Joy of toys vs. stress of debts.

Yesterday I saw a funny letter reproduced online, purportedly written by a St. Louis guy who decided not to lend his 6-year-old son $20 to buy something.

He created a logo – Dad Savings and Loan: Because Apparently I Look Like I’m Made of Money – and explained why the loan had been declined. Among other things, the child had “insufficient funds and a history of not doing (his) chores.”

In addition, “over $80 has been spent on discretionary entertainment expenses since Christmas…an unsustainable amount of expenditure, and we cannot further compound the problem by financially assisting with (further) debt at this point.”


Classic! And it touched a particular nerve with me. Here’s why.


Earlier this week my great-nephew mentioned a couple of things he wanted to buy from Amazon. The gift card he got for Christmas would cover one but not both. “Do you have any work you need done?” he asked, referring to my habit of paying him and his brother to do certain chores.

“Not right now,” I said. “Besides, you still owe me $10 from the last thing you bought. I’m not inclined to advance you any more until you’ve paid that off.”

“It’s just $16,” he said.

That irritated me. “Just $16, huh? Do you have $16?”

“No,” he admitted.

“Neither do I, in my current budget. You’ll have to go earn it somehow. See if your mom or dad has any gnarly chores they want done but don’t want to do.”


Opportunity cost

He’s not a greedy kid per se. But like so many other children he tends to buy into (so to speak) the consumerism he sees all around him. Everywhere he looks are examples of what look like great stuff: advanced gaming systems, personal drones with cameras, that BB8 droid from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” smartphones that anticipate your every need.

And everywhere the message: Buying these things will make your life richer. But even if these things do enrich your life (for a while, anyway), they can deflate your budget.

I can understand why a 14-year-old isn’t thinking along those lines. What worries me is that plenty of adults can’t seem to make the jump to hyperspace: Is the stress of indebtedness worth the joy of the toy? Do the math (purchase price plus credit card interest) to determine how much you’ll really wind up paying for that new whatever-it-is.

And if you have enough cash in hand to buy anything your heart desires, whenever you want it? Congratulations. (I think.) But do consider the opportunity cost of that kind of spending. Those dollars could turn into something that’s more lasting than, say, a personal drone.

Full disclosure: I think that BB8 robot is freakin’ adorable. But I can’t justify buying it for myself or anyone else. Wouldn’t that $100 or so do more good split between my nephews’ college accounts?


I almost gave in, dammit

An even fuller disclosure: I was this close to telling my nephew, “Okay, let’s get that thing you want. You can pay me back this spring when DF re-does all the woodwork. He’ll need help with the sanding.”

But I don’t want to be a Disneyland auntie who teaches them that every dream should come true as soon as it’s dreamed. That’s why we get them to do paid chores. We want them to connect labor with purchasing. You want something? Work for it.

So I reminded him that he’s now 14 and can get a job this summer. “Once you start working, you can probably keep $20 or so per week and bank the rest. That means you’d have at least $80 a month to spend on things you want.”

He brightened a bit, and started doing the math: Two weeks’ worth of work would pay for [some other thing he wanted], and two months’ worth of work would pay for [some other really expensive thing he wanted].

My hope is that once employed he’ll start viewing purchases in terms of work-hours. That BB8 droid would cost me about 10 hours of my life. Ten hours’ worth of selling burgers and mopping floors and emptying the trash.

Would it still be worth it? Possibly. But I bet a lot of things won’t.

It’s not that I begrudge him or anyone else a little fun. I just wish people would pick their spots more carefully. There’s always going to be another Next Big Thing.


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  1. my friend got the BB-8 toy for Christmas.

    It’s really cute – but we rolled it around the floor and kitchen table for about 15 minutes, and we’re done now.

    You can definitely find a better use for $100.

    • Donna Freedman

      Pretty much what I figured.

      When I spoke at the New Media Expo conference last year I also walked through the expo hall. A guy tried to get me to enter a drawing for a drone. “Nah, because then I’d have to get a cat,” I replied.

      He looked puzzled. “Why would you have to get a cat?”

      “Because what else would I do with a drone except terrorize the cat?” I responded.

    • we have a monthly free market here, and those kind of 15 minute toys end up there a lot. Toy toys, kitchen toys (I really loved that quesadilla press. For about 2 months), the kind of entertainment you enjoy for maybe 3 or 6 hours, depending how often you rewatch or how fast you read.

      It’s the perfect venue for them – they really do give each new owner joy, for however long. And then, a month or two later, if the person isn’t into them any more, they show up back at the free market or get sold or donated or regifted.

      Even for people who resist temptation 90% of the time, even with some of them breaking or wearing out quickly, almost everyone ends up with that kind of toy often enough to keep the supply of them pretty endless.

  2. I have some pulling forces on this one. I am a small business owner, so I rely on people buying stuff and sometimes, I assume people blow their budgets when shopping in my store. Because I am so budget conscious I began to worry about others potential debts that I might be causing. After thinking and praying over the idea I might be causing someone else debt I just concluded I needed to focus on myself, I need to make money to survive and I’m not tricking anyone to leave their house and go shopping or buy my goods and I am not into the hard sales pitch.

    I do however try to steer my niece and even some of my younger employees to subjects like saving money etc. I just bought my first pair of winter boots this year after I got 6 years out of the last ones I bought for $45, I only replaced them because the sole was cracked and leaking water.

    I tell you though, my 18 year old employees are so consumer driven and disposable thing driven it is scary. No one has seemed to learn from their parents they don’t need so much stuff!

    • I totally understand you being torn over this. Years ago I worked for a small advertising agency and I wrote much of their ad copy. It was outdoor and sports stuff for teens and young adults for the most part. I often thought I was in the wrong business as I was much more “The Tightwad Gazette” type.

      • Donna Freedman

        “Torn” is the right word. I want them to have more than I had, metaphorically speaking. But they already have plenty. I also know that the boring old college fund is a better use for my dollars most of the time.

        Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. Today, Tony Robbins tweeted that customers aren’t buying products, they are buying feelings. Brilliant, both for marketing and for consumers: what do I want to feel, and do I have to buy something to get that feeling?

    I pity today’s children: they are bombarded with thousands of advertisements a day, each one telling them that they need a new thing just to feel okay. All the more reason they need aunties like you in their lives, reminding them what really matters!

    • Donna Freedman

      It’s an uphill battle because the same ads work on ME, making me feel that “it will make him so happy” or “what a great surprise it would be to give [Thing X] to that someone special!”

      Keep fighting! And thanks for reading.

  4. priskill

    Hilarious letter from the Bank of Dad. And so true — you expect kids to be kind of silly until they learn better (which is what you’re helping your nephew to do — kudos!) but the scary part is adults (not me, of course, ahem, ahem) also falling prey to “buying feelings” and racking up the debt. Teaching (and BEING!) mindful are full-time occupations.

  5. As I was watching Star Wars, I really wanted BB8. However, I had no idea there was one to purchase! I would need a cat for that, too. Really, I don’t need a cat or a robot.

  6. Cathy in NJ

    Jennifer Lawrence, in the Hunger Games, wore Fyre boots. I know because Seventeen magazine said so. Fyre boots were then feverishly searched online by my sweet daughter. The price range was around $400 dollars! So that year at Christmas she told all family members that she wanted cash for the boots. The goal was achieved and she had the cash in hand. So I asked, “Are you ready to order the boots?” She looked at the cash in her hands and said, “Those Fyre boots would take everything I have.” “I think I would rather go shopping and see if there are nice boots that cost less.” That sentence was my Christmas present.

  7. Petrish Dyer

    Teaching children about money is priceless and can depict their the path that they take financially when they become adults. I love this dad…..I think its great. Everyone has their own style. This will not be my route, but since my parents never talked to me about money, I have the responsibility to not allow the financial ignorance pass on to the next generation.

  8. Love, Love, Love, this article! It is so important to teach kids about money because soon enough they are adults and need to function on their own. I am proud of my children because they are doing their best to earn money, pay bills and save! This makes me a happy mom 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      You raised ’em right. Kudos. And who knows: Maybe they will lead by example in their peer groups. Some friends might get sick of the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle and ask for pointers.

  9. I think there are some adults that need this lesson more!

  10. Here’s a story from an adult perspective. My sister was my parent’s caregiver for several years, because she lived closest to them, was unemployed, and didn’t want to get a real job. (Not that caregiving isn’t a real job, but she came and went when and IF she pleased.) My parents paid her in cash, plus paid her rent, plus gave her a gas card, a Costco card, let her drive their car to and fro, plus, plus, plus. Yes, a good amount of money was even pulled from their accounts and spent at a casino, sigh. When Mom died, Dad wanted to move in with our brother in another state, so we moved him and sold their house. Sister hounded the crap out of my brother for money constantly. He’s co-executor. He finally told her she’d have to take her requests to the other co-exec, namely me. I have not heard a peep from her since the decision was made. I’m guessing that the reason why is because she KNOWS I will say NO, so she doesn’t bother. Tough love, baby. If I thought giving her money would help her make responsible choices, I’d consider helping in a very targeted way, but unless and until it’s zip, zero, nada. And yes, she has a full time job now, but she still can’t seem to figure it out.
    So I say, “Good for you, Donna!” The lesson you are teaching your nephew is far more valuable than any trinket will ever be.

    • Donna Freedman

      What a disheartening story. Money can make people do the damnedest things.

      Sorry for the loss of your mother. I still miss my mom and it’s been a dozen years. Wishing peace for your family.

      • Thanks, Donna. I keep hoping that even though she’s in her fifties, there’s still a chance the light will go on. Of the six of us, she’s the only one who’s a money mess, so there’s always hope, as there is plenty of (non-monetary) help at hand, should she choose to avail herself of it. Lots of fingers are crossed.

        Either way, if there’s anything left at the end, divided by six, it won’t be enough to save her if she doesn’t figure it out. I always said that to my mom, and encouraged them to enjoy the fruits of their labors while they could, without worrying about any inheritance. Every time we discussed this, I ended with, “But please try not to run out…”, which always cracked her up. (Never fear, Dad has a generous federal pension, so there’s little chance of that. There won’t be a ton left, but that’s 100% okay.)

  11. I frequently told my friend’s kids that the whatever-they-want would cost me x work hours and I don’t think it’s worth x work hours to me. They stopped asking me for stuff. Now it’s just “want to play hide and seek?” YES. ALWAYS. Hahaha.

  12. My brother can not see the horrible example that he is setting for his two sons. He buys everything he wants right away and that is that. He doesn’t run a credit card balance (paid off every month), but the boys aren’t involved in that part of the process. All they see is the “want now, buy now” activities.

    They are going to be in deep deep trouble as they get older.

    I’ve been told to “butt out” so all I can do is watch from afar.

  13. I love the bank of dad letter!

  14. I’ve been pondering how we can teach LB these lessons in a concrete way that makes sense to hir. Ze is already showered with gifts: hand me down clothes and toys, the occasional new outfit and books just for hir from aunties who have an exemption from the No Buying Things rule. Ze has everything ze needs and plenty for the wants so we aren’t buying hir anything new ourselves, we’re socking it all away for daycare and savings.

    I’d like to give hir a passbook of some sort that teaches hir to save and invest pretty early on but it also feels *awfully* privileged to hand over a really healthy savings account (you’re welcome, kid) when ze is young.

    In any case, we’ll definitely talk early about the value of giving to others who have less because we are lucky enough to have enough. And teach hir that it’s absolutely possible to have enough.

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