Easy ways to prevent overspending on your kids

Chip Off the Old Cheapskate

by Gary Foreman

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From the moment we first see them they hold our hearts in the palms of their tiny hands. Because we love them we want to give them everything we can, even things that we know we can't afford. As you've probably guessed, it's our children that I'm talking about.

But how do we know where to draw the line? After all, it's natural for parents to sacrifice for their children. Begin by considering what a toddler really needs. Not what we think he or she wants, but what they actually need. Take their bed as an example.

We're all proud when our little baby becomes too big for the crib. If you're not careful you'll find yourself buying a toddler bed. Now, it's not just the cost of the bed that hurts. You'll need special sheets. Probably two sets. And in two or three years you'll be getting rid of the bed and the sheets.

Why not consider buying an adult mattress and box spring and placing it directly on the floor. If you're still worried about your little angel falling in her sleep, you can find children's bed rails at a garage sale. Now you'll be able to use your regular sheets until Susie gets some adorned with her favorite cartoon character from Aunt Mildred. When Susie gets a little older buy a bed and use the mattress and box springs that you already own.

And clothes, unless you have money to burn, don't buy new for your child. Chances are that friends and relatives will buy some nice new things for birthdays and other holidays. Even if they don't, second hand clothes are a better choice.

Think of it this way, would you buy yourself an expensive dress or suit and only plan on wearing it a few times? Yet, because your child's growing that's exactly what will happen. If you buy a $30 dress for your 3 year old and she wears it 6 times, it's cost you $5 each time she puts it on.

Garage sales and consignment shops are a much better option. Since children outgrow clothes before they wear them out, you'll find plenty of high quality (often 'designer') items in excellent condition. Here in South Florida, with patience you'll find real value at about 20% of retail.

Related: 5 Ways to Reduce the Cost of Kids' Clothing

With children's clothing it also pays to plan ahead. If they're wearing a size 4 sneaker now, you know it's only a matter of time before they need a size 5 and then 6. If you see something that's a real value, don't hesitate to buy early.

There are two advantages to planning ahead. First, you'll be buying items at real rock bottom prices. Second, you'll avoid being in a situation where your child is outgrowing something and you can't afford to wait until you happen across a bargain. You need to buy it now. That's when you're most likely to go out and pay full retail (ouch!).

Children are fascinating If you watch a small child you'll see exploration in action. No matter what the intended purpose of an item is, the toddler will poke, feel, taste and otherwise give it a thorough inspection. After all, it's their job! Our job is to provide opportunities to explore and learn without overdrawing the checking account.

Toys provide a real minefield for the frugal parent. Naturally we want the best possible playthings to help our children grow intellectually. Who among us hasn't heard another parent proudly tell of the great educational toy they just bought for junior in that new imported toy store in the mall.

Don't let them intimidate you. Stop and think for a minute. What makes a toy entertaining to a toddler? It must engage their senses with a variety of sensations. Kids like Tupperware because they come in a variety of shapes and colors. Their own imagination supplies the rest.

It's often difficult to tell which specific toy will become a child's favorite. Often, the most expensive, well advertised toys are the biggest flops. We're fortunate to have a library that allows you to borrow toddler toys for two weeks at a time. That gives you a chance to see if a toy has staying power with your explorer. If your library doesn't have such a program, suggest one to them. In the meantime, work out temporary toy trades with your friends. Or watch what your child plays with when you're visiting places that have toys.

Related: The Argument for Secondhand Toys

Garage sales are great for toy shopping. You'll find playground type toys, play houses and just about anything that could show up at a kid's birthday party if you visit enough garage sales. When you're choosing your sales, look for neighborhoods with above average incomes. It's just good fishing. People who make more money spend more money on their kids. When you shop, bring your kids along. Often a seller will see your tike enjoying a toy and be more than generous in their pricing. In our area you'll find plenty of bargains for less than 25% of retail.

There are some things where cost shouldn't be the major consideration. Regular day care for instance. The safety of my children is too important to be governed by saving money. Better to save it in other areas.

But, if you want an occasional night out with your spouse, there are ways so save money without endangering your little pride and joy. Responsible baby-sitters can be expensive. And there's only just so many times that you can ask Grandma to step in.

If circumstances have put your family in debt, find out how to conquer your debt by creating a plan personalized to your family's budget and lifestyle.

How about working out an arrangement with friends who have children on a similar age? We were reluctant to take advantage of friends until we decided to 'keep score'. Now we trade baby-sitting with them. Each child for one hour is equal to one point. While it may seem silly to keep score, it solves the problem of one couple receiving much more than they're giving. It also acts as an encourager for the family with 'hours in the bank' to go out periodically. That's a good idea for all married couples!

One thing that your toddler needs costs nothing in terms of money, but is of inestimable value. That's your time and love. It's probably impossible to invest too much love in your children.

We all know of the kid who had too much stuff and turned into a spoiled brat. I can't think of a single child who turned bad from receiving too much love. When you get right down to it, I'll bet that your toddler would rather have you than any toy in the store. Now that's a deal I couldn't pass up! Bet you can't either!

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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