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Minimalism With Kids – Is It Possible for Your Family?

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it now costs the average middle-class family over $233,000 to raise a child – not including college expenses.

While the lion’s share of this amount goes towards food, housing, and medical expenses, parents still spend a lot of money on toys, games, books, and other items. According to Statista, parents in the United States spend $371 per child on toys every year. That’s the second-highest in the world, eclipsed only by the United Kingdom.

While there are plenty of ways to save money on child expenses, one of the best is to create a minimalist lifestyle for your children. What does this mean? Let’s take a look.

Returning to Minimalism With Two Kids

It’s tempting to think that living a minimalist life is impossible with children, but this is simply not true.

Before I had children, my husband and I transitioned to a life of full-time RVing, traveling around the United States while we worked online. All we owned fit into a 16-foot camper. And it was wonderful.

When our children came along, we knew that we would have to adjust our lifestyle to accommodate more “stuff.” But even we weren’t prepared by the influx of toys and other “necessities” that came with having two children back to back. Gifts and hand-me-downs poured in from family and friends at every holiday and milestone, and two years was all it took for us to feel as if we were drowning in dump trucks, blankies, puzzle pieces, sippy cups, and stuffed animals.

We both wanted to get back to our minimalist lifestyle, and so we slowly started purging. We reduced the number of toys and clothes by half, and then by half again.

Yes, the number of things we own has increased, dramatically so compared to our life before children. However, we are striving to maintain a new “minimalism,” a life that now includes these two little people and the things they need to grow and thrive.

It has taken months, but we’re slowly getting back to the clear and simple life we had before. We still have a ways to go, but we’re already experiencing the great benefits that come with raising minimalist kids.
Two Kids Returning Minimalism

Benefits of Raising Minimalist Children

Living a minimalist lifestyle is more challenging with children, but it’s not impossible. It takes more time, more thoughtfulness, and more explaining, and it’s not an overnight process. However, the effort it takes to live with less, and raise children who are comfortable living with less, pays enormous dividends.

1. Less “Wanting”

Marketers spend billions each year convincing parents that their child “needs” this new educational toy, character doll, video game, or fidget spinner. The result? The constant whining and wanting. Still worse is children who don’t appreciate the toys they have because they’re always thinking about the toys they don’t.

When you give your children less, their state of “wanting” gradually diminishes. It will likely never go away entirely, but new toys won’t be expected like they often are in our society. They appreciate what they have more, and take better care of the things they already own.

2. Greater Financial Independence

How much do you spend each year buying your children toys, books, and video games? How much do you spend on extracurricular activities? If you reduced this number by 50%, what could you do with that money instead?

I’m certainly not advocating that you cut out every dime you spend on your children; that’s unrealistic. The point is that for most families, reducing how much money they spend on their children will give them greater financial independence.

You could use that extra money to pay down debt, save for a family vacation, or put money into a 529 College Savings Plan. You could use it to give your children more experiences that they’ll remember (like weekly trips to the zoo) instead of toys that they’ll quickly forget.

3. More Use of Their Imaginations

Fewer toys and games mean that children are forced to rely more on their imaginations. They will also develop longer attention spans because they don’t have the option of “moving on” to the next toy.

Will they get bored? Sure, especially in the beginning. However, boredom is an enormous gift. Today’s children are, too often, not bored enough. When a child experiences boredom, they’re forced to use their imagination to entertain themselves. They turn inwards, they make something out of nothing, or they work with a sibling to establish creative play.

The ability to think creatively and adapt to different situations are vital life skills, and there’s no telling what they can do once they start using these skills regularly.

4. Less Fighting

According to Kim John Payne, psychologist and author of “Simplicity Parenting,” children fight less when there are fewer toys.

The reason, as he explains in this interview with The Mother Company, is that scarcity fosters cooperation because it activates the limbic system in the brain. When there are only a few toys, each one becomes precious. So, not only are children more willing to work together during their play, they’re also better able to reach a deeper level of play.

With fewer toys there is less distraction, more depth, and more cooperation. There is also less anxiety, says Payne, because children simply can’t process having too many options to choose from.

5. More Time and Energy

How much time and energy do you spend every day picking up and organizing toys, game pieces, clothing, and other child-related paraphernalia? If you’re like 99% of parents, the answer is, “Too much!”

According to an article in The New York Times, many parents feel tyrannized by their children’s toys because “they have to spend so much time managing them, cleaning them and organizing them, instead of spending time on what matters most.”

Fewer toys and “things” mean that your home space stays cleaner and more organized. You have to spend less time and energy picking up, which means you can spend more time and energy enjoying your children.

How to Raise Minimalist Kids

Play is vital to every child’s development. However, only recently has play involved toys. Throughout history, children grew up without any toys at all. Necessity being the mother of invention, children instead made up their own toys and games. They observed and explored. They took risks.

In the 21st Century, we can’t let our children wander our city streets or through the backwoods. However, it’s still entirely possible to let our children grow up using and building their imaginations, and encourage them to be less dependent on “things” for their happiness.

So, how can you do it?

1. Set an Example

Your children watch everything you do, whether they’re 3 or 13. If you want to raise your kids to rely less on “things” for happiness, then you need to walk the walk and show them what this looks like. If you demonstrate that you value voluntary simplicity and minimalism, your children will value it as well.

Start by decluttering and downsizing your home. Sell or donate anything you don’t love or aren’t using. Explain to your children what you’re doing and, most importantly, why you’re doing it so they understand the changes you’re making.

Next, lead by example when it comes to purchasing something new. Make purchases intentionally, and avoid anything that you don’t really need.

2. Get Rid of Items They Don’t Use or Are Broken

When it comes time to start decluttering your children’s items, go slowly. Older children in particular might feel betrayed if you go into their rooms and randomly start purging their things. It’s often best to start by collecting and organizing the items that they never use, or toys that are missing parts or are broken.

Look for toys and games they never play with or are missing pieces, clothes they don’t like or don’t wear, shoes that are long past their prime…you get the picture.

If you have younger children, chances are high they’ll never notice what you get rid of, so you have a lot more flexibility.

3. Think Carefully About What You Want to Keep Out

Once you’ve cleared out all the unused toys, think carefully about the toys you want to keep out. Only you know which items your children cherish, so of course these should be left alone. But what else should stay out?

Kim John Payne suggests only keeping out neutral toys that will build, not limit, imagination. For example, a Buzz Lightyear figurine can only really be a Buzz Lightyear figurine. But a doll or stuffed animal can be many things, depending on what the child wants it to be. Other toys like blocks, dress up clothes, or cars allow for unlimited imaginative play.

How much is too much? Again, this is an individualistic choice, and it’s one I constantly struggle with myself. Some experts say that for children aged three to six, one or two dozen toys is reasonable. But again, this choice is up to you. You might need to purge in stages; for example, cutting down toys by 25%, and then another 25% a few weeks later.

4. Get Your Children Involved

Get your children involved in the decluttering process. Explain what you’re doing and why, and let them make choices about what to keep and what to pass on to someone else.

Taking an active role in the decluttering process can be empowering for children at any age, and you might be surprised at how willing your child is to give up their toys if they know they’re going to another child who needs them.

Get Children Involved5. Consider Starting From Nothing

One mother, Ruthi, who writes the blog Living Well Spending Less, took the dramatic step of taking all her children’s toys away. Yes, you read that right. Every. Single. Toy.

Everything was taken out of their room and either donated or put up in the attic. What happened, you might ask?

Well, most parents would see the shift as nothing short of a miracle. Ruthi says, “Instead of being bored, they seem to have no shortage of things to do. Their attention span is much longer and they are able to mindfully focus on their task at hand. They color or read for hours at a time and happily spend the entire afternoon playing hide & seek or pretend.”

Later in the article, Ruthi states that when she does take down a toy for them to play with, that one thing will entertain them for the entire day.

Several weeks after the big toy takeaway, she and her family took a beach vacation. She was shocked when neither one of her girls asked for a single toy, souvenir, or trinket the entire vacation. Usually, they would beg for something new on a trip. This time, however, they were content to look.

Another writer, Laura Grace Weldon, profiles a mother who decided when her son was born that he wouldn’t have any toys at all. The article, “The Boy With No Toys,” is a powerful testament to the depth of a child’s imagination when it’s allowed free reign. The child, Will, now aged six, doesn’t miss having toys at all. Instead, he makes his own.

Weldon writes, “[Will] not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.”

Without toys, Will is instead empowered to help and contribute to his home and neighborhood.

For most of us, starting with nothing might seem like a crazy, dramatic step. But these parents have seen plenty of positive changes from doing just that. It might be worth considering for your own family if you feel your children have too much “stuff” and not enough contentment.

6. Focus on Spending Time, Not Money

“If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.” – Abigail Van Buren

All too often, we think that buying our child a new toy will help make up for the guilt we carry from working too much or not being the best parent we can be. Many parents also use the act of giving to express love. However, in the eyes of your child, a new toy or video game will never be as wonderful as your time and attention.

Here’s a good exercise that demonstrates how powerful this is. Think back to your own childhood with your parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Which memories stand out as really special? What do you often think of first when you remember those you love?

Chances are, none of your most precious memories involve gifts or new things. Chances are that the memories you cherish most are made up of experiences: cooking with your grandmother, going fishing with your grandfather, reading with your mother, working on your father’s classic car in the garage. These are gifts of time.

Before you purchase something for your child, stop and ask yourself if they really need it. How could you give them the gift of your time and attention instead?

7. Reduce Screen Time

According to the American Psychological Association, children see more than 40,000 advertisements each year. These ads come in a wide variety of formats, but most children are exposed through television and other electronic devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

One of the best ways to raise minimalist kids is to reduce their exposure to advertisements, whose sole purpose is to sow discontent with what we have, and lust for what we don’t.

Start by taking an honest look at how much time your children are in front of a screen. Keep a log for a few days to get a general idea, then think carefully about how you feel about this number. Do you feel it’s too much? Just right? There’s no right or wrong answer here – only what you’re comfortable with. If you feel that your children are spending too much time in front of a screen, take steps to help them unplug and turn their attention to other things.

Next, consider limiting TV time, or stop watching television altogether. We quit TV years ago and don’t miss it a bit. Our children get to watch one 30-minute show on Amazon every evening, and it’s usually old reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They don’t know what they’re not missing, and by keeping a television out of our home, hopefully I can keep it that way for a long while.

8. Set Rules for Incoming “Stuff”

While it may be easy to keep the incoming flood of toys to a minimum in your home, there are always well-meaning grandparents, family members, and friends waiting in the wings with armloads of presents and hand-me-downs.

Set rules for incoming things. For example, you might want to implement a “one in, one out” rule. So, for every birthday or holiday present your child gets (that they want to keep), they have to choose a toy to donate.

Forcing your children to make this choice might sound harsh on the surface, but it’s actually quite empowering. You are giving your child the power to choose what they want to play with, and what they can pass on to someone else. Not only does this give them more autonomy, but it also gives them a greater appreciation for the toys they have chosen to keep.

Set Rules Incoming Stuff9. Have an Honest Conversation With Friends and Family

Holidays and birthdays can ruin even the best-laid plans for minimalism, especially when you have a well-meaning grandparent who loves buying presents.

Make sure you talk to friends and family about your choice to create a simpler life for your children. Explain why you’ve made this decision, and let them know that you value their place in your children’s lives. Their presence is more important than any gift they can give.

Next, lay down a few ground rules. For example, if you’d like them to only buy one gift per child for Christmas, let them know. If you’d rather that they made a donation to your child’s 529 Plan for birthdays, put this out there.

Remind each of them that the best gift they can give your child is the gift of time. Experiences, like going to the zoo or museum, going horseback riding, learning to make soap together, or taking a day trip to the beach, are worth far more than a new toy or video game. Encourage them to write your children letters and send them through the mail or give them a magazine subscription. Here are some other “non-toy” gift ideas you might suggest:

  • A class, such as music lessons or karate
  • Tickets to a play or movie
  • A set day to learn something new, such as sewing, painting, or planting a garden
  • Art and craft supplies
  • Gift cards to their favorite restaurant or ice cream parlor
  • Homemade snacks
  • Outdoor gear for exploring, such as a compass, fishing tackle, or personal water filter
  • A photo album of the family
  • A bird feeder and seed

There are a million ways that family members can enrich a child’s life without toy gifts. All they have to do is get creative.

10. Reconsider Toys You Buy in the Future

No matter what, you will have to buy stuff for your children in the future. They outgrow their clothes, their toys, and their books, so there will always be things that make their way into your home.

It’s important to teach your children how to tell the difference between “wants vs. needs,” and put thought into the purchases you do decide to make in the future.

When you do need to buy a toy, focus on buying a high-quality toy that will last. Steer away from character-driven toys and instead focus on the timeless toys that children have played with happily for decades: blocks, Lego, stuffed animals, dress up clothes, cars and railroad sets…you get the idea.

What Happened When I Took the Toys Away

While researching this article, I decided to do an experiment with my own children. During naptime, I went through and collected every single toy in the house and put them in the closet. I left out five of their favorite construction trucks, their wooden railroad set, most of their books, their art supplies, and they each had their special lovey. That’s it.

They didn’t have a ton of toys to begin with. But when they woke up, they didn’t bat an eye that practically everything was gone.

What happened instead was even better. They turned the laundry baskets into a train, an old box into a big rig, and they played together, without arguing, for hours. I was in shock.

That was a week ago, and I’ve noticed a decrease in the fights between the two of them, and more cooperation. They’re more willing to find whatever’s at hand and turn it into something new, and I feel that their play is more meaningful than it was. They don’t miss the toys at all; they’re just as happy playing with what they have.

I also feel lighter and freer with just a handful of toys out.

Needless to say, I’m not dragging those toys back out again. I’ll keep the best for rotation and donate the rest.
Took Toys Away

Final Word

All too often, society makes us think that if we don’t provide “everything” for our children, we’re not doing our best as parents. We might even be depriving them or damaging them in some way if they don’t have all their little hearts’ desire.

This kind of mindset is not only expensive and unsustainable, but it’s also unrealistic. Children need our time, love, and attention more than they need that must-have toy.

As you take steps towards a more minimalist lifestyle, don’t forget to be patient. Minimalism can be a challenging path to start on, especially for children who aren’t used to these concepts. You might have to explain your reasoning over and over before they understand why you’re making this choice. And that’s OK. Be kind to them, and to yourself.

What are your thoughts about raising minimalist kids? Do you feel your children have too much stuff? Is this lifestyle something you’d like to try?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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