Dear Dave

Wednesday 21 November 2007

My pet consumer

Dear Dave,

Our efforts to teach Fraser the value of money are failing miserably.

He was always pestering us for stuff, so we started giving him a pound a week pocket money. Now, if he wants something, he has to buy it himself. We thought giving him money of his own would dissuade him from demanding the first shiny thing which came to hand whenever he walked into a shop. The hope was that he would be more discerning.

The reality was that we lost a certain level of control on his purchases.

How much tack can he fill the house with before he gets the idea? We've got the dreaded Golden Coin Maker and Scooby-Doo! Cyber Chase, more pokemon cards than is sensible, various oddly shaped plastic doodads, a santa with flashing LEDs, some fluffy pencil toppers, a compass and three packets of gingernut biscuits. He won the biscuits in a tombola that he insisted on entering despite the fact there was nothing he wanted to win.

He blew four pounds on a Lazy Town sticker book at the school book fair the other day. I took exception to this for a number of reasons:
  • He blew three pounds he didn't have on stickers, this time last year. He was broke but he was so desperate for this box of random stickers, he took out a loan against his future income. Then he didn't use them. They've been sitting on his bedroom table gathering dust for months... next to several hundred stickers left over from some birthday or other... only a few feet from the half-full tub of 2000 stickers Lewis got for Christmas... and under a shelf upon which rests a still sealed box of Scooby-Doo! stickers the grandparents turned up with one day.

    There's probably more stickers in the the kids' arts-and-crafts drawer...

    He doesn't need more stickers.
  • The school book fair is a bit of a money-making scam. In essence, it's a bookstall that's set up at parent-teacher evenings for parents to buy their kids vaguely educational books. An outside company supplies the books but the school gets a cut of the sales or free books or something.

    The catch is that the teachers take the kids to look at and fondle the books during class time. Their desire for ownership is conceived without parental caveat and then fuelled by discussing with friends what they're all going to get. It's further reinforced as they spend the rest of the day trying to remember what 'their' book is called so they can place an order when they get home. It's pretty hard to exert any influence by then.

    I'd rather the school just asked for donations. We'd pay less, they'd get more and I'd still have shelf-space.

    What's next? Is the school going to sign up with Amway?
  • Fraser's not actually a great fan of Lazy Town. Sure, he'll watch it and enjoy it but he'd rather watch a dozen other things. If I'd offered to buy him a book and taken him to a proper bookshop, he'd have come home with something pokemon related.
  • He's supposed to be saving up for Super Paper Mario on the Wii. He'd have enough money by now if it weren't for yet more pokemon cards and for the sticker book. This is particularly galling because I want to play it.

    Barring the tooth fairy taking matters into her own hands and turning up with pliers, however, he's not going to be able to afford the game until Christmas i.e. the point when the boys (and myself) will be getting various other games anyway and won't have time for them all. In the meantime, Fraser gets to sit around not twiddling his thumbs because he's finished everything he can be bothered to play and spent his cash on stickers he didn't need.
  • He hasn't read the books he got from the last book fair.
Maybe some of that's a little uncharitable. I chose the books last time and I did so on the basis that they looked both entertaining and educational. He really wanted the Lazy Town sticker book even then but they were out of stock when I got there. He's been wanting the book for six months - that's not just the passing whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and suddenly must have it. It's the tenacious whim of a magpie who's seen something shiny and just will not let it go. Ever.

Still, you've got to admire his stubbornness.

I asked him twice if he really wanted it. I suggested other things he might want instead. He was adamant he wanted the sticker book. I couldn't see the point, I didn't think it was a good idea but... I let him buy it anyway.

You see, I have issues:

When I wasn't much older than him, I really wanted to get a handheld Pac-Man game. I even went to Jarrold's in Norwich with my mum to buy it. I had my birthday money ready. I'd been saving up. I was going to get it.

Except my mum asked me if I was sure so many times that she made me unsure.

I didn't get the game. Admittedly, it cost £18 twenty-five years ago, so it was pretty expensive, but I had the cash and I really wanted it. I would have played it until my thumb fell off. Then I would have turned it upside down and played it until my other thumb fell off. I would have loved and cherished that little Pac-Man machine. Instead, I got left with the lasting impression that spending money on something I wanted was somehow wrong unless (a) it was cheap or (b) my mother could see the point of it.

The upshot is that I can spend several hundred pounds on a discounted washing machine without batting an eye but I go through a lengthy internal dialogue whenever I get the urge to spend a fiver on a computer game magazine. A dialogue that my mum usually wins. I reluctantly put the magazine back on the shelf and then walk a couple of miles home in the rain.

When I arrive back at the house, dripping the contents of a small cloud onto the carpet, I justify the decision to walk by claiming that it's good exercise. If pressed, I might add that it's stressful fighting my way onto the bus with the buggy. The real reason, however, is that walking saves me the pound for the fare. If I've got the boys with me, it saves me two pounds twenty. Each way. That's worth getting a little wet for. (Although the boys may not entirely agree). Besides, my mum never catches the bus, so it must be a waste of money.

I wish I'd stuck to my guns over Pac-Man. I might have a little more perspective and a better idea of the value of money myself.

I want Fraser to be sensible with money. I want him to learn to live within his means. I want him to be able to plan prudently for the future. I want him to consider the effects his purchases have on the exploitation of the planet and of other people. I want him to understand the importance of money but not base his life upon it. I want him to be able to give money to those who need it. In short, I want him to be wise but generous. It would be nice, however, if he was also able to spend money on himself without feeling bad about it.

Most of those things I need to teach him. At least, I'll attempt to teach them to him - he won't listen but I'll have tried. The last one I need to remember not to knock out of him.

Wish me luck.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS My mum never catches the bus because she has a car and drives everywhere. I really need to get a grip.


Anonymous said...

I remember when I was about nine, there was a toy I really wanted. It was a kind of torch thing that projected pictures onto the wall. You could have your very own slide show! Every time I was in town shopping with my Mum, I would insist we go to Woolworths so I could touch it and read the box again.

Next to it on the shelf was another toy shaped like a pair of binoculars -- you slotted a disc into it and looked through to see the pictures.

I really wanted the torch thing, but my Mum persuaded me to buy the binocular thing instead, on the grounds that it was cheaper.

To this day I have trouble buying the thing I really want if there's a cheaper alternative, even if that alternative lacks some essential feature. I sometimes still end up wasting my money buying things I don't actually want just because they're 'better value'.

I hope my kids do better...

Anonymous said...

Book fairs should be illegal. Have you noticed that some of the girl's books come equipped with nailpolish, stickers and glitter glue? How do you fight against glitter glue?

It's an attack on parents everywhere.

Also? I can't spend $3.00 on a latte without going into convulsions but I can spend $50.00 on diapers at the drop of a hat.

Something is wrong there.