Are parents investing in the right things?
It’s that time of year: the days are getting longer, the birds are beginning to sing again in the mornings, the first buds of spring are awakening on trees and students are pardoned from school for an entire week – yes, it’s spring break.
As I listen to my friends tell me where they are taking their children this year, I can’t help but wonder whether we are too often caught up in trying to manufacture experiences for our kids. And tied into that thought is whether we give our kids too much “stuff.” Let’s unpack these concepts for a minute.
Oliver James, a best-selling author of numerous books on the relationship between children and their parents, including Love Bombing: Resetting Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat, asks the question: “Do you have any idea what an extraordinary proportion of presents we give children aren’t actually wanted or valued?”
The answer is about 50%, depending on the survey you believe. And shockingly, according to the Toy Industry Association, parents will spend an average of $6,500 on toys over a child’s lifetime. That means the average home has 71 toys per child, with 20% having over 100 toys/child and 10% having over 200! That’s a lot of toys! It’s also a little depressing if you believe that most of the toys are not wanted or valued.
On the other hand, according to James, “family holidays are definitely valued by children, both in the moment and for long afterwards in their memory. So, if you’re going to spend money on something [toys vs. family vacations], it’s pretty clear which option makes more sense.”
In addition, there is countless research that indicates adults value experiences like travelling as far more fulfilling compared to buying more stuff. So, would you expect children to be any different? According to James, children are not any different, but they do value different aspects of travel when compared to adults. And here is where I think a lot of parents are missing the mark.
Kids Value Things Differently, Duh.
“The first and simplest mistake that an awful lot of parents make is confusing what they find exciting about a holiday with what their children will,” says James. “So many of the ‘interesting’ things about a new place are deathly boring to the vast majority of children – high culture, for example, in almost all forms. So your child, if at all typical, will grumble at the ghastly business of being dragged round.”
It is a legitimate argument for not forcing culture on family holidays. “Give a two-year-old a present and she’ll get absorbed in the box instead,” says James. “It’s similar with children and travel. We should let them explore their own ways of finding wonder in their surroundings.”
A Great Example
Recently, one of my friends told me about his Spring Break experience with his two boys, ages 11 and 14. In years past, they did the Arizona trip, the Disney trip and even the cruise trip one year. But this year was different because they were on a tighter budget. So, they decided to do something they’ve never done before – go to some NBA basketball games.
With a little planning, together they mapped out a route where they could drive from their home-town of Kansas City and visit Oklahoma City on Thursday, Dallas on Friday, San Antonio on Saturday and Houston on Sunday.
Each city is home to an NBA team, so they got to see the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets as well as the visiting Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers (they saw the Spurs twice). They bought the cheapest game tickets they could find (the most expensive ticket was $40 whereas the cheapest was $8) and they booked some modest accommodations for their trip.
But here is what I think was really cool: each boy got to take turns deciding where they would eat before each game. And of course, there were rules: it couldn’t be a national chain and it had to be unique to the city they were visiting. They ate chicken fried steak in Oklahoma, fried Jell-O in Dallas, puffy tacos in San Antonio and discovered Elotes served from a gas station in Houston (it is ancho-mayo-drizzled-roasted corn served on a stick).
When I asked the boys what they enjoyed most about the trip, they both talked about how great the food was. When I pressed further, however, I was surprised that neither of them mentioned the NBA games at all.
Instead they talked about getting stuck in a hail storm on the highway, pulling off to the side of the road to roll one of those big bales of hay a couple of feet (and then running from the approaching cows while dodging cow pies), and watching a street performer show off his mad magic skills.
Play Is Important
According to James, “what children really value about holidays is the rare possibility they create for prolonged periods of playfulness with their parents.”
“The over-booked system that we put children through these days can be incredibly stressful, just as much so as the strains of adult life,” he explains. “Holidays remove us, physically, from our highly pressured everyday lives where everyone’s focused on meeting targets. They are times when everyone can relax and be playful together.”
From Your Financial Advisor
The average family spends $6,500 on a life-time of toys for each child and approximately $1,500 on spring break vacations. I think we have it backwards.
I’ll even go a step further: I would rather see parents take a sliver from their monthly retirement savings and allocate toward meaningful experiences with their kids.
Here’s my point: let’s assume you are 30 years old, with an annual salary of $75,000 and you are saving 10% of your salary into your 401k. Assuming an annual return of 7%, in 35 years, your 401k will be worth about $1,075,681.
If, on the other hand, you saved 9% of your salary to your 401k and saved 1% to your “Vacation piggy-bank”, then your 401k would be worth approximately $968,111 when you turn 65. But you also would have had 35 years of experiences with your kids (and maybe your grandkids too).
Or, you can keep contributing 10% to your 401k and stop buying so many toys. Because I firmly believe that children will remember the time they spent with their parents long after the latest toys end up in a landfill.
Enjoy Spring Break. With your kids.
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