7 Important Lessons Frugal Parents Teach Their Children

Photo: somma1977

I have pretty strong and unswervable opinions about how I want to raise my kids; a key item being that I don't want to spoil them. But sometimes the Mom-guilt creeps up on me, especially when I compare myself to how a lot of people around me are raising their kids. Am I depriving mine by not giving them lavish birthday parties, name-brand wardrobes, frequent kid-centered vacations, lots of meals out, and brand-new toys?

There's nothing wrong with that stuff, but when I stop and think about it all, I realize what I am giving them by being a frugal parent. (See also: Five "Jobs" for Children)

1. The Gift of Creativity

Every kid is creative, we know that. But sometimes we can actually hinder that creativity by throwing so many ready-made toys at our kids that they don't have to imagine anything for themselves. There's nothing more amazing than the power of a child's imagination, and when I watch my kids construct forts and fairylands out of boxes and blankets, or invent games that entertain them for hours and involve no toys at all, I'm in awe.

2. An Understanding of How Money Works in the Real World

You might not have noticed this yet, but...in the real world, you don't get everything you want. Stuff isn't free (usually). You have to work for your money, and when you spend it, it's gone. Far better for kids to learn this one lesson and day at a time than to grow up with deep delusions about their own entitlement.

3. An Appreciation of the Simple Things

A couple of week ago, my husband and I decided to take our four young kids out for a special treat — dinner and a movie. We told them the kids to hop in the car for a surprise, and for the ten minutes we were in the car, they were nearly bouncing out of their seats in anticipation. Their top guess? That we were going for a walk. A walk.

And they were thrilled at the thought.

Lest you think our kids never get to do anything more fun than walking, let me clarify that we regularly do fun stuff as a family. And we spend money on our kids. But our most frequent choice of family fun is simple stuff: playing at the park, going for walks, hiking through the woods, or playing with the sprinkler in the yard. And as a result, our kids value these very simple (and very frugal) activities as highlights.

They were also really excited when we told them we were going out to eat and then to a movie...though our 3-year-old did ask, as we left the theater, if we could go on a walk now.

4. The Habit of a Less-Wasteful Life

When you live frugally, or at least attempt it, you tend to buy less and throw away less. You want to get value out of what you purchase, so you become more aware of quality (will this last, or will it break?) and true need (is this a need or a desire?). You also become more adept at repurposing and reusing items instead of just tossing them out. The benefits? You save money, live a greener life, and help your kids learn to do the same.

It can be kind of a drawback at times; a few days ago my oldest daughter caught me in the middle of a closet purge. She started picking through the trash bag beside me, pulling out items I just wanted to get out of the house and berating me (gently) — "Mom, we can use this for something else!"

5. A Vision for Work as a Normal Part of Life

I love working. Don't get me wrong — I also love long, lazy weekends; sleeping in; and vacations. But work is good, a blessing and not a curse, and I want my kids to anticipate work, not dread it. Work is both the ability to turn time into money and the ability to create value through what you produce. Work can be earning a paycheck or tending a garden, and both types of work give you a return on your labor. Part of our frugal lifestyle is buying less and producing more for ourselves through our own work rather than through dependence on someone else's work. It's something we'll teach and include our kids in more as they get older.

6. The Ability to Solve Problems

Money can't buy everything, including love and happiness, but money can buy a lot of solutions to common problems. When you have enough money to spare, it becomes so easy to just fix your problems by throwing money at them. Limited funds, on the other hand, mean that you have to force yourself to think through other ways to solve your problems. Car breaks down? Fix it yourself or barter with a mechanic friend. No money for a lavish birthday gift? Make something special and unique instead. I want my kids to learn to think through their problems and come up with their own solutions, and being frugal is helping us to teach them how.

7. A Financially Independent Future

Of course, there's no guarantee that just because we live a frugal lifestyle our kids will be financial experts. But I think they have a better chance of becoming financially independent adults as we teach them the financial principles we're learning. We're communicating, through our lifestyle and the daily decisions we make, concepts like how important it is to stay out of debt, how it's better to pay cash for purchases, how credit can leave you in a hole, how the quality of what you purchase matters, how your own ability to work and save is powerful, and how you choose what you do with every dollar you have. I just hope they're paying attention.

Being frugal doesn't make me a super mom. I make plenty of mistakes everyday, but I do think that being frugal — even when I don't want to be — is helping me to raise my kids to be more self-sufficient, savvy with their money, creative, and open to adventures. I also value that being frugal has opened our life up to the generosity of other people. We've not only learned how to receive, we've also learned that we all have something to give. That's a lesson I want my kids to have for life.

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Guest's picture

Thanks for your article and it's encouragement. It brings to mind a bunch of images. Our first born's early Christmas, happily playing with his grandparents gift boxes, paper and ribbons, leaving the presents aside. A neighbor kid, after ripping open tons of birthday gifts, (he was a first grandson), digging dirt in his backyard with a teaspoon a half our later. My making knight, gladiator, and superhero capes and helmets for our boys out of milk jugs and fabric. Taking the kids yard saling. Building a tree fort out of salvaged materials. All good lessons.

Annie Mueller's picture

Great lessons! I'm fine with my kids having new things, and want them to appreciate nice things, but even more than that I want them to learn how to enjoy what's in front of them, be creative, have fun, and find resources instead of depending on "buying something" to have fun/fix problems.

Guest's picture

I love this article. Thank you!

Annie Mueller's picture

You're welcome!

Guest's picture
Lisa B.

This is an excellent article. These are the things that I am aiming for with my son. I agree especially with the creativity part of it. My husband has made so many things for the house using discarded wood, such as our rabbit hutch and chicken coop. We check the free section off of Craigslist religiously, and have been able to improve our garden with free compost cones and bins, worm farms, seeds, plantings, etc. I think(hope) my kid is learning that it's fun to be frugal. He now understands that it's more fun to buy 5 Goosebumps books at a thrift store for $1 than it is to buy 1 from Borders for $5.99 plus tax(now that it's his money he's using!).

Annie Mueller's picture

That's great stuff, Lisa! And that's awesome that you and your husband have skills for finding and using those often overlooked resources and you can pass those abilities on to your son. Kids learn so much by example! I overheard 2 of mine the other day having a pretend phone conversation, bartering stuff with each other and setting up times to meet!

Guest's picture

Annie, thanks for a wonderful article - I love all 7 points!

The only part I didn't like was the phrase "when I compare myself to how a lot of people around me are raising their kids." Don't do that! ;-) It's your family, your values, your rules. I always welcome the periodic comments from the kids along the lines of "well so-and-so's parents let them do blah-blah-blah." It's a great opportunity to discuss why that might be great for so-and-so's family, but not necessarily ours. Our family is unique, and here's why we prefer an alternate route based on our unique values.

As Buffet would say, follow your "internal scorecard."

Again, thanks for the terrific article!

P.S. Teeny typo in #4 "When you life frugally..." life => live

Annie Mueller's picture

Bill, you're right --- I know I shouldn't compare, and I work at not doing so. Comparison is definitely not the way to build a happy, independent, creative family life. And I'm realizing more and more, as I raise my kids, that I don't WANT them to fit in in most areas of our culture. I'd rather them be a little weird if that's what it takes for them to think for themselves, set their own standards, and be free to live life their way without feeling the need to please society.

Meg Favreau's picture

Typo fixed. Thanks Bill!

Guest's picture

liked this article a lot! My four year old loves going to the play ground more than anything! @jonathanrcolema

Annie Mueller's picture

Thanks, Jonathan! Parks, playgrounds, walks... all free stuff that my kids love; they don't mind ice cream, either...

Guest's picture

Cheers for raising frugal kids! I think its nice if you can afford lavish things for your kids, but you may ultimately be setting them up for a lot of disappointment (or DEBT) when they grow up expecting to always have the newest and nicest things but cannot afford them.

Annie Mueller's picture

Exactly, Justine. It's actually so FUN for us as parents when we can buy them that lavish stuff - and sometimes it's fine, but I'd rather do less of that and give them the long-term gift of knowing how to handle money and find enjoyment in simple things.

Guest's picture

These are all great lessons for kids, but one thing that's missing is that dovetails with the above lessons is to teach your children entrepreneurship. Building a business involves all 7 of the lessons mentioned above, but having your children understand that they can build a business or see you do it yourself is extremely powerful.

I'm self-employed and have 2 children (my son is 10 and my daughter is 7), and it's extremely important to me to show my kids that building businesses is something that they can do. It's important to me because having your own business can give you financial freedom, greater flexibility, and the skills to be financially independent, rather than relying on a job for income.

I started my consulting business over 4 years ago, and it's truly changed my life as well as my family's. I blog about it on my website (http://www.StartMyConsultingBusiness.com), where I show others how they can start and run a successful consulting business.

I've seen my kids shift their thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, and now they're talking more about what kinds of businesses they want to have. That perspective is an amazing gift to be able to give my children.

Guest's picture

I have a few disagreements with your reasoning. I hope you read through them with an open mind.

1. Depriving children of ready-made toys doesn’t necessarily make them more creative. Children don’t always play with toys the way they were intended. They can be creative with whatever they have. Giving them ready-made toys has its benefits. For one, it allows a connection with other children who have the same thing(s) (i.e. community games like Pokemon) and it also allows them to explore what they have - as in, they might spend a lot of their time building and not enough using if they have to make everything themselves. I’m sure it would be fun building a cubby house, but it might get it annoying having to rebuild it every time it gets cleaned up. And also, the kids having ready-made toys won’t mean they’ll give up making their own. It’s just nice to have a choice.

2. You might not always get what you want in the real world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. If you raise them with too much certainty that they won’t, they might not try and even grow up with a “life’s hard”/chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. Even if that’s an extreme interpretation, it would be nice for them to have at least have had that comfort once. You could give them everything without it being a problem as long as you taught them to only expect it from you and not anyone else.

3. It’s good to appreciate the simple things, but if you set the bar too low, so might they. It might be that the easier they are to satisfy, the less they’ll be eager to accomplish.

Overall, I think there’s too much focus on money and being frugal. You can teach your kids to be responsible, etc., etc., without depriving them of things and treating them like little adults. I think it would be far more valuable to give them a choice. It’s more special and more honest if when faced with ‘Y’ and ‘X’, they choose ‘X’ on their own – rather than if they were in X because it’s all they know.

Frugality may be a means of teaching children these 7 lessons, but they are not the only means. I urge you to consider the cons!

Guest's picture

What a great article! I love that your children were excited to go for a walk. My two are playing with a fort they built in the loft right now! Thank you for the confirmation of the lifestyle I choose in raising my children and the motivation to keep going!