Sometimes it takes a solid kneecap to the old checking account to snap out of our consumerist trance.
An uninsured illness, an expensive emergency, the loss of a job. These are all life-changing events that can cause us to wake up and take stock of how many products really need to be lining our cupboards and spilling out of our cabinets.
It was the latter that forced British journalist and mom Hattie Garlick to reevaluate her spending habits. After she lost her job at a national newspaper, the family was faced with a very real income drop, one that would make it harder to keep her two-year-old son Johnny in the latest toddler gear and clutching the hot new toy off the mass-assembled plastic press.
Not that Garlick and her husband were prone to these excesses in the first place. But as she writes on her Free Our Kids blog, many parents appear to be lulled by the siren call of marketing that convinces them they need to be spending gobs of money on all sorts of child-targeted items in order to survive modern parenthood.
“That £400 (CAD$630) buggy with cappuccino holder that everyone in our NCT class had nervously queued up to shelled our for… Did it make Johnny’s colic any less earsplitting? Had it made us or him any happier? Most of all: did I want him to learn that his happiness depended on this mountain of accumulated crap?” she says.
And it only takes a quick peek around most residential neighbourhoods on this side of the pond to recognize how far we’re steeped in it over here. In 2011, Money Sense magazine estimated that the average cost of raising a child from infancy to 18 in Canada was $243,660, an incredible uptick from the $160,000 previously suggested by Manitoba Agriculture in 2004.
In response to this revelation, Garlick made a firm vow. She would resolve not to spend a penny on her toddler in 2013. That meant no specifically targeted kids food, like babyccinos (this is an actual thing), child-sized cheese or special toddler-aimed snack bars and rice cakes. Johnny would eat the same food as his folks, just in Johnny-sized portions.
It also meant hand-me-down clothes and toys, washable cloth diapers, DIY haircuts, and activities and playdates organized at home instead of expensive programs with names like “Infant Zumba” and “Baby’s First Macroeconomics Class.”
In other words, Garlick would be raising her child much in the way children were raised before the late 20th century.
“[W]e realised he didn’t ‘need’ yet another tractor, or a scooter, or a toddler iPad. What he needed was the space and help to use and develop his imagination. And to do that, he didn’t require this season’s Baby Gap. He required, basically, to be warm and dry in hand-me-downs to explore the (still, for the moment, free) world around him,” she adds.
All health-related costs, like medicines, were naturally exempt from this list. And as a working mother, thrice-weekly daycare would remain an essential.
But it’s not a Johnny-only endeavour. Garlick is also applying a similar ethos to her own spending habits, snipping away all excesses and engaging in what she calls a “detox”.
She’s tracking her progress with a blog to inspire others, hold herself accountable and create a platform for conversation amongst parents who share her values or want to start trying.
While most laud her rejection of consumerism, some commenters question whether her need to do so publicly smacks more of a publicity stunt than an earnest attempt.
Many people who make similar vows – whether it involves something eco-conscious like a year without spending or like a year of eating nothing but Starbucks consumables – appear to do so with a self-promotional tie-in on the brain.
Ultimately, however, if these online extremists remind us that we don’t need a $1,200 stroller, the equivalent of a small Toys ‘R Us warehouse in our children’s playroom, and birthday parties that require a second mortgage to raise happy, functional humans, the underlying motivation is irrelevant.
Do you think Garlick’s zero-dollars policy is too extreme or should we all be taking a page from her book?