10 Green Strategies for Spending Less on Kids' Stuff

Dollars & Sense on 04.18.12
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Photo: Vlad the Impala/Creative Commons

As Earth Day approaches, it's worth remembering that despite what some trendy magazines might tell you, looking after our planet doesn't have to mean buying the latest hybrid car or expensive, organically grown heirloom kumquats. In fact, alongside defending climate science in schools, one of the best things you can do to go green is simply to buy less stuff -- and less new stuff in particular.

Yet having kids seems to go hand-in-hand with increased consumerism these days. From piles of kids' clothes through disposable diapers to wipe warmers and all those plastic toys, we are awash in excess stuff that our kids apparently "need".

Here are a few strategies to fight back against the pressure to consume.

1. Host a Clothing Swap
Kids grow up insanely fast, and that means clothes only fit for a short while. But it also means that there are countless other families in exactly the same boat - many of whom will have similar aged/sized kids. Why not get together with friends and neighbors and host a kids clothing swap? You may even meet some fun new people. Check out this video posted over at Treehugger showing just how easy it is to host a clothing swap.

2. Love Your Thrift Store
Kids love to play with new toys, but they rarely care what condition those toys are in. (Which is a good thing - given how rough many of them play!) Before you drop $50 on the latest fancy toy, why not see what's on the shelf at your local thrift or consignment stores? Many Parent Teacher Associations run thrift stores, which means your purchase can do double duty entertaining your little one and funding community schools in the process.

3. Learn to Share
It's not just kids who need to learn to share; many of us parents have fallen out of the habit, too. In fact, we often feel embarassed to ask for items from friends, thinking that as responsible, self-sufficient grown ups it's our responsibility to provide for our family's needs. But the fact is we all have kids' stuff that our friends and neighbors could use, and sharing is a two way street. If it feels awkward to start asking friends to borrow, why not start by offering to lend? You may be surprised by how many people are only too delighted to spread resources and save a little cash.

4. Embrace Collaborative Consumption
Sharing is great when you know who you are sharing with, but the rise of internet technologies greatly increases the possibilities. The rapidly growing Collaborative Consumption movement uses online technologies to build communities that encourage and facilitate the sharing of goods and services. Most notable, in the children's sphere, is the clothes swapping site ThredUp which allows a simple, easy interface for exchanging boxes of clothes with parents around the country.

5. Learn to Say No
Our two-and-a-half year old has just gotten to the stage where when she really wants something, she will whine for a very long time in the hope of getting it. Sometimes it just feels easier to give in and let her get what she wants - but this is a slippery slope. I'm not saying you should never indulge your children's wishes, but remember that it is OK to say no too. No child was ever permanently scarred by not getting that fancy Elmo toy, right? It can also help to teach your kids to explain to you why they want something. By encouraging them to think through their own consumer impulses, you may just be laying the ground work for more responsible shopping later.

6. Have a Word With Relatives
Everyone loves to buy for kids, but that means the deluge of gifts can quickly become overwhelming. As I noted in my post on getting too much stuff for Christmas, it's OK to ask relatives and friends to cool it, or to let them know that gently used items are at least as welcome as new.

7. Give Experiences, Not Things
We decided to celebrate my daughter's half birthday the other day (I know, a dangerous precedent!). But rather than spend a bunch of money, we simply did something she would never normally get to do. As country dwellers, we realized that our daughter had never even ridden on a bus in her life. So we drove into town and took a ride on the local, free buses and then called in at a cupcake bakery. The fellow passengers may have been a little distracted by her excited squeels and renditions of "Wheels on the Bus", but it was well worth the excursion.

8. DIY
I am not the world's most practical man, so I confess that this particular strategy is a case of "do as I say, not as I do" - but I have seen friends create wonderful toys, clothes and other gifts for their kids using little more than their imaginations and a few discarded materials. Maybe we should learn from Brittany (aka Pretty Handy Girl) and skill up on fixing, repairing and building almost anything.

9. Focus on Quality
So far, we've talked about ways to buy less and/or to find used goods. But as I argued over at TreeHugger a while back, material possessions are not evil. In fact any effort to save money or counter excessive consumerism must include a plea to learn to love our stuff. If we all returned to the ways of our grandparents and bought quality, durable goods that were built to last, it's a fair bet that we would not have half the waste we do now.

10. Instigate a Waiting Period
One of the savviest pieces of personal finance advice I ever received was to be careful about monitoring your impulses. Whenever you get the urge to buy a big ticket item - be it for yourself or your kids - why not force yourself to wait 48 hours? Not only does this allow time for you to reconsider impulse purchases, but if you do decide you still need to buy, you get some time to shop around and find the best prices. (Or buy used!)

The anti-environmental crowd will no doubt characterize strategies for buying less as being "kill joy", anti-business and maybe even un-American. But the fact is that we are buying more and more things and that process is neither making us happier, truly better off nor doing our environment any favors. By rethinking what we buy, and how we buy it, we have a chance to explore a new kind of economy - and maybe even teach our kids a thing or two about the real value of stuff.

And that can only be a good thing.

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