I doubt a character backpack would have held up anyway.”

One tip is to only buy character items that a child would naturally grows out of, like T-shirts, pajamas and shoes. So go right ahead and buy that Frozen T-shirt for your four year old, but forgo the coordinating comforter, lamp and iPhone case that’s sure to embarrass your daughter come middle school.

But what happens when your child hits puberty and ages out of their former obsession, and their formerly adored rooms are suddenly deemed as “babyish?” You’ve spent a bundle crafting a theme to their each and every possession which is now more embarrassing than dad’s incessant knock-knock jokes. Worry not, as there are a number of solutions.

Donate to your favorite charity

Whether you’re a fan of Goodwill, Salvation Army or a local non-profit, you can always donate outgrown stuff for a tax deduction. This Salvation Army value guide clarifies the amount you can legally deduct from your taxes, so make sure to write a detailed list of every donated item for a maximum deduction.

Sell on eBay or Craigslist 

Selling on eBay and Craigslist has never been easier, especially now that most of us have a camera and internet access built into our mobile devices. Create good pictures, take measurements and accurately describe each item and you might be able to get at least get some of your money back.

Give it the slip

Slip that Princess or Star Wars comforter into a duvet cover like one of these inexpensive Ikea versions. That’s what I did when my now 18-year-old son outgrew his love for Teletubbies, and to further bring down the price, I even picked it up at my local Goodwill.

The great cover up

Decoupage over childish themes using Mod-Podge. Here’s a Miss Spider’s Tea Party wastebasket which I updated by covering with vintage maps. This transformation not only got my son through his teen year wastebasket needs, but it also accompanied him to college. (This may seem inconsequential, but recent studies suggest that the average college student is spending $899.18 to outfit their dorm rooms. Add that on top of room, board and tuition, and suddenly that wastebasket from home sounds like a great idea!)


By choosing to not spend excessively on stuff that needs to be repurchased every few years, you’re able to keep your money available for the things that really matter. Although it’s tempting to indulge your kids’ every whim, you lead by example when teach that possessions are not disposable, and that smart people spend wisely.

This singular choice will save you hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars throughout your son or daughter’s childhood.

Now, if we could only figure out a way to update dad’s knock-knock jokes!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Gloria August 15, 2016 at 2:40 am

I understand that no one one wants their kid to feel different. I had a plaid lunchbox as a kid, while the other kids had character themed ones. I believe it helped me to develop my own interests and opinions. Today, a half century later, I don’t own any sports team garments, or pop-vinyls on my desk. My choices are my own, with very little influence from media advertising or pop culture. I feel used if I pay to advertise a megacorp’s brand.


Carrie Willard August 15, 2016 at 3:42 am

Funny, I was just reading a thread at the Mr. Money Mustache forum about licensed characters and how obnoxious (and ubiquitous!) they are. The people there mostly agreed that if you get this stuff free from grandparents and such, keep it, but never buy it!

Brilliant idea to cover it up 🙂


Maryam August 15, 2016 at 4:04 am

So true. Learned this lesson the hard way. This is the first year we are not buying backpacks because the non-character ones we bought last year are still going strong. Still annoys me when I look at the stack of cars, toy story and ninjago backpacks but live and learn right?


isabelle August 15, 2016 at 5:15 am

Totally agree! My girls both have neutral beige (wood) beds and dressers. They have girlish covers that we (or they) will use until they fall apart, as we (hubby and I) don’t care one bit about what dresses our bed. Then they each have a poster on the wall (Frozen and Hello Kitty). Their dressers are covered with stickers right now, so I know that I’ll have a big job to do taking them off (the glue) once they get tired of it, but whatever, it’s just stickers. The dressers will be good for a very long time. (And we got all the furniture used or donated, except one dresser bought at IKEA).


isabelle August 15, 2016 at 5:18 am

I have to say that we bought the princess themed backpack last year and it fell apart within months…. But a cute backpack was a big thing for my little girl starting school and we were happy to buy it for her. Now she has a plain pink one, let’s hope it makes the year… (same for lunch box…. she now has one from the thrift store!).


Betty Winslow August 18, 2016 at 10:11 am

GooGone – removes almost ANYTHING, with no damage done!


Susanne g August 15, 2016 at 5:19 am

Last Friday I bought two large (and perfect condition) official Disney Mickey and Minnie coffee mugs for 25 cents each. I love big mugs. This reminded me of The Tightwad Gazette recommending buying Disney souvenirs second hand before going, and then doling them out on the trip, bypassing the gift shops. I don’t care anything about Disney, and don’t have children, but the disparity in price second hand, was amazing and perfect for me.


tonya parham August 15, 2016 at 5:53 am

Speaking of expensive mugs, several years ago, I was in GW and saw a mug with no handle that looked like a Grecian urn but was blue and had lettering on it that said, “It is a pleasure to serve you.” I loved it. Picked it up for .49. When I got it home, I saw that on the bottom there was a website so I went to look at it and saw that it was actually a souvenir mug from NYC that retails for $9.99. It’s apparently what the to go coffee cups look like there. Anyway, it’s been a mug that makes me happy not only every time I see it, but when I spot it in movies or episodes of Law and Order (I’m rewatching the first years with Chris Noth and he drinks out of them often!).

This last weekend, I found another one at GW for .49! It’s ridiculous how happy that made me! LOL Still, I figure I have two for the cost of 1/10 of a new one!


Susanne g August 15, 2016 at 9:56 am

Love that! Have only seen these at retail! Good eye!


jennifer August 15, 2016 at 6:20 am

My children’s room is decorated with kiddie floral print bedspread, sheets, and curtains that I got a yard sale. I keep the wall color neutral so I can just change up the decor without painting. I painted the dresser pink with bright pink paint that was in the house when we moved in that I turned into homemade chalk paint. I then added some new drawer pulls. I will probably take Katy’s advice and paint all of this a neutral color when they get older. I was gifted a big rug with big colorful circles on it from a friend that perfectly hides the stained carpet. Everything is second hand or homemade and my girls love it. Nothing really matches but it all somehow looks like it belongs. Oh and they have two LL.Bean bean bags to sit on that I got at a yard sale that just needed a little extra stuffing so we filled them with stuffing from some old pillows that I never really like in the first place. I did buy my daughter a Hello Kitty backpack but I paid $5 for it new, and it is well made. I don’t mind buying her a new backpack because we have several ways to re-purpose it after the school year is over. I either give it to her younger sister, sell it at a yard sale, use for an over night bag, use it store things like art supplies, or we use it as a swim bag for towels , sunscreen, etc. My friend pays over $60 for her second grader a backpack and buys a new one each year and has it monogrammed which costs around $10. They are super cute but I am too practical for that. I usually buy character pajamas at the after Christmas sales for the next Christmas. I love to get dirt cheap Disney costumes after Halloween too for playing dress-up. The thrift store usually has a pretty good selection of these too. When I buy things I try to think of how I can get my money back after we are done with it.


Bee August 15, 2016 at 6:35 am

I also had a plaid lunchbox. I never owned Barbie Dolls. I didn’t watch much TV, and I primarily wore school uniforms. My mother and I decorated my bedroom, but we did not use any character merchandise. Although I was not always happy about this, I was far from deprived. In fact, I was given many opportunities that my friends were not, because my parent did not waste money on junk.

When I think back, I realize that I was given a wonderful childhood. It was not dominated by things, but by learning — piano lesson, ballet classes, swim team, camping, reading, drawing, cooking, sewing, bike riding, and so much more. All these skills still benefit me today.

I tried to raise my children the same way, but it was a much harder thing to do 30 years later. There were and are so many media influences. Furthermore, the affluent years between 1990 -2007 were dominated by a consumerist mentality that was especially pervasive to the young. I fought against the tide. Although I think I was successful only 50% of the time; my children, like their parents, have grown into non-consumerist with skills.


Ruby August 15, 2016 at 10:45 am

We did the same with our son. He’s still using his childhood furniture at 26 because we bought a nice wooden bed for him and handed down to him a nightstand, desk, chair, dresser, wooden trunk and bookshelves owned previously by family members going back several generations.

We pretty much managed to keep the desire for faddish toys under control by letting him buy them only at second-hand stores or letting him request one item at Christmas.


Mrs. Picky Pincher August 15, 2016 at 6:46 am

These are great ideas!

Fads always come and go, and I can’t believe how expensive it can be to “keep up.” While I think it’s ultimately more frugal to go against trends, there are ways you can save while being fashionable.

Ultimately though, I think the best thing we can do for our kids is to teach discipline, control, and frugality.


shelia August 15, 2016 at 7:52 am

Our girls always had eastpak or jansport backpacks some of which were purchased used. They had lifetime replacement and I still have a couple if theirs that I use. As adults, they still don’t follow trends but march to their own drummers spending their money on overseas travels and experiences.
A young family from church is building a new home and the mom is being so very smart about furnishings. I helped her paint a used bookcase navy with Annie Sloan chalk paint and she also used it to paint a used maple dresser and the two older boys’ bunk beds. It looks so classy. The walls will be gray and she can accent with anything that ties in with their interests. Her ‘splurge’ was three anchor hooks from Hobby Lobby to hang the three boys’ towels on in the bathroom. Of course, she waited until they were 50% off. It is such fun to see what a little creativity and paint can do!


Vickie August 15, 2016 at 8:13 am

I agree, t-shirts are cheap and I reserve those for birthdays or Christmas. However, I have been able to find them at Goodwill, since people donate when their kids go on to the next big thing.
My daughter decorated my granddaughters room in flowers and butterflies, so that should last until they become teenagers and want something different. You can find a LOT of crafty decorations at the Dollar Tree. All the furniture is used, except for the mattresses. Same for our house.
Backpacks really are easy. I agree, you can decorate them with cute stuff and make them last a long time.

I love the duvet cover idea! I’ll have to tell my daughter about that one.

We donate everything that’s in decent condition to the local shelter. They are always in need of kids stuff and household items.


amanda August 15, 2016 at 9:09 am

I got a hearty laugh at your first sentence: we DO live off-grid and have no tv, yet my kids are inundated with that stuff every time we walk out the door!

We homeschool, so our backpacks last forever.


Karen August 15, 2016 at 12:01 pm

I still use a plain navy Jansport backpack that I got in high school, over 20 years ago…! Thankful my parents instilled their frugal qualities in us. Any branded items our son has are gifts or hand-me-downs but even those are few because we are selective. It’s funny to me what my husband deems acceptable – Star Wars and Peanuts are ok but not Disney or superheroes. Maybe the things we allow or not are more tied to our own tastes than we realize.


JD August 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm

I can’t recall seeing any “character” rooms for kids when I was growing up. I guess we could have had Superman or Peanuts, but I don’t remember seeing them in anyone’s rooms or on their clothes or school gear — only on lunch boxes. One of my friends was allowed to decorate her bedroom any way she wanted when her family bought a different house– she chose the stars and stripes, in bedding, curtains, and furniture colors, and I remember wondering how long before she got tired of that. She even had red, white and blue shag carpet, so I would think she got tired of it pretty fast. There would be a LOT to replace in that room when she did.
I didn’t decorate my kids’ rooms in themes, nor dress them that way. They really weren’t interested in having them decorated that way, nor did they want their school gear and clothing to have characters on them, so it was easy to avoid. They had the occasional Strawberry Shortcake or My Little Pony nightgown but that was it. They were always pretty simple in their tastes, lucky for me, because that can sure get expensive, following the trends.


MaryBeth August 15, 2016 at 4:09 pm

We bought our kids the Jantzen backpacks and mailed them to Portland more than once for warranty work. One time they even fixed something else and told us it looked like it was about to come apart,so they went ahead and did the “repair ” early.
On a similar note, a friend told me she always bought black ski bibs for her oldest (a boy) because most any color coat would go fine with them. Even in Minnesota one kid can’t wear out bibs in one season, so they could get passed down to any gender and/or color preference child without it being a problem.
My youngest was so independent that I couldn’t buy “cool” clothes at the thrift shop or yard sale because he didn’t do “cool.”


Kim August 16, 2016 at 6:58 am

I bought solid color store brand backpacks at Target when my sons started school. They lasted into middle school. DS#1 then got a black Jansport which is still going strong in his fourth year of college. DS#2 got an LLBean backpack in middle school that lasted through his first year of college when a bottom seam failed. I guess the engineering books did it in! He’s currently using a Jansport I picked up for a few dollars at a church sale that I picked up as a backup. I will return the torn one to Bean which will be replaced through the warranty. They also had Bean lunchbags that are still in fine shape.

Just left DS#2 at school for his second year of college. Outfitted his campus apartment for less than $100. From FB yard sale group- Ikea Poang chair-$15, beautiful 9×12 rug-$10, set of Farberware pans-$20, and free utensils and holder. From thrift stores-2 full size sheets “sets”-$10, lamp-$1, shade-$1.50, painting-$3.50, and set of dishes-$5. Free from friends- duvet cover, set of blackout curtains, throw rug, set of bed risers. Bought new- full mattress pad at Target 40% off-$16 and a memory foam pillow at Aldi-$13. Once there a trip to GW, walking distance from his apartment, to get bowls, cutting board and a casserole dish- all for $1.50.


Marcia August 18, 2016 at 9:13 am

When my only granddaughter was about the age to go from crib to big girl bed, my daughter and I found a plain pine low chest of drawers at a yard sale and paid $15 for it. She stenciled little teddy bears on the front of it after painting it white. A few years later, she repainted it and painted blue and white clouds on the front of it to go with blue and white bedding. Later, as a teen, it went back to all white and the knobs were changed out to some crystal-looking ones. Granddaughter recently moved from her 2nd to her 3rd apartment, 2 years past college graduation, and sold the chest of drawers for about what we paid for it originally. Pretty good deal, I think. She got tired of it now that’s she’s 24!


Katy August 18, 2016 at 10:18 am

I love your daughter’s ingenuity!


Lauren August 18, 2016 at 10:45 am

When I go back to visit my parents, I still sleep under a Care Bears blanket circa 1985-ish. It’s hidden in a quilted duvet cover that I made for a state fair project when I was 12 (about 22 years ago). Last summer I noticed that some of the patches have started to fall off so maybe it’s time to give it another facelift! Or maybe the original blanket is worth a lot now, being well preserved and vintage. 😉


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