Can you bring up a child for free? One mum is trying!
Obviously, as children grow, they eat even more, their clothes and shoes get bigger and increasingly expensive. And as their intellect swells, so (seemingly) does the need to pay for ever more stimulating toys, games and activities.
But do we really need to spend so much on our children? Or are we being sucked in by consumerism?
One woman, Hattie Garlick, mum to two-year-old Johnny, recently found herself questioning exactly how much she was spending on her toddler – and why. It led her to setting herself a challenge – could she go a year and spend £0 on her son?
Hattie has just started a new blog called Free Our Kids, and it's already proving quite a talking point, so we chatted to her to find out more about her new, more frugal life.
It's a fascinating experiment and it certainly piqued our interest, the idea that children needn't really cost anything! What gave you the thought in the first place?
Only joking! Johnny turned two in late December, when the Christmas buying hype was all around us.
We had gone on holiday for his birthday, with only hand luggage to keep us going, so hadn't packed gifts. Instead, we pulled into a scruffy looking garage, where inspiration wasn't exactly rife, and the only suitable thing for him was a tiny, flimsy water pistol for less than 50p.
I felt pretty guilty until I saw his reaction.: he was a super hero brandishing a weapon, then he was a gardener watering plants, then he was a zoo keeper hydrating any bemused animal that had the misfortune to cross his path.
What a sucker, I thought – he hasn't even noticed the lack of present pile.
And then I had my eureka moment: almost all the things I buy for him are superfluous. They don't make him happier, safer, more creative or more of a child prodigy.
I got stuck into the research and was shocked by the statistics: two thirds of toys in the average home are not played with; and the cost of raising a child is rising year on year, yet our kids are getting more anxious and less happy.
There are serious figures in psychiatry and psychology linking this rise in anxiety to a shift in the values our children are absorbing, from 'intrinsic' values, such as kindness, to 'extrinsic' ones, such as status and possessions.
I loathe a cliché, but I realised maybe the best things in life really are free.
And how are you going to go about cutting the cash you spend?
The thing is, I am a domestic disaster. Anyone imagining me in a Cath Kidston apron, leaning lovingly over an Aga and a tray of organic muffins has clearly never strayed within a sniff of my cooking ("Quick! Get down! Poison gas!").
I am not an expert and this year is going to be a real challenge. So I've written some rules and will look to real experts (from psychologists to pharmacists and shoe fitters) for advice. I'm fully expecting to encounter bumps, mountains and craters along the way and am very well prepared to admit defeats, on the blog, if or when they should present themselves.
I'm hoping that readers will continue to add to and refine my rules along the way (they've already improved them immensely).
But the basics are as follows:
No money on clothes:
Children grow criminally fast and it only compounds the crime to throw or fold away clothes that have only been used a few times. We will use Freecycle, swaps and hand-me-downs. Johnny doesn't need to be on trend, he needs to be warm and dry, end of.
Nor on toys: Local swap sites, Freecycle and the like are brimming with nearly new stuff that will likely end up in a landfill if it's not re-homed.
No special food:
He will eat his share of the ordinary three meals a day I cook. No special snacks and smoothies, no rice cakes at twice the price because they're half the size. I know these things can be life savers and there are loads of brands which are fantastically tailored to kids' needs, but I can't afford them, any more. And he doesn't need them.
The endless choice he's been offered has contributed towards making him a picky eater. While there is a box of snacks in the cupboard waiting to be broken out, he knows I'll cave – out with the carrots, in with the crap.
The same goes with haircuts, nappies (cloth nappies here we come, urgh) and activities:
No more soft play centres with their harsh lighting and even harsher coffee. We will make our own fun with friends, at home and out in the woods.
There are small exceptions of course, like medicines. I would never compromise on the amount of fun, food, warm clothes, company and learning Johnny gets. But I think we have been duped into thinking we have to spend money to achieve those things.
How does your husband feel about the idea? Is he relishing the thought of saving £s or feeling sceptical?
He's pretty cool, my husband, he's right behind it. But then, it comes naturally to him. He's a carpenter and a musician. When he's around, Johnny doesn't want anything to do with toys – he wants to play his dad's guitars and fix things with hammers. He thinks he's the first ever rockstar builder. I can actually hear him upstairs now in his cot, calling out: "I'm a soul man!". He's got the enthusiasm sorted. Maybe he'll actually learn the tune over the course of this year!
So, you've started already, is it easier or harder than you thought so far? What's going to be the toughest part?
Hmm... can I say all of it?!
I think ticking the boxes (in terms of what Johnny really needs) without shelling out might turn out to be the easy part.
The hard part will be finding the time (time is the rarest commodity for parents isn't it?) – the time to hunt down Freecycle finds instead of popping into a shop, to cook everything, and to use my imagination to concoct activities.
Doing everything myself instead of paying other people to do it will be a real challenge.
Oh! And tidying up after those activities, rather than bolting out of the playgroup and flinging a fiver at the problem.
Oh god. And the cloth nappies. They're arriving this week. I can't really bring myself to talk about those if you don't mind.
Ha! Do you think you might end up considering potty training earlier than you might have otherwise then?
Well, I'm not going to rush it (therein lies madness, and dampness and frustration). But I have heard that kids in cloth nappies tend to potty train faster, because there aren't chemicals drawing the dampness away, so they are more aware of their load (sorry, that was honestly the most polite expression I could find, pre-coffee).
What sort of reaction have you had so far on your blog?
The reaction has been the most bewildering thing! I thought I was writing for myself and a few kind friends and relatives but, within 24 hours, thousands of people had read it and people continue to comment in their droves.
Of course, I've had a few negative comments, on Twitter and the newspaper articles I've subsequently written but, amazingly, every single comment on the actual blog so far has been positive (cruel people, that is not an invitation to teach me a lesson!).
I've had parents at one end of the economic scale, saying they've spent £1,000 on a travel system and are worried about overspending, right along to single mothers who have lost their jobs, saying the pressure to spend trickles right down to those who really can't afford it.
People have said they'll take the challenge with me, others are taking part of it on. And cooler, cleverer parents than me have improved the rules I wrote, for which I am hugely grateful!
So has that inspired you even further, knowing other people around the UK will be joining you?
Hugely. Also, well, I'm going to have to actually do it now that people are watching, aren't I?
I guess Johnny is a bit too little for employing pester power as yet? Is it something you'll be worrying about though as the year goes on? (Is it possible to go to a supermarket without seeing 40 things a toddler wants?!)
I took him to a toy shop just before this adventure began and pointed out a cheap scooter. "No," he said, "that one!" And he pointed to the more expensive brand that the kids in our local area are currently risking life and limb on.
So actually he's already cottoning on to pester power and absorbing brand awareness on some level. That scares me witless.
It's true though, that it would be far harder to start this project with a school age kid. What I'm hoping is that we're catching him early. Of course, he'll want all the 'cool' stuff when he gets to school, and that's fine with me – but I hope that I can teach him, on some level, that that's all it is: wanting.
I hope he understands the difference between wanting and needing, and knows, deep down, that he doesn't need all the latest expensive toys and trends to be happy.
Are you going to try to keep some sort of tally of what you're saving, to make it tangible?
I've been asked this a few times. Even though I was recently made redundant, it was never really just about the bottom line. It was about the crazy values I was buying into as a parent (that Johnny 'needed' cute or trendy clothes, or the latest flashing plastic toy), and my worry I might pass those values on to him.
But I'm happy to do the sums if people want me to... so do you?! Just let me know. Your word is my command (within reason, don't get carried away, yeah?).
Hattie, we salute you (yes, we want figures but you can round up to the nearest decimal point)! Keep up with Hattie and Johnny's home-made adventures on her blog – and we'll check back with her later this year to see how her year without spending is going.