Friday, September 21, 2007

Hooked

It’s always a rude shock when I find myself pushing my overdraft limit at the end of the month. Nobody likes being broke, of course, but what’s startling is how often I am taken wholly by surprise by the sudden disappearance of funds that I have no memory of spending. I’m hoodwinked continually by the disjunction between the actual dollar-value of my purchases and the amount of guilt and/or anxiety I feel about my spending. A thousand-dollar car repair will haunt me until it’s paid off – but the same amount in day-care expenses creates no ripple of dread as I approach the end of the month. The $7.97 I spent on an appealing but unnecessary tea-for-two toyset weighs heavily on my conscience, but the $90+ I forked over for Tropicana not-from-concentrate orange juice and microwaveable Hungarian goulash slips my mind almost as soon as it is spent. Somehow it’s easy to forget that planned, justifiable expenses still cost money.

When Bub was born, I was obsessive about spending as little as possible on him. I cringed when he pooped his way through a package of newborn diapers in under a week. I furnished his nursery with hand-me-downs and garage-sale specials, feeling like a bit of a chump for splurging $10 on a brand-new diaper holder (even though I am that rare parent who consistently transfers diapers from their packaging into this ruffled receptable with its circa-1980 country charm).

I’m not an especially thrifty person, nor did I resent the financial burden my newborn baby would impose. My resistance to spending money arose from a sense that I was in a pitched battle with the marketing forces who were trying to play upon my new-mommy angst by bilking me out of every red cent I possessed. It didn’t help, of course, that I had chosen to get pregnant in lieu of continuing my search for better-remunerated full-time work, nor that I had given birth only two months after hubby started an expensive three years of law school. But those considerations didn’t stop me from doling out five-dollar bills in exchange for small cups of flavoured creamy Starbucks beverages. They did, however, prevent me from paying for Gymboree classes or buying a vibrating bassinet.

It is not without some cognitive dissonance, then, that I have found myself signing both children up this fall for a very pricey semester of classes at the Little Gym. I have my justifications for this expense (which I won’t regale you with here), but mostly I’m just startled at how subtly the rules have changed. I’m no longer on maternity leave; hubby is no longer in school; I no longer feel the urge to justify my breeding practices by proving that I can bear children without signing all my assets over to Fisher-Price at the outset. It’s not that I can afford these new expenses (see references to pushing my overdraft limit above) – it’s more that a certain lessening in the marketing pressure seems to have deluded me into thinking I’m no longer fighting a capitalist conspiracy.

My writing students are doing an essay this month analyzing the rhetorical strategies in magazine advertising. In preparation for the assignment, I handed out sample ads last week pulled from a parenting magazine I happened to have on hand. The articles in this magazine are aimed mostly at parents of toddlers and elementary-school-age kids, but the ads were almost exclusively targeted to mothers of newborns: formulas enriched with AHA and DHA; wear-on-your-wrist baby monitors; organic infant cereals. I’d like to think that advertisers have simply given up on more experienced parents, believing them to be less easily duped by the myth that their children’s future depends upon exposure to the latest stimulating gadget. But experience suggests otherwise. Companies don’t advertise extensively to parents of school-age children because they don’t need to: peer pressure takes over where glossy magazine spreads leave off; we’re too beaten down and exhausted by now to continue the vigilance that protected us through those first few months of pushing strollers around toy stores and nobly resisting the urge to buy.

I went to Las Vegas once and spent an enjoyable four days taking advantage of all the promotional freebies the casinos employ to get patrons in the door. I watched pseudo-Mardi Gras celebrations, ate prime rib for $6.99, and stood in front of the Mirage to watch the exploding volcano. I nibbled the bait carefully and avoided the hook, knowing that the salaries of the acrobat pirates at Treasure Island were being paid by people less vigilant than I. Parenthood feels surprisingly similar to a trip to Las Vegas – except I’m no longer sticking to the nickel slots, and the remortgage-your-home ATMs are starting to look awfully tempting.

43 comments:

Mad Hatter said...

You've hit the nail on the head here. Just the other day I was thinking sarcastically to myself that I should get pregnant again b/c no one wants to market to me anymore. And yet, Max and Ruby are doing their work to keep me poor of pocket. Fortunately, Miss M is still an outcast at day care which means I don't yet need to fear peer pressure. Or do I? Buy the girl whatever she wants just so she'll fit in. Take her to the mall for a treat after school just to cheer her up... Trust me, I am still fully aware of the vigilance I must practice.

Amanda said...

We learned how true the adage of kids getting fancy presents and winding up liking the boxes and strewn paper the best quite early on. Sitting here with our third in my belly I am fascinated by my desire to blend hand-me-downs and brand new, unnecessaries. One thing that has changed, or rather been re-enforced is my willingnes to pay three and four times the average price to ensure the absence (to the best of my ability) of hormones and crap from our family's diet. $4 for milk sometimes feels as good as driving a Benz (not that I'd know what that felt like, but you know what I mean)

Lawyer Mama said...

Wow, T and I were just commenting the other day about how we seem to be even more of a target market now that we've moved from the infant stage to the toddler stage. Maybe it's that they're no longer marketing directly to us as much. Instead, they go for the toddlers. Now that my children are old enough to say "I want" it seems to be harder. I have thus far had no problem saying no to my kids but I cannot resist the siren call of a Starbucks Mocha Light Frapuccino....

Jenifer said...

This is so true. Some things I spend my money on seem like wild extravagances when really, they are not. Yet, other things that should make my radar sound wildly just don't and for me that is my $5 Chillers from Second Cup - which sadly I have had not even a handful this summer.

We have tried hard to reuse from girl to girl, borrow where we can and use our great consignment store. That still doesn't explain how are house is so full. As for the vibrating bouncy chair, I fear I may have returned Papoosie Girl without it.

Now my goal is just reducing our intake. We limit Christmas presents, exchange names with our friends so each child just gets one toy, I am trying to stop my habiting of buying every adorable matching item of clothing for the girls I find.

It is hard and being vigilant sucks sometimes, but in my case it is necessary. I will say this I used to much more easily swayed by those ads...now I have a much tougher armor.

DaniGirl said...

At the risk of repeating my comment from yesterday: seriously, ARE you me?

I too was just thinking about this recently, while looking at formula ads of all things, and thinking about how I am both more and less susceptible to advertising-imposed guilt and neediness this time around.

I absolutely refused any commercial characters in Tristan's room decor when he was born, and even when he moved to big-boy bed, I was dead set against getting him a commercialized bedspread. I spent days combing the stores looking for a decent child-themed comforter that didn't cost a (cough Pottery Barn cough) ridiculous amount of money, and yet wasn't splattered with Sponge Bob or Spider Man. In the end, I simply couldn't find one and compromised on what I perceived to be a relatively innocuous Winnie the Pooh theme.

Fast forward to today, and there's Cars stickers on the wall, Thomas the Tank Engine on his pillow, and Star Wars on his blanket.

I guess this reveals that not only have I capitulated rather fully to the commercialization of the boys' lives, but that I have embarrassingly little sense of decent interior design.

Kimberly said...

Poverty sucks, but it does have something freeing about it, as well. Not having the money to fall into many of these traps frees me from a lot of the guilt about not doing so.

It also made those times I did bow to the machine a more thoughtful and acceptable experience. I still remember the joy of being able to take Diva Girl shopping at Old Navy after I'd gotten my first blog pay and simply say "yes."
Of course, "yes" is still not a way of life, and I do struggle with the impulse to expand to fill my space. Now that Diva girl is a socially acceptable 4th grader, the pressure is on..."WHY can't we have...." is a constant refrain in our house. And is still routinely met with "because there is a difference between "want" and "need".

bubandpie said...

Mad - Even if the child doesn't face pressure from peers, the parents still do!

Amanda - True. I feel no remorse for my organic milk (though I do still drink the cheap regular stuff myself).

LM - I'm sure the marketing is still there - what's changed for me is that I'm no longer consciously aware of being besieged by companies scrambling for my (non-existent) money.

Jenifer - Oh, yes. I was very easily made doubtful and fearful by advertising when my children were babies - I had this constant vague sense that I was missing some essential product. My determination to spend nothing was a kind of defensive reaction to that. Now, I'm spending more money on my kids, and I'm under the impression that I'm doing it of my own free will - an impression that is almost certainly at least partly false.

nomotherearth said...

I am hemorrhaging money these days in the attempt to make the Boy's Big Boy bedroom a place he (and I) will love. I can't stop spending money - I think it's because I am so nervous about him feeling usurped by the new baby.

To continue what danigirl was saying, I also went in search of a non-commercial bedspread for his new bed, theoretically because I refuse to support the Big Cartoon Companies who are shamelessly marketing to small children. I ended up spending an arm and leg just to find a bedspread that was more generic. Who's the chump now?? (I do love it, though..but then, I love anything expensive.)

I won't tell you how much I've spent on fancy coffee beverages in the last 2 years. It's indecent.

metro mama said...

I have a very thrifty husband, and am obsessed with saving my pennies for Italy--these combined keep me out of the stores. And the Starbucks. That said, Cakes doesn't know who Dora is yet. I'm sure that'll all change soon.

A Whole Lot of Nothing said...

Well well said. I fell into the category of "mom-who-needs-the-newest-stuff" for my first baby. If it vibrated, I had it. If it had an FP label, I had it. Now, my girls get the occasional little stuffie or sticker book, but I like reserving my money for $5 Starbucks and overdraft fees.

Naomi (Urban Mummy) said...

I'm with Danigirl and Nomo - no commercial characters. Although we do have Thomas trains, but, honestly, I didn't know they were anything except cute trains when I first bought them. (no friends with kids, not a lot of children's tv experience).

I also eschew as many of the plastic character toys as I possibly can. I went so far as to put together a list of appropriate wooden toys for my kids, and send it off to my mother in law, sister in law and parents.

I dread grade school. I do.

Alpha DogMa said...

I feel slightly removed from all of this just by nature of the too few stores in my town. But our visits to the Little Big Smoke are orgies of capitalism. Generally it takes us 6 weeks to get over the guilt (and pay off the credit cards) before we venture back to the stores again. Glad to know I've company in my love-hate relationship of spending money on the kids.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My son is clueless socially, at least for now, so I have been sending him to kindergarten with broccoli in his lunch instead of "snak paks," and the lunch is in whatever bag happens to be handy, rather than in a plastic, character-themed lunchbox. I know that at some point he'll rebel & I'm not quite sure how I'll deal with that -- but for now I am livin' up the recycled life!

Meanwhile: I never buy organic milk. It's THREE TIMES as expensive as regular milk, I just can't shell it out... However I do sometimes buy soy milk, which is just as expensive; I justify that by reminding myself there's no cheaper soy/rice alternative. How's THAT for weird financial logic?

slouching mom said...

With great satisfaction, I have watched my ad-driven spending on the boys plummet in the last few years. Because they have reached the age at which they, too, understand that companies are simply trying to get them to BUY, BUY, BUY. I'll acknowledge that we *did* play a role in their cynicism by pointing out (subtle) advertising wherever we spotted it. But I'm OK with having two cynics as long as they are not duped by the evil adlords.

painted maypole said...

Amanda mentions buying organic milk for $4. $4?!?!? That's what the SKIM milk costs around here - and NOT the organic kind! anyhow...

yes to all of this. We buy so much second hand and try to keep the amount of stuff down (most presents are still used- I wonder when MQ will start to find this distasteful?) but as I plan her upcoming Cinderella birthday party, which will be full of play acting and making of their own dresses (and not paying gobs of money to someone else to do the party for me)I am painfully aware that nevertheless I am feeding into the Disney machine,as that's the only association these girls have with the Cinderella story. I could try finding another version, but cringe at the mere thought of the distress this will cause my daughter. On her birthday.

Bobita~ said...

This speaks to me with such pin-point accuracy that my mouth has been gaping wide since I read your first sentence.

I am in the very midst of it, now. Just last night I tried to reconfigure, recalculate and re-negotiate my expenses because of that "unexpected" electricity bill. Apparently, the lights above me, the fans whirring in the background and the dependable presence of the microwave...well, you would think these things might eliminate the element of surprise that the *electricity bill* seems to have given me. Sadly...no.

Lisa b said...

I don't have a coffee habit but I 'll bet that I frittered away the equivalent on toys. My house is packed.
"Afford" is such a relative thing. We all make decisions about how we handle our money.
It was very interesting to me to work at a school where some of the wealthiest people send their kids and see that the kids whose families had the most money often had the fewest things.
We always want what we can't have so if we can have any 'thing' they become less appealing.

Magpie said...

I'm all about hand-me-downs and eBay. I hate spending money on stuff that's just going to be shredded or discarded. And then there's the living-lightly-on-the-land aspect of it. The kid asks for things, but mostly I just say no.

I do buy books for her. So many books.

Mimi said...

We blow through money like crazy chez moi: on what? I'm not sure. I spent 10 years living like a student, on a very tightly rationed week-to-week budget (bus ticket? or cup of coffee?) and now I have a hard time denying myself the little things (grande nonfat latte) whenever I want them, jsut to luxuriate in not being so friggin' poor any more.

Munchkin? I spend ... a lot of money on her? But on things I find modest and reasonable? (logo-free sneakers, an array of comfy track suits, a brightly-coloured umbrella stroller) But I don't buy her very many toys (we have a lot of hand me downs) and I don't even buy her books, really. And most of the drawers in her dresser, and most of the shelves in her closet have a lot of room left on them.

But still, we make a lot of money and .... out if goes. I don't get paid til next Friday, and here I wonder about the overdraft ... and plan to sign up Munchkin and I for Mommy-daughter aquafit at the local pool for $70. Hm.

Beck said...

Right now, we are living over our Biggest We Have Had In Our Whole Marriage Income EVERY MONTH. What the heck? Are we actually drunken sailors on shore leave now?
I'm deliriously happy with my kids fall activities - with the exception of their swimming lessons, it's FREE! ALL FREE! MWWAAH HA HA!

Janet said...

I spent my whole career in adveritising and marketing. I supposed I consider myself fairly immune to marketing thanks to that, and the fact that the majority of my freelance writing is still focused on crafting brilliant copy for shiny marketing collateral aimed at convincing people to spend their money!

Still, when I had my first baby, I was very easily duped into buying stuff that we really didn't need.

I'm wiser now, as a seasonsed mother of three. Now I prefer to hemorrhage all of our funds on extra-curricular activities and the gas to get them there. Hockey, dance, power skating, swimming lessons.

At least they are getting some exercise.

kgirl said...

oh yeah. those ads (and the products they pimped) were much more enticing the first time around. now? i'm mildly offended that nobody seems to want to exploit the more experienced, second-time-around mother. funny how i still manage to find things to spend my money on.

Blog Antagonist said...

It just gets worse and worse. My son is almost 13 and already he is pining for designer clothing, shoes and toys. He asks why we don't have a cool car (I drive a 2003 Windstar, Husband is driving a 14 yr old Jeep Cherokee) why we don't live in a cool neighborhood.

Marketing is one of my big hot button issues. It's relentless and pervasive and over the top and I've had. it.

Momish said...

I can totally relate to this post. I remember when I was pregnant and then had my baby, being besieged with constant advertisements aimed at making me feel guilty for not providing my child the best, to keep her the healthiest, grant her that educational edge, etc.

In many ways, I felt very lucky to be an older mom. But more so, I felt lucky to have been raised on a very tight budget. It was so easy for me to see that all that hoopla was unnecessary. My sister and I were fine, even ahead of the game and we had none of that stuff.

I won't say I didn't over indulge my child and my new found mommy status at times! But, I managed to live without the Kate Spade diaper bag in the end!

NotSoSage said...

Seriously? My child has never seen an episode of Sesame Street, Dora or Diego, Barney or Winnie the Pooh and I am and yet she knows ALL about them. I was not prepared for the marketing demographic I got myself into just by virtue of procreating.

And you're so right about the pressure on parents...suddenly you're made to feel that if you care for your child, you WILL buy. It sucks, frankly.

Aliki2006 said...

Great post--you capture that end-of-the-month feeling perfectly. I could be more thrifty, I know, but I'm a sucker for the little pleasures--treating the kids to ice cream, treating myself to Starbucks, etc. etc. and it all adds up. But we have staved off the ads for the most part around here--although I am SURE this won't last long.

Antique said...

I'm still nibbling and avoiding the hook, mostly. I am sickened by the materialistic mind-set that is attached to motherhood. When I was pregnant I saw a mobile I wanted for Sean's room. It was $60 and I came close to buying it. $60 for something you have to remove in less that 6 months for safety reasons. Even though I could well afford it, I just decided at that moment to opt out of the spending frenzy - that it just wasn't good for anybody. And inspite of the lack of that must-have mobile, we lived happily ever after.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh this captures the entire thing---finances, children, marketing, and parenthood---marvelously. I've done my best not to get too sucked in to it after the initial newborn errors. But...still...

Part of me recalls being the "poor child" who watched all the marvelous things other children had and developed such a sense of envy.

People can talk all they want about avoiding and going without and not noticing and so forth, but I think that's a privilege in a way.

I don't think either extreme is healthy---too little or too much.

So I try to balance in the middle, and help the children recognize the privilege.

And money. God help me. LOL

Julie
Using My Words

Sandra said...

My husband is the spender in our union. I have a totally different relationship with money.

And as an ex-marketer - they'll get ya at every stage ... it just looks different. For me now - it comes through my son - much worse sometimes!

b*babbler said...

Ok... I just loved your use of cognitive dissonance! It's one of my favorite terms, and I use it at every opportunity (including flinging it at a boyfriend once in the middle of a fight.)

But, to the topic at hand. With the Peanut I was adamant about not having licensed paraphernalia all around the house. That hasn't stopped us from purchasing (often through craisglist) Fisher-Price bouncers and Graco playpens. I'm really not looking forward to the Dora age though. Or Polly Pocket. Or Barbie. I refuse the bedspreads, the backpacks, the sippy cups, the damned underwear all splashed with someone's logo. Bah! (I'm feeling really curmudgeonly about this today.)

kittenpie said...

I was pretty choosy about not going overboard, too, because it didn't see m right, somehow, to spend gobs of money on stuff I'd be using for so little time. Especially since we were not thinking that there might be another - we were still mostly planning on just the one. If I'd known about craigslist back then, I'd have made out even better, but I did buy some stuff used, some with much research, some on sale, and so on as I could figure out how and where to save.

I'm still the same with clothing - I generally buy ahead a year at end-of-season sales, and get some stuff used. I scavenge furniture like crazy and now that we read picture books, not just boards, I borrow library books. Toys are probably my worst offense now because she is getting into much more fun stuff!

mek said...

Were you at our house this morning? Becuase we are right at the same stage of the month. My husband made a long speech on the futility of budgets, given that in the same week your commission check will be late and a big storm will half tear a big branch off your tree and leave it hanging ominously over the neighbor's car. But, we still stopped at a coffee shop this afternoon. Sigh.

We don't have much issue with the licensed characters yet, as the girl is too young. We avoid them as much as possible. But my other strategy is to accept the ones I can live with. I have no issue with Sesame Street, for example, partly because I have such nostalgia for it and partly because at least it is on PBS without commercials (though those sponsorship messages...but they can be skipped as they are only at the beginning and end).

Justifications? Rationalization? Yeah. I know. :)

Chaotic Joy said...

I teeter back and forth on my resolve to raise less materialistic children. One moment it's "No, you do not need any more toys" and the next it's "Oh, but won't Ben love this"

I must say that with my older children, I am no longer the target for ads unless they have to do with improving my child's education. They have long since discovered that they have powerful allies in my children and have focused all their efforts on them. It's a good strategy on their part and one I have trouble resisting.

But I try.

Susanne said...

My son is almost five and I still resist the pull of Spiderman-tees. I was lucky with bedspreads and such because there is an online store here in Germany that specializes in catering to parents like us. Simple things, sturdy, and almost no prints. Those things are quite expensive though.

Since the year before last when we spent more than we earned (okay, I spent more than we earned), and since there will be no seconds child I have started to buy in thrift stores a lot. And we will probably do this for some time. I'd rather spend the money on English classes for my son than on a fancy bed.

Christina said...

I try to remember to be skeptical when making any purchase, asking myself if I'm really wanting it or I'm being marketed into wanting it.

For me, it's all of the little expenses that I ignore and add up so quickly that our money is gone before the next paycheck. Although I am thankful that we'll no longer be paying for preschool, since Cordy's new school is covered by the school district.

mcewen said...

No post at the weekend huh? Tagged you today.
Cheers

Angela said...

It is so hard to manage money!

Christine said...

i used to be one of those people who balked at the crazy amount of "extra" food people with kids had around the house. when my girl was a baby i couldn't be rattled by baby food ads or juice commercials. now our damn cupboards over-the-hell-flowing!

Emily said...

It is so complicated for us all. No matter where you are financially, you wonder how much to spend v. how much you can spend.

Here's a story I cannot post because the family it is about reads my blog. I know a woman who took her not-yet-two-year-old to get her nails done at Elizabeth Arden. "It's only $10" the father said, laughing.

OK -- do I NEED to start listing all the issues I had with this?!

Yet, our house overflows with Thomas stuff. I worry we spoil them. But then, one day a few weeks ago, Zach said "I'll take Annie and Clarabel." When I reminded him he did not have A & C, he told me he was pretending some Brio trucks were those. So, maybe at least with the THomas junk, we've struk the delicate balance between saying no just to say no and giving too much all the time.

You really got me thinking here!

andi said...

Wow. You just perfectly described my life. It's the nickel and diming that kills me (don't get me started on the evils of the necessary Starbucks).

Luckily, my daughter must have inherited some sort of gene for thriftiness. Whenever I take her to the store, she shows me things, but never asks to buy them. Even when I offer she says, "No thanks." I only hope this continues.

Moondance said...

I hear you about trying to spend nothing. I was that way too. I keep reminding myself that I had little growing up, and that, with imagination, anything can become a toy. However, I remember at a certain age, the embarassment I felt that I couldn't have name brands or the latest style. So I try to balance. I say yes every once in a while, but I resist most of the time.

I love that Owl picked up on the idea of advertising: "they just want you to buy their stuff, it won't really work that way in your house." But, he still goes to kindergarten every day with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack! At least the bedroom is character free...well, mostly!

Omaha Mama said...

The part of your post that I can really relate to? The broke part. What we are surprised by at our house, is that it seems to matter very little if our income goes up. We still spend it all. And on what?

My spending habits are cyclical, I think with my uterus.

Ally said...

This post rings so, so true with me, and is so well-written. I loved it.