The Downside of Overspending on Your Kids

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

For centuries, parents have wanted to do right by their children. But why does “doing right” so often equate to excessive overspending?

 A report from the University of Pennsylvania claims that parents today are spending 100% more money on their children than they did in the 1970s. Many parents envision that children will fare best if secured in the priciest of car seats, tucked in at night in the fanciest of cribs, nourished by an all-organic diet from the time they begin eating solids, sculpted by the most sought-after baseball, tennis, or voice coaches, and enrolled at the most elite of universities. But does excessive overspending truly benefit children?  

 A new book, Not Buying It – Stop Overspending and Start Raising Happier, Healthier, More Successful Kids by Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist, nationally syndicated columnist, and mother of two young girls, answers the question with a resounding: “No.”

“The purpose of Not Buying It is to show parents that all of the crazy spending we do can actually have a downside,” Graff said. “Parents are a group of people who are inexperienced, emotional, terrified, and deeply committed to a particular cause, and that makes us the world’s most perfect consumers. My goal is to help parents say ‘No’ if they don’t feel like buying something. They will know that there are good reasons not to buy and that doing so can actually achieve a better result.”

Not Buying It spans topics relevant to all stages of a child’s growth into adulthood, from birth through college matriculation. Chapter One — “Starting Out” — dives right in, urging new parents to reconsider purchasing that $900 crib (federal regulations ensure that the $200 version is just as safe) and instead invest the difference in a college savings plan for their bundle of joy. 

Research from IBISWorld shows that U.S. consumers bought about $5.8 billion worth of baby stuff online in 2013 and about $11.9 billion in stores that same year. Meanwhile, Graff reminds readers that a college education is the only purchase that is proven to drastically improve a child’s life. People with college degrees have higher incomes and less joblessness (among other benefits), according to the College Board.

Other tips offered range from the everyday — why organic foods and natural medicines aren’t always worth the cost — to more substantial, longer-term decisions about education (is private school worth the tuition when public schools are beginning to outperform them?) and where to raise a family (should the McMansions that are overtaking the suburban landscape remain the prize when smaller homes are proven to encourage greater intimacy and connection within families?). 

Each chapter shares “stuff you can skip” (and their associated dollar amounts), suggestions for raising children better for less, and what Graff terms “rock-solid money moves” — not to mention compelling supporting research she collected from myriad sources.

“People think the secrets to American happiness are sprawling kitchens, media rooms for kids, everyone with their own bedroom, marble fixtures, and 12-foot ceilings, and they just aren’t,” Graff notes. “The unscripted moments around kitchen islands and in upstairs hallways are what help a family communicate and stay strong.”

Pediatrician Dr. Gwen Wurm echoes a similar sentiment in the book’s foreword when reminding that multiple studies show that it is not money that buys a child’s success, rather parents being parents.

So what are some simple steps parents can take to begin practicing what Not Buying It preaches? 

• Embrace a simpler, more wholesome approach to parenting and reap its many psychological, educational, and physical benefits. Prioritize talking to your kids and being present for them, whether at home or cheering from the stands of their game or in the audience of their school play. Commit to getting home at the end of the workday in time to enjoy the bonding that happens during family dinners.

• Build a strong financial house as a means of launching your kids into greatness. Not Buying It guides parents on how to begin saving up to $1 million by investing money that otherwise would have been spent on overpriced and unnecessary purchases. Graff lobbies passionately for emergency funds, wills, trusts, and insurance policies as critically important uses of family money.

• Rethink what rich looks like. The book makes it clear that collecting an enviable stash of material goods does not ensure personal happiness, greater self-esteem, or a higher status. Life experiences, for one, are what bring a person more satisfaction long after they occur, according to University of Colorado Boulder Professor Leaf Van Boven and his studies of postpsychological purchasing effects.

 “Parenting has become a competitive sport, and I think people are ready to hear another side of the story,” Graff said. “People need to be more educated and more knowledgeable about the downsides of excessive spending, and I believe that Not Buying It will help. When parents are done reading this book, they may still buy whatever it is that they want to buy, but they will buy it because they want to, not because they are afraid of not buying it. I personally see things more clearly now as a parent. I see people running around and making themselves crazy, and I no longer feel like I have to be a part of that.” 

Graff’s hope is that other parents will make this leap as well.