Sunday Conversation: Raising Frugal Kids Edition

Welcome to Sunday Conversation #11! Just one question this week, but it is a deep topic and is probably deserving of its own post.  If you would like to participate in next week’s Sunday Conversation, simply ask your question in the comments section of today’s post and I will respond next Sunday. Remember, any subject is on the table (but keep it family-friendly).

“I have an 8 year old daughter who is very… uh.. materialistic. I’m ashamed that she loves her “things” A lot of people say it’s her age. Is there any way to curb this obsession? (I know turning off the TV is probably a good start).”


Dana, this is an issue every parent struggles with at some point.  You’re correct in your assertion that the media certainly isn’t much help.  One of the reasons we decided to live with only basic cable was because of the constant advertising barrage children are subjected to, especially on channels dedicated to children’s programming.  The Disney Channel, for instance, is seemingly benign, but a large majority of their programming incorporates advertising for their own products, or plugs for other products, and most of their shows promote a never-ending message that rich is cool, and designer clothing is always “in.”  I equate most of their shows to soap operas for kids.

But television is not the only contributor to influencing a child’s level of materialism.   Parents are ultimately responsible for helping kids develop a frugal approach to life through their own example.  How many times have you heard parents bragging about their car, or their home, or their fabulous vacation in front of their kids?  How many times have you seen or heard parents making fun of an old beat up car, or a run-down house.  Over time these examples mold kids’ attitudes towards material things, and they incorrectly think anything less than the best is not good enough.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, children develop an unhealthy level of materialism on their own.  How do we change these attitudes once they develop?  I personally believe the best way to cure kids of material desires is to make them humble.  Let kids volunteer with you at a local soup kitchen, or ride with you to donate items to the Salvation Army.  Make it a teachable moment by taking some time during the ride to and from to explain that some people have no beds, or bikes, or toys, or even clothing.  Do so not in the spirit of making them feel guilty for having nice things, but in the spirit of developing your kids into becoming “givers.”

Another idea is to allow your children to spend some time talking to others who have sacrificed, or done without, especially older generations who grew up in the Depression era.  My grandfather was born and raised in the Depression era, and often times went without shoes in the summer, and at times went without lunch or dinner when there was no money for food.  There were no electronics, no toys, no cars, no computers, no televisions, and much of the time, no power.  It is hard for kids in today’s environment of abundance to comprehend living with so little.  We are fortunate that my grandfather is close to both of our kids and has shared many stories of his youth with them.  I know it has had a profound effect on me, and as my kids get older it will on them as well (especially as I retell many of these stories to them).  If you don’t have a “Papa” to talk with at home, visit a retirement home, or church, or even consider picking up a kid-friendly book on the subject.  Children of the Great Depression is a great introduction to the history of the Depression era for young readers.  Welcome to Kit’s World is another great title, and aimed specifically at young girls.

Do you have ideas for helping to raise “frugal” kids?  Please share in the comment below, and remember to ask a question if you would like to see it addressed next Sunday.


  1. This really isn’t frugally driven but my daughter is pretty spoiled and was getting quite an attitude about it. So, I started doing a gratitude journal with her. Every night when I’m putting her to bed I have her think of 3 things she is grateful for and I write them in a little notebook. It gives us lots of chances to talk about how lucky we are and that other families are not so fortunate.

  2. The Depression idea is interesting, but a great way to see modern people living (and still thriving!)up close & personal with much less money is to TRAVEL (and, no, Europe does not count). I grew up always being told that by virtue of being an American I was in the top 2% or something like of wealth and privilege. It was tough for me to believe, growing up lower middle class, and I didn’t believe it until I started traveling. I would have learned these lessons much earlier if my parents took me traveling when I was a youth.

  3. @Frugal Bachelor: You make a great point regarding travel. I personally don’t have much desire to travel outside of the U.S. (except for a few select places), but in the context of showing kids the abundance of choices we have here it is a good idea.

  4. I’d like to point out that parental attitudes can have the opposite effect on their kids as well. The parents who insist on no TV or candy find their kids going to their friends’ houses to gorge. Too much emphasis on saving and deferring can actually give kids the wrong ideas about the very things you believe in. I’ve been struggling with this very issue for a while (and even started writing about it:

    I want to model good behavior for my daughter, without becoming so single-minded that she actually learns the OPPOSITE lesson. I have a long way to go!

  5. @Ivy: Good point. I recently commented on another post by a fellow blogger on this subject that much of a child’s perception of frugal living has to do with parents attitude towards frugal living. If we gripe about the cost of everything, and complain about how “poor” we are, they will likely turn out to resent the lifestyle and reject it when they start earning their own money.

    However, if we point out that by living frugal we are better stewards of our money and our resources, and that we live this way because we choose to for those very reasons, the message will generally be better received.

  6. Thanks for the recommended reading list – I may share these with my grandkids at the appropriate ages.

    Fortunately (look for the positive side of everything!) the electric goes out here on a regular basis in the winter due to wind storms. Fortunately, because this gives my grandkids a chance to experience life without electricity, hot water, the stove, lights, etc. The family congregates at my house due to my wood stove and cast iron cooking on the wood stove top, and hot water heating there also. We play cards and tell stories about how it was in Grammi’s childhood, etc, and they learn that electricity is NOT a given, and that they can get by without it, should the need arise for a week or so.

    And as I chose NOT to have TV, they have learned to enjoy the personal time we share playing games, cards, building blocks, sewing, baking, gardening etc. Seems to be working 🙂

  7. I think some great ideas have been shared already (travel/gratitude journal). The greatest impact in my life came from a Work and Witness Trip with my church. It was so humbling to work with those in another country who had far less than I did, but who were ten times more generous. Watching someone else show you the love of Christ through their humble circumstances changes your life. It has taught me that it certainly isn’t wrong to have things, but they cannot be more important than the people God places in my path.

  8. One thing we’ve done with our kids is allow them to save birthday money (or Grandma’s Halloween money) in a piggy bank on their dresser. Every few months, we take a trip to the toy store where they’re allowed to spend a certain amount on a toy of their choice.

    Another thing I recently instituted is my older son buying his own snacks away from the house, when we’re not on a family outing. For example, at his Karate class, they sell otter pops at 25 cents each. It’s not a lot of money, I know, but we have 150 of them at home, so why pay for it elsewhere? At every class it was a battle – he wanted one, but I argued we had the same thing at home. So I told him that he could bring a quarter to each class from his piggy bank if that’s how he wanted to spend his money. Then if he ran out (he’s got around $20), he could do little jobs around the house to earn more. The very next morning, after spending his own money, he put the shoes in the garage in a box and asked me to pay him a quarter. I did (I was very pleasantly surprised at his initiative). I’m hoping that’s a good start to getting him to understand the value of time spent to earn money vs. the value of the item he buys.

    I think parents are definitely largely responsible for their kids’ materialism. I’ve seen one parent degrade a toy that comes with a meal, because her daughter wanted it and my son wouldn’t give it up (they were 2 1/2 at the time). I was so surprised by the mom’s reaction, because normally we would do a five minute rule. The daughter was sad, but gave up the fight, because clearly the toy wasn’t of value or importance. These teachings really do start young.

  9. my husband and i have a lot of generous relatives and that means our two young daughters get a lot at christmas and their birthdays (spring time). yesterday we did one of our semi-annual toy purges. we bring everything into the den and sort by piles (barbies here, stuffed animals there, games, etc.). then we go through each pile and “keep” some stuff and “giveaway” others. the giveaway pile is for a garage sale or to give to younger friends.

    we frequently remind them that when they give away a toy, they are giving some other the child the chance to really love it. and we tell them they can keep the things they truly love.

    we spent the entire day on this endeavor yesterday and we cleared out a lot of stuff. but it was very sobering to see just how many toys they had. it was like target had thrown up in our den.

  10. We don’t have TV at all for just this reason. We get three channels but do 99.9% of our TV watching with Netflix to avoid commercials. I’ve been lucky as my kids haven’t caught the materialism bug at all. They are a lot like their dad, give him a fishing pole and a free day and he is the happiest guy on the planet. It makes me think that it may be in your genes as to how you handle materialism. We quit buying them gifts on their birthday, they honestly couldn’t think of anything they wanted — instead we take trips and they get to pick the place. Last year we spent a week on the beach in San Diego for their birthday (they are twins). That way we have great memories and they don’t have a bunch of worthless junk laying around the house.

  11. Great topic!

    Lisa, I love your idea of not giving your children gifts for their birthday, but doing something with them instead. I think we will start doing that at our house.

    Frugal Dad, here is a topic for another day that I would love to hear you thoughts on. When your teens leave the nest, how and when do you shift financial responsibility? I think college is a great transition period in life. You are away from home for the first time and take on new freedoms and responsibilities. Financial responsibilites just naturally start to shift because mom and dad are not there to take care of you anymore. But what about children who do not go away to college? My husband and I have an 18 year old at home who is going to the local junior college. So now the question is when and how do we start shifting her finances from our responsibility to hers? Should she be paying for her own cell phone now? What about medical bills? Car Insurance? What would you do?

  12. This was a great topic and provided a lot of food for thought. We have four children all with different attitudes towards things, I find my third child remarkable, material processions are just not that important to her and she would give it to you if you needed. I think a lot like Lisa they are born with their spirit and sure they can be influenced a lot by society but basically they are who they are.

    I would love you to take on that college topic and personal responsibility as well. We will be going through that next year.