Make these parenting mistakes and you’ll keep living paycheck to paycheck

by Katy on February 13, 2016 · 24 comments

This post first appeared on
Are you making more money than ever, yet still living paycheck to paycheck? If you’re a parent, the likely culprit(s) are those adorable youngsters. Yup, your progeny have the potential to suck you dry financially, but this doesn’t have to be the case. You’re the adult which means that you have the ability, (and frankly the responsibility) to make wise financial choices when it comes to your kids. And no, I’m not suggesting that you dumpster dive for after school snacks and construct their garments from burlap sacks. But you can provide a rich and empowering childhood for your kids without robbing your financial security.
Unsure where you’re going wrong? Look to these common parenting money pits and discover where you’re overspending.

Ridiculously expensive birthday parties

Are you shelling out hundreds of dollars for Junior’s birthday party before you’ve even bought the gift? You’re not alone. Parents all over this great nation have somehow been convinced that’s it’s no longer acceptable to bake their own cakes and host parties in their own homes. Take a step back from the Joneses. It’s perfectly okay to host your own birthday party without hired entertainment and a bouncy castle. Old fashioned games such as hide and seek, freeze tag and pin the tail on the donkey (or the dinosaur or Darth Vader) still captivate children, and a candy filled piñata is a hit each and every time. I’ve personally hosted dozens of birthday parties in my modest home with themes ranging from dinosaurs to Star Wars, pizza to arcade fun. The average cost? Maybe $30.
So bake your own cupcakes and push the furniture against the walls, because it turns out that it’s absolutely acceptable to host your own birthday parties.

Assuming that kids need specific “kid food”

Somehow America’s food industry has convinced parents that children require an entirely different category of meals, and trust me, the cost per serving is not doing your budget any favors. I’m talking about tubes of yogurt, pouches of applesauce and any meal that’s specifically marketed to your toddler, preschooler or school age child. You know that your grandmother would sooner have flushed her paycheck before she prepared separate kid and adult meals. Nope! Her kids ate what was put in front of them and grew up to be open minded eaters. Once babies are weaned and have graduated to mixed food, they really don’t require specialty products. And your eight year old? He can eat what the rest of the family eats.

Providing the latest and greatest electronics

Your daughter may try to convince you that she’ll be shunned without the newest iPhone, but this is simply not true. Perceived obsolescence is a highly effective marketing ploy that convinces consumers that their perfectly good possessions have become outdated and an embarrassment. It works on adults and it really works on kids. (Think women’s shoe trends or kitchen appliance colors.) The practice of always buying the newest electronics is sure to keep you in debt, especially when you already own a perfectly functional device. Instead look to buy one or two generations back and you’ll be sure to score a bargain. I promise, your daughter will survive this injustice.

Endless Pricey Lessons

There are many skills that simply cannot be acquired without lessons, so yes, they can be a wonderful thing. But when lessons are so expensive that they keep parents from being able to ensure their own financial stability, it becomes a problem. Piano lessons are generally not a problem. Piano plus karate plus archery plus art plus violin plus taiko is a problem. It’s a mistake to think that children need to be entertained and on task at all times. The work of childhood is play. Choose a single lesson at a time and don’t feel guilty about shopping around for the best deal. Check out your local parks and recreation department for reasonably priced classes.

Elaborately decorated childrens’ rooms

Yes, it’s fun to create a theme bedroom for small children, but if decor is too specific you’ll be starting from scratch every few years. Your four-year-old may be nuts for Cars or Frozen right now, but that won’t be the case in a few short years. Choose neutral pieces that grow with the child and then add one or two inexpensive accessories that match up with their current obsession. A Frozen pillow case instead of a Frozen bedding set, a Cars waste basket instead of a Cars bed.

Club sports and teams

You may think that the thousands of dollars you’re spending per year on club sports are an investment on nabbing a college scholarship, but unless your child is the next Lionel Messi, you’d be better off sticking that money in an educational savings account.  Once you’ve paid for uniforms, equipment, travel and fees, these supposedly elite teams will set you back thousands of dollars per year. Instead, look for volunteer run recreational leagues that end up being much easier on the budget.

Bizarrely expensive baby supplies

Babies are simple creatures. They require food, comfort, shelter, diapers and clothing. (Come to think of it, with the exception of diapers that’s what adults require as well, but I digress . . . )  Take a look into any baby shower and you’d think that babies were designer obsessed royalty who’d be embarrassed to sit in a no-name stroller. Even the cloth diapering set is competing with one another to bid on exclusive cloth diaper prints on eBay. $46 for a single diaper?! When a stroller can set you back twelve-hundred bucks, you’d be smart to set aside your pride and explore the second hand market. Consignment shops, garage sales and Craigslist are terrific resources for baby’s needs, not to mention the tried and true hand-me-down route. Less is simply more when it comes to baby supplies. Tip: when choosing baby clothes and accessories, always go for gender neutral, as it can be handed down to the next child. (Of course it goes without saying that some items such as car seats should always be purchased new, and it’s a good idea to Google purchases to make sure they haven’t been included in a product recall.)

Assuming that private schools always beat public schools

Nothing is harder than trying to add to a college fund while simultaneously paying private school fees. But public education get a bad rap and should always be considered before going the private school route. Many districts include specialty magnet schools, and even the neighborhood schools provide wonderful education to America’s youth. My Portland, Oregon school district offers multiple language immersion programs, and my two blond sons graduated fluent in Japanese. Were their classroom sizes larger than the private school? Most likely yes, but they benefited from amazing and committed educators who ushered them into adulthood. And the cost? My taxes. Make an appointment to visit your area’s public school before you assume the worst.

Spending so much on the little things that there’s nothing leftover for the big stuff

If your days include a dollar here, five dollars there and then thirty spent at the drive through, you’re likely not in a good financial position. Sit down to figure out your big picture financial goals and what daily changes need to happen to reach those goals. For example, my own children grew up in thrift store clothing, but were able to participate in expensive class exchanges to Japan without incurring any debt. We’re now paying cash for the kids’ college, but I sure as heck pack leftovers to eat for my work lunches. Small painless daily sacrifices that allow you to meet your big picture goals.

Being secretive about your own finances

Children learn about the world around them from their own homes, but they’ll never grasp how to manage money if we as parents are unwilling to talk about finances. Kids naturally want more, more, more and don’t understand how there can be a limit if there are still checks left in the register. Many parents feel bad about being unable to provide the same as those dreaded Joneses, and end up living beyond their means as a result. Talk to your kids honestly about your own situation and include them in the conversation. You might be surprised how empathetic and understanding your own children can be.


No one is suggesting that you hold back on paying for what is valued and important to your own family, but when you automatically say “yes” to everything, it can be a strong component to a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Deliberate and thoughtful spending is very important when it comes to parenting, and should be part of every family’s conversation.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth February 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm

I’m so happy our kids are grown adults now. But, I’m thankful to say that we raised our kids the way our parents raised us. We taught them to respect the meaning of the word “no”. But we did treat them from time to time.

I’m so grateful that our adult children are very responsible with their finances, probably more than we were, to be honest.


Tara February 13, 2016 at 12:34 pm

I completely agree. I have five adorable children, who are not spoilt. There are times when I look on Facebook and feel guilty because their friends are out at different theme parks or seaside resorts whilst mine are sitting reading a book or playing with their toys but then I realise they are happy and that’s all that matters.


K D February 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm

A great list. We stuck to most of those and have a grown up child that is not into keeping up with the Joneses. She will graduate college debt free, thanks to her efforts of being a good student, choosing the right school, and working throughout her college years (and some support from us).


Bridget February 13, 2016 at 1:23 pm

You are right on point! I totally agree with all you’ve said.


Diana February 13, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Can you elaborate more on the language program your boys were in? Was that their foreign language class or a language immersion? How did they learn their subjects in Japanese or English? Did it prepare them well for college? Maybe this is another topic you could write about? More details pro/cons language immersion public school programs? When to start them? Do you also need to homeschool in English so they are ready for college? I am considering one of these programs but I just don’t understand it well enough…


Katy February 13, 2016 at 4:47 pm

My sons did a kindergarten through 12th grade Japanese language immersion program through Portland public schools. Half the day was in Japanese, half in English through 5th grade, then history and Japanese in Japanese in middle school. High school was just a single Japanese class. It was a great opportunity, which was too good to pass up. Pro-cons are too complicated for this comment thread through.


Diana February 13, 2016 at 8:43 pm

Oh thanks, very interesting. The program here was 90 percent foreign language 10 percent english and I thought that was too much… I didn’t know how the kids would be able to function in high school & college.


Mand01 February 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Agree with everything , especially the kids parties. A jumping castle for a 1 year old party ? Please. Take that $200 and send it my way if you want to burn cash.


joanna February 13, 2016 at 10:07 pm

This is a great post! I think I’ve been quite NCA with our first baby…buying only used clothing for her (always) as well as a used stroller (new carseat) but the stroller is kick*** because we decided what we wanted and waited to find it used. It had been through several kids already and still in excellent shape. On that note a stroller, and baby carrier are both excellent NCA transport tools if they can get you active and using the car less.
I still find I buy more things than before baby, every other day there seems to be something…now it’s buying baby proofing materials.


Barbara February 13, 2016 at 10:37 pm

Isn’t it funny that you make such a big deal of things that our
parents would have done (or not done) without a second
thought? Perhaps it’s an American thing!


gepee February 14, 2016 at 12:44 am

I’m sooooo with you – on every point, but especially about being open with finances. Of course children also have to learn to just accept a “no” from time to time, but if there isn’t more, they easily get the impression that their parents could buy them all they wish for, they just don’t want to.
My parents gave themselves pocket money every month, just like I got … well, more than me, but that was ok for me. But I got to see how my parents, just like me, had to think about what they wanted to buy and if they had to save a few month for it, I never got the impression that they could just buy whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. And if there were bigger things to buy for the whole family, I always got to see how they thought about it, if it was financially possible and if it really was needed … they never just bought these things on the spot.
My parents are not rich, but well off enough, so I am all the more thankful that they taught me to be responsible with money


Mariana February 14, 2016 at 7:07 am

I actually saw the same diaper in a store in NYC (while looking around what I can get for a baby shower for less than $15) for a whooping $89. What?! Why? Just beyond me someone would pay that much for 1 single diaper. I am sure people do, though…


Jennifer February 14, 2016 at 7:38 am

About birthdays, I actually got the “opportunity” to learn from my mistakes. I used to throw elaborate, expensive waterpark birthdays parties,complete with catered BBQ and fancy cakes, for my now 20 year old daughter. I have 2 more children that are young girls. I know first hand what this type of spoiling will do. First off, it sets the bar for the next year and unless you are Donald Trump you will eventually fail with 18+ years of parties. I see what my mistakes have caused and so I give modest parties that I plan months in advance. I think planning ahead can save a lot of money. It takes a whole year for the next birthday to come around so I pick up stuff a little along. I put a small box in my closet and as I find clearance birthday items or anything that may could be used to decorate for a party, Ex. Candles, ribbons, gifts, pkgs of balloons, confetti, tissue paper, I throw them in that box and when the time comes I usually can cobble together a party. I try when I can to avoid “theme” parties and just try to have bright colors or add cut out, printed off characters to the colors I have already. For instance, I’ve got plain red/white polka dotted napkins and plates for 25 cents at a store going out of business so we will make this year a Minnie mouse party with homemade cake and crockpot hotdogs. An important difference between then and now is my kids don’t ask for a particular theme. I never ask what kind of party they want so I don’t get boxed in. They enjoy the element of surprise from whatever I come up with. I’m proud that I have kids that only expect a great birthday party.


Shevaun February 14, 2016 at 1:07 pm

I agree with you, Katy, 99.9% about “specialty” kids foods. The .1% is because after I spent years being super-frugal to the point of self-martyrdom, my DH convinced me that it’s okay to buy squeezie babyfood for carrying around in the diaper bag or eating at grandma’s house (I home-make all our babyfood for at home). I cringed at the idea of buying special babyfood, but it really is easier for carrying around, and one multi-pack will last us for a month or so. DH says I need to be kinder to myself. 🙂

About birthday parties, DD2 is only 15 months, but DD1 is 14 years… she gets to pick the menu for a family party, and I’ll cook to order. But everything is homemade and we invite family plus 2 school friends. Her “treat” is in getting to pick the menu, start to finish! We do the same menu-choice reward for report-card dinners, but no guests usually. It’s not very expensive but she feels pretty special.


Bee February 14, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Amen! Encouraging a good work ethic, gratitude for one’s blessings and appreciation for the dollar are extremely important for success, but indulging one’s children seldom teaches these things. What’s more, you are 100% correct. It does nothing for one’s bank account either!


Mary Ann February 15, 2016 at 5:27 am

I will never regret the 12 years of private school that I paid for for my two sons. Throughout their years in school, we would talk to parents and students using public schools and reassess whether they should stay there or go to public school. They stayed where they were. So I guess it depends on your particular school system. And hey, by the time they were in college, I was so used to paying tuition, I hardly noticed any difference in our finances. Besides the better education, it also helped them to learn that they didn’t need the best and the newest, and sometimes you just have to wait to get something.


Elise @ Simply Scaled Down February 15, 2016 at 5:29 am

Sometimes I feel like no matter what choice I make in raising my child it’s the wrong one. If I spent too much I’m being wasteful or spoiling them. If I spend too little I’m projecting my ideals onto my children. It just feels like some days I just can’t win 🙁 That’s when I remember they are alive and kickin and I figure I at least did something right that day.


Shevaun February 15, 2016 at 6:06 am

Elise, I hear your anxiety. When I fret about my kids, I’ll call my own mother. She asks “Are they dead yet?” “No.” “Then they’re fine.”

You write, “If I spend too little I’m projecting my ideals onto my children.” I think you’re making a point about letting your kids be their own individual people, but here’s a separate thought… Your kids ARE getting ideals from the whole world around them. That’s just the nature of being a social creature growing up. So would you rather project your own ideals, which obviously you value and care about, onto your kids, or would you rather have them be projected upon by advertisers/corporations/those “Joneses”, etc.?

If you love your kids, then you’re a great mother. *hug*


Jennifer February 15, 2016 at 8:10 am

I understand how you feel because I struggle here too. I think it’s tough to find the middle ground sometimes. What’s important is that they feel loved and we show them what we think is best. When they get older they will form there own ideas but I think they tend to do things they see us do more than completely going on another path. Never forgetting where they came from so to speak. When I think of my childhood memories I think of so many great things my mom did when we were pretty poor. I never really knew we were poor until I became an adult. She made so many things good with out money. I guess this all comes back to not sweating the small stuff.


JD February 15, 2016 at 9:05 am

I so agree with this. My daughter had a friend years ago who always had big parties at rented venues, the latest toys, clothes and gadgets, and any lessons she wanted to take that week, yet I knew for a fact her parents had filed for bankruptcy once, and three times had been forced to sell their house because they couldn’t afford the payments. They would buy a fancy house and four years later be living in a rented mobile home, until they convinced someone to give them a mortgage again. Crazy! Their daughter is following in their footsteps. She bought expensive baby furniture for her first child and sold it cheaply two years later. A year after that, she was buying more, as the next child was on its way.
Katy you are dead on with this post.


janine February 15, 2016 at 9:08 am

As the mother of two grown boys, I know we tried to instill in them a sense of economy and we were partially successful. They have both frugal and non- frugal habits. My parents were not frugal. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II and felt they were entitled to some of life’s luxuries. I have my grandparents to thank for their frugal lifestyles which set the stage for my parent’s college educations , travel opportunities and financial security.
On another topic-
One memorable birthday party was at a local sub and pizza restaurant where there were big windows where the kids could watch them making the pizzas and putting them into gigantic ovens – exciting! They also had a juke box with reasonable prices for playing and since they were offering a free bakery cake plus a birthday special it was all at a reasonable price and no prep on our part. Otherwise we used local parks for picnics plus piñatas and Pin the Tail games. One Halloween weekend a friend and I teamed up to take two carloads of kids to all of the spook-houses in our area of town. They all asked for food shelf donations as part of the entrance fees and one mom donated a case of spaghetti noodles for the kids to hand out as we moved along. Fun, exciting, cheap, and a good cause.


Jen@FrugalSteppingStones February 15, 2016 at 12:41 pm

It is not uncommon in my suburb for parents to throw $200-500 birthday parties for a whole class of kids. There is no way I am doing that. We have home birthdays, and I just spend $30 for 20 people in my own home this past weekend. We always hide about a dozen pictures around the house that I print off free from the internet and that match the theme of the party. That is a well-liked activity. I otherwise don’t plan activities or give prizes/gift bags, etc. No one has complained yet.


Lynn February 16, 2016 at 3:53 pm

I totally agree with this article. especially about birthday parties. I can never understand why people think they do to spend so much money. When my children had parties we often worked together on getting things ready. I’ve made many homemade piñatas over the years, and the great thing is its something your child can do with you. You can make almost anything with a balloon and some paper mache. we’ve made dogs, a Furby, an Octopus for an under the sea party. all sorts of fun things. with just paper and glue you can make almost any theme party you want for far less than buying it all.


Rosa February 16, 2016 at 7:23 pm

Personally, I am done with parties at my house. The whole extended family comes, and will not leave, or shows up hours (24, in one memorable case) early. So much stress! I can spend a few hundred dollars, once a year, for a party that is kid-centered, low-stress, and has a hard headcount limit that excludes most of the grownups. They can throw a family reunion if they want to hang out with each other and criticize my housekeeping, cooking, parenting, and lawncare – but not in my house! I would gladly spend twice as much, actually.


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