The woman on the radio sounded panicked.
She lived in Los Angeles, and because of her neighborhood (weird homeless guy on the corner; busy streets all around) she didn't trust her kids to play outside. So she spent her time driving them to activities where they would get… physical activity. It sounded a little awful, and it sounded expensive.
I had been interviewed for this piece (my interview wasn't used), so I was really paying attention. The other story is about a family in Portland, who, like me, live without a car. The reporter said, “there's a bus stop at the bottom of the street, and the elementary school is just a few blocks away. The children ride their bikes back and forth, and they don't schedule many after-school activities that would require getting in the car.”
This woman sounded very relaxed and nonchalant. She didn't say anything about money, but it's easy to extrapolate and to figure out from the contrast with the LA mom: the cost of just joining the after-school activities, not to mention the expense of driving compared to biking, and the cost of convenience food to which many highly-scheduled parents resort.
It's minimalist parenting. And it's cheaper.
When I heard this piece I immediately thought of Asha Dornfest and Christine Koh, bloggers who have just released a new book called Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Family Life More by Doing Less. Their belief is that overscheduling creates stress and anxiety, instead of relieving it. From their book blurb: “They show how to tune into your family's unique values and priorities and confidently identify the activities, stuff, information, and people that truly merit space in your life.”
I see this most in activities. Thanks to my own choice to bike instead of drive, and my husband's military deployment, the stress of keeping three boys in extracurricular activities overwhelms me. So, I usually pick just one or two things per year for each kid; my oldest has a monthly Saturday “apprenticeship” with an organization called Trackers, and I put my middle child in one sport or week-long day camp a year. My youngest just goes along for the ride (for now, he's only five).
Contrast this with some of my friends whose jobs mean they have to juggle activities and summer camps and school, signing kids up for enough activities so they can pick them up at 4:30 or 5 each school day and holiday camps for those days off school where parents have to work. Or those who believe that children need the enrichment brought by a sport, a musical instrument, and an interest club like scouting or Pokemon, and spend four or five days a week shuttling the child to practices and meetings and lessons. It's not just crazy; it's expensive, and can cost a few hundred dollars a month for each child.
Is it old news? Maybe not for lots of parents
I emailed Asha to ask her, did she think about the personal finance aspect of Minimalist Parenting? Yes! she said. “In the book, we have an entire chapter devoted to money,” she wrote. “Our general idea is that money, like time, is scarce and valuable and should only be spent on the stuff that MATTERS. In other words, if you use it or love it (or ‘it' will enrich your life in other ways), it has value. The rest doesn't earn its place in your schedule or your budget.”
I think we all know this, but often we are so caught up in the idea of things that we don't take time to figure out which is the priority; we just dive in, figuring, if one enrichment activity is good, more must be better. If one sport was wonderful for us when we were children, wouldn't one sport per season be even better for our children?
In the day-to-day, says Asha, we have to look at our expenses carefully and think about them beforehand, instead of later, when you've already signed the application and sent in a deposit. You should ask, she said, “is this thing/activity/expense earning a place in my life? In the end, Minimalist Parenting is about prioritizing the objects, activities, and experiences that matter to your family and then making room for those things in practical ways.”
Experiences make us happy, not stuff
Remember the research about experiences making us happy, not stuff? Minimalist parenting is so much like the “simple” approach to life; the fewer things we buy, the better, and even the experiences need to be picked and chosen among. I'm constantly debating the desirability of stuff (even the free stuff I can find on the side of the road) versus its weight once it enters my life. Yes, that pair of shoes is cute and fits me, but where will I put it? I'm already having to stuff shoes into nooks and crannies. Sometimes I get more joy from purging a bagful of old shoes and mismatched socks than the feeling of smug frugality I have when I can hand one child's shoes down to another child or a cousin.
And the currently over-stuffed state of my children's dresser drawers reminds me that, even beyond the cost of buying new things, there is a cost to keep things. Should I patch everything and buy another dresser or storage box, or just dump all the holey and frayed t-shirts and pants with blown-out knees in the trash? I think I've chosen to dump, and spend my mending time doing some consulting so I can afford to buy a few new (or thrifted), very sturdy, tees and pants for the boys.
It's the minimalist parenting way; not only will I be saving myself time, I'll be saving the boys time and headaches in the morning each day, looking for their own clothes. I'll empower them, and I think the financial impact of foregoing lots of high-maintenance stuff for a little low-maintenance stuff will be worth it in the long run.
But which experiences?
How do we pick the experiences that matter? And can't experiences be, well, free? It's the minimalist, and the financially-savvy, way. Spending a little time one day making a list of the things you most want to keep doing and the things you would be relieved to let go is a good way to reflect, say Asha and Christine as part of their “Mincamp” parenting email program. When I did this I realized that I was going to have to forgo one project I'd wanted to participate in — being a group leader for an alternative scouting organization some friends were starting — in favor of working in the garden with my kids. We were making a secret blueberry garden, a project that would allow them to have a place to play and dream this summer and summers to come. It was mostly free (I had a few blueberry bushes to buy, but mostly I was transplanting bulbs and planting seeds and moving rocks around) and I could wait to participate in the scouting organization when it was up and running in my neighborhood — without rushing all the way across town for organizational pow-wows.
Asha congratulated me. “Minimalist Parenting often has a positive impact on the budget. When you open up your schedule by canceling an after-school lesson, you regain time and money! That said, we don't think that spending money is itself the problem. Spending on stuff that doesn't matter is the problem.”
What doesn't matter for me? Uniforms for t-ball when my kids aren't very good at it; scouting guides and credoes when I'd rather explore the nearby natural areas with my kids and my friend and neighbor, the botanist; guitar lessons when the finger placement is too difficult and frustrating for even my oldest right now. (Those would be hundreds of dollars a season, for the record.) What does matter? Film and developing for my old-fashioned camera to take pictures of my kids out there on walks near home. (About $50 a month.)
What doesn't matter to you? How can you use the ideas of minimalist parenting to save money and sanity?
Sarah is a blogger by trade and a finance geek at heart. She cut her teeth on her first Excel spreadsheet full of financials at the tender age of 21, when she began her investment banking career in First Unionâ€™s Loan Syndications group. She went on to get her MBA from Wharton, work at Merrill Lynch and fall in love with analyzing company strategy and endless rows of numbers. She got into blogging as a marketing strategy and the blogging took. She now is a freelance financial and (award-winning!) literary writer, working in between baking bread and finding socks for her three little boys in her beloved 1912 Portland, Oregon, home.
Sarah's even-more-personal blogging about being an Army wife, parenting, food, biking and life can be found at urbanMamas and Cafe Mama.