10 Effective Ways to Raise Frugal Kids


This is a guest post from Carmen Bolanos, who regularly writes on travel and parenting over at NuNomad.com. She is currently nomading in Oaxaca, Mexico, with her three daughters who in her own words, “constantly amaze me with their art, music and enthusiasm for life.”


We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure [that] every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come, and that is the basis by which we make decisions in council. We consider: Will this be to the benefit of the seventh generation? This is a guideline.

– an Iroquois chief quoted by Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars

Minimalist and frugal lifestyles are all the rage right now.  It’s such a refreshing turn-around from the 80’s up-and-coming yuppy mindset and sorely needed not only by our struggling planet, but also by our souls, which I believe have always yearned for something deeper than the latest BMW.

Personally, I have always been a minimalist type. I’m not a shopper and have been known to hold on to shoes until they’re worn through and my feet are touching the street. Not for any real philosophical reason – it’s just who I am.

What a shock when my husband and I started our family and the arrival of our dear first baby was accompanied by a hurricane of accompanying stuff! Not only the necessities of diapers and t-shirts, but mountains of accessories, gadgets, toys … you name it. Little did we know that having a child in the U.S. would mean a constant barrage of media marketing directly to our children as soon as they were able to sit up.

So, how do we ensure that our values of a minimalist lifestyle and frugality are passed on through our children when mass media and the economic machine would love to have it otherwise? How can we support minimalism and frugality as values to be passed on through generations and not let them die out as the latest trend?

Having been in the process of raising kids, here is a list of strategies that have worked for our family:

    1. Teach Them About Money Young – You may want to raise kids that really understand how to use money and the value of money. For this, you may start teaching them budgeting at a young age. For our kids, we tried using Greenlight cards, and if you do look into this, compare Step vs Greenlight as each option has its own costs and pros and cons.
    2. Does Paying For Quality Save Money? – Sometimes it pays to go with quality over quantity, just in the sense of how long each good will last. For example, my wife and I received a SlumberPod almost 6 years ago, and it’s still amazing. Yes, there are SlumberPod alternatives, but they just don’t compare to the actual thing. Also, thankfully, you can find SlumberPod coupon codes that help with the price.
    3. Turn off the media – If I could give only one piece of advice it would be this one. Your best intentions and teachings will be constantly thwarted if your children are bombarded by every marketing ploy known to modern man. Your kids won’t crave the latest gadget, because they might not even realize it exists. You may be amazed at Christmas when your kid asks for, “I don’t know, maybe a book?” Yes – really. It actually happened to us!
    4. Limit electronics – While electronics don’t necessarily advertise to kids, they do have an impact on their attention spans.  In addition, overuse may adversely affect their relationships with other human beings and their ability to enjoy other forms of activity, especially quality physical activity. If you want a child who will value a simple lifestyle, they will need to be able to find joy in simple activities, such as playing outside, playing board games, and engaging in imaginative games with their friends.
    5. Talk with your loved ones about your values –When you are trying to raise a child in a minimalist lifestyle it can be frustrating to receive the latest electronic or cheap plastic gadget from loved ones each Christmas and birthday. Sit down and discuss your values with your family and friends and let them know that while you appreciate their gestures of generosity, simpler gifts may help maintain consistency. You may want to gently provided specific examples. You know, Sally really enjoys playing with puzzles and outdoor games – so if you find something like that, she’d love it. Video games really don’t get used that much.”
    6. Socialize with like-minded families – Our children are just as vulnerable to peer pressure as we were. It’s hard being the only kid who doesn’t have the latest Xbox if everyone you know does. If you make the choice to live a minimalist lifestyle, surround yourself with like-minded families. You will find that your child has more fun playing with other kids who understand their type of play and can engage in it fully. Also, they won’t feel like oddballs. You’re asking them to be a part of a counter-culture. Show them that they’re not alone by supplying them with community!
    7. Have fun – Frugality isn’t about deprivation. Show your kids why you value this lifestyle by making it as fun as possible. Fill your time with activities that they’ll enjoy. Camping, going to parks, playing hide and seek, creating a puppet show, baking together, traveling … the list of what you can do is only limited by your imagination.
    8. Show what you can do – Research shows time and again that modeling is the most powerful teacher. Your children will model their behavior after yours. Show your kids how you live out your values by letting them watch you and take part in your activities. They will follow in your footsteps.
    9. Instill a sense of service – A great mind-shift can happen when we stop thinking about what we don’t have and begin thinking about how we can help others. Consider spending time each week or month in some sort of service work with your kids. They will learn a lot about our society, will gain appreciation for what they have and will feel great about what they’ve done.
    10. Enjoy a sense of purpose – As human beings, we derive happiness from purposeful activity. This has been one of the root concepts behind Montessori education. We want to be useful and to feel a sense of accomplishment. Let your children experience this by engaging in projects, building, creating, or working through problems.

My suggestions here may seem difficult. I’ll be honest in that they will require more hands-on, active parenting. They’ll also require a willingness to buck a system that will push very hard for compliance. However, the rewards will be great. What you will get in return will be engaged, enthusiastic and creative children, who will amaze you with what they can accomplish – children who are ready to carry on our values to the next generations.

Baker’s Note: After spending the time on the road that we did with Milligan, I can really appreciate the permanent lifestyle that Carmen is leading with her daughters.  While Milli is only approaching two, we are hoping to instill similar values in her as she ages!

Any of you parents have other tips on how to raise frugal kids?

76 thoughts on “10 Effective Ways to Raise Frugal Kids”

    1. Yeah, it’s really hard to raise kids in a vacuum. If they don’t feel supported by others outside of their own family they can begin to feel like social misfits and be more tempted to rebel against their family’s values.

  1. Haha I don’t have kids but I’ve seen frugal families struggle with this. A further thought on limiting electronics – electronics do encourage consumption b/c there are always newer models, so there is the always “new one” phenomena. Case in point – hubby’s 2 year old cell broke (right on schedule of planned obsolecense!) We got a free one thru our plan….it has web capability…he signed up for the web package for $10/mo – needless to say I am unhappy about such a frivolous expense. Even tried to rationalize it (he’s gotten zero “toys” in 4 years thanks to putting me thru school). And now I am envious!!!!! So it is a downhill slide.

    1. You’re so right! Electronics are a lot like cars. As soon as you buy something it’s outdated by the newer kid on the block. It’s really hard to resist the next greatest thing. And as you so aptly mention, planned obsolecense also kicks in causing us to move on to the next greatest thing even if we were doing well to resist.

  2. Great article–totally worth a tweet.

    Speaking from experience, all of these were things that my parents did (either realizing it or not) that helped me to pick up on many of their frugal ways. I especially like the third item (all of them, actually). I’d expand it to include talking with them about your financial decisions and why and how you make the choices you make. They probably don’t need to know all the specific every time, but I could see the difference our choices made and why it was a good decision because I (kind of) understood the numbers.

    On a side note: I know it’s been a while now, but the new site looks great!

  3. Good point, Frank. That’s something I need to do more of, especially now that the kids are in their teen years. I also find, though, that now that they’re dealing with earning money and spending what they earn it’s been a fast track lesson for them in thinking twice about value before they spend anything.

  4. Carmen this is a great post. Although I don’t have kids yet, I hope to instill these values in them. If you ended your post with #1, it would still have been a great post. The media has an unbelievable and unmeasurable influence on what we buy. This is especially true with kids, now that you bring it to light. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Hugh, You know, anyone who doesn’t think the media has a huge influence, I challenge you to think of how many tv ad jingles from your childhood you can still remember. “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Meyer weiner..”

  5. Thank you for this article! As a soon to be parent, I have always wondered how we will be able to keep video games and the like out of our home as my kid(s) see what other kids have. This is giving me hope that it can be done and that we DON’T have to spoil our kids with useless toys and time-sucking, mindless activities and they won’t hate us for it. (well hopefully not) 😉

    1. It’s definitely possible to raise kids who are not consumed with video games and the like. What helped us was to start from the very beginning setting limits. And then, as I mentioned, making sure you introduce your kids to all the fun activities life has to offer that are in keeping with your family’s values.

  6. Great advice. We’re a few years away from needing it, but right now we’re managing our finances so we can both be very hands on parents. It’s my nightmare to have to drop off a child of mine each day at a daycare.

    1. I fully realize there are many people who find themselves in situations where they have to use a daycare. I was in that situation with our first child soon after she was born. I’m fortunate that we were able to change gears soon afterward because I still consider it one of the dark times of my parenting years. I wish I could have been home with her. Our kids are such a gift – I hope everyone can make the most of those times together

  7. We have done all these things and more, and now we have wonderful teenagers that never complain about how we live. They are able to look at current fads, like iphones and xboxes, objectively and decide for themselves if they are necessary to the way they want to live. They have never begged for things at the store – they actually help shop. We’ve let them play video games now that they are older, and they can see the time that is wasted on it so THEY choose to go outside instead. Yes, it is a wonderful life!

    1. Jessica, our experience is the same. The other wonderful bi-product has been that all the time which might have been spent in front of media went to activities like practicing music, working on artwork, sports and other projects. My girls have developed so many great skills – my oldest (16 now) has been paid for her artwork 4 times and has completed a mural in a public theater. I know none of this would have been accomplished if they’d been sitting in front of a screen a couple of hours each day.

  8. Hi guys:) once again an insightful post and you really hit the nail on the head. I grew up very poor and quite differently to the normal Australian family, so I had to learn family values when I left home at 14 and started working full time. I have to say I wish I knew what I know now back then as I have two wonderful boys, but alas they have been spoilt (compensating for my childhood) they aren’t spoilt brats, they have been brought up with manners and values and they do look after their things “stuff” but they can be a bit tough at times especially the Christmas school holidays as they are so long and they expect to be taken everywhere that costs a pretty penny. So I say stick to this and you will be shaping your children into wonderful caring adults that won’t expect every day out to be expensive and they will learn to amuse themselves more than relying on electronics and expensive past times.

    1. Oh sorry just to add to the above, my eldest boy is now 15 and it was only these past school holidays that he had his eyes opened to how lucky he really is, as he has started to hang out with new friends and as my husband (bless him) provides us with a very good lifestyle and those friends have been hanging out here at our home and making lots of comments to him about how lucky he is to have a nice house, swimming pool, pool table etc….he has stopped complaining completely about anything, so yes hang out with other like minded people as this really does work:)

      1. You know, I think in some ways it is easier to raise children in a lower middle class environment than in a privileged environment. When you can’t afford everything, your kids are forced to have some experiences where their wishes conflict with the realities of what is possible. It’s a built in insurance for teaching some lessons about savings and simple lifestyles. However, when your children know that mom and dad can afford almost anything they can dream of, the lessons have to be taught in a different way. Instead of, “mom and dad love you but we can’t buy that because…” it becomes “mom and dad love you but they won’t buy that because….” They are both important conversations to have. Sounds like you are thinking a lot about your boys and how to instill a good sense of value and simplicity for them. That’s an important first step.

  9. Setting a frugal example is probably the key. If little Jamie sees daddy tossing money away on stupid items like new televisions and upgrading cars every year, he’s probably going to follow the trend when he gets older.

  10. Carmen,
    As I sit here in my Bangkok studio apartment, an accommodation that is no more than 12’x12′, looking down at the subterranean street below me where people here live with necessities only (while living happily, I might add), I’m reminded that once we have stripped away all the waste and excess attachments around us we are left with a sense of freedom and the ability to enjoy, once again, the little things. For me, it’s sort of like choosing to eat at a delectable restaurant where just the right amount of food is placed on the plate–food that can be savored because you are focused on that minimum portion and the care that went into creating it–instead of eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet where you feel unsatisfied at the end.

    With our world dying, living a more appropriate lifestyle is necessary if our children are to see the middle of this century. We’re told that we have to consume to the level of before the financial crash if we’re to live as we did then. I think we all have a lot of soul searching to do about how much we spend, which is linked to how much we need to earn–which is linked to what we take from our earth. Living free is to live without debt and excess. I think your daughters are lucky to be able to live the difference. (You are an inspiration.)

    Anyway, you had used the word “minimalist” in describing your lifestyle. I think a better word would have been “satiated.”

    1. Very eloquently stated, Ricardo. Did you recently tell me you don’t have much to say? I would rather say that you are the inspiration, since I know you have been living a very conscientious lifestyle for many years – long before it became the popular thing to do.

    1. Haha, we are actually back in sweet ‘ole Indiana!

      I’ll be having updates on our time in Thailand (were we did disappear to some beaches) and our decision to come back home soon! 🙂

  11. I agree with parts but I also feel its an incredible value to allow kids to reach out and experience people and friends that are not like minded. Recently my kid had a close friend that was from a different social economic background, the TV was her babysitter and processed food was all the kid ate. These are different values from what we are raising our kids to believe in. What she learned from this friendship has been invaluable and I glad I did not thwart her friendship with her.
    For me parenting is being constant in my beliefs and modeling those beliefs. Having a diverse social circle gives us great dinner conversation: ‘Why do some of our friends have lots of stuff?’, ‘Does it make them better than us?’,… (the list goes on).

    1. I don’t think we’re in disagreement about that. I certainly don’t mean to imply that we should shelter our kids in an environment where everyone they contact is just like them. Rather, what I mean is to be sure they have contact with some others who are like them instead of being the only kid in their surroundings whose family is trying to uphold certain values. In our experience we had to seek out friends who had like minded views on simplicity because most of our kids’ contacts through our neighborhood were with families who were very different than our own. If we had not sought out like minded people they may have thought we were alone in this effort to live simply.

      1. After I wrote my comment I went to your website and after reading some of your articles I saw that was probably not your intent. It lead me to a great discussion with my girlfriend about the type of people we surround ourselves with and how to balance that.

  12. Good post from Carmen. I especially like the first tip talking about turning off the TV: “Your kids won’t crave the latest gadget, because they might not even realize it exists. You may be amazed at Christmas when your kid asks for, “I don’t know, maybe a book?” Yes – really. It actually happened to us!” I always had kept in my mind a thought that when/if I have kids, I’ll get rid of the television. It amazes me that parents shove their kids in front of a screen whenever they get a chance, even in the car! I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t deaden a child’s mind, and kids can learn so much more from life by playing outdoors and reading books. Plus, it saves money (cable TV is expensive, and books aren’t).

    I’m checking out Carmen’s blog, NuNomad, as I write this–another great blog! I’ve added it to my list of daily personal finance favorites. Kudos to Baker for finding yet another “diamond in the rough.”

  13. Can I add one to the media section? Magazines. You can’t really turn them off, but limiting them is good. My kids get SI Kids and American Girl and there are plenty of ads in them. They also borrow magazines from the library often and even though they are reading they are still getting hit with advertising. And they can look at the ad over and over again, at least with a commercial it is only 30 seconds or so. Great post!

    1. So true! While my daughters were pretty sheltered from mainstream media, the American Girl catalogs arrived at the house full force to their excitement. We did give in and end up with each of them having a doll. However, since the dolls are pretty wholesome and lent themselves to imaginative play I felt like it wasn’t such a terrible vice to give in to if we were going to choose one. I did learn over time, however, to try to get rid of many of the magazines before they became visible in the future. Just fewer things to have to say “no” to.

  14. Great list. Turning off the media is one of the best ways to not only raise a frugal kid, but also to raise a balanced kid. The TV can suck them in, and I feel it’s important to put some limits on that. But not just limiting it, rather replacing it with other activities, ones where the whole family can participate. This lets us enjoy our time together, instead of merely coexisting in front of the TV.

    1. I grew up in a house where the t.v. ruled. We even had our t.v. dinners on t.v. trays in front of it on Sundays. When I was in 7th grade the t.v. broke and my family was too short on money to repair it. That was one of the best summers of my life. After we got over the initial withdrawals we started talking, taking walks and reading books out loud to each other. I know that was a crucial moment for me of understanding the insidious nature of television and what it can do to our families. It is a big reason for my beliefs today.

  15. Wow this is great advice. The thing about media though is that even when I try not to hear the “news” I still do. When someone asks me why I don’t consume much mainstream media, I tell them that I will find out if I need to know (and more than likely even if I don’t). There are so many great sources of information out there in this day and age of technology, but even that is so hard to filter. Plus so much of it is still just repackaged mainstream junk. It seems the little guys with an alternative like mine at Fruitfulista, never get a chance to be heard. Or when it is, it is too “unconventional”. I am so glad you were able to rise out of the cacophony. It’s wonderful. Check out my site and see what you think. I love to know that people are reading. Thanks

    1. Hey Cassie, checked out your blog and I really love the concept. It certainly fits in with what we’re talking about here – that the minimalist life is not a life of deprivation, rather a life of enjoying true abundance as opposed to material stuff. My daughter has been after me for years to have chickens. She will love the article. I’ve only been resisting because in our permanent home of Texas there are so many predators and I can’t stomach awakening to bloody animals each morning. Otherwise, I’d love to have them!

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  17. Nice post; I think limiting electronics with kids encourages a much more active lifestyle. Too much today, we see kids playing less outdoors and more time at a screen!

    1. Yes, and then we wonder why our children are becoming more and more overweight, prone to diabetes, at risk of heart disease, unable to attend for more than 5 minutes. The list goes on and on of the ramifications to our children from too sedentary a lifestyle.

  18. While I agree it’s important to raise kids that respect money and what’s important in life, I also agree with having balance. TV and video games are not the devil, the problem is that parents do not set limits on these things. You can raise caring, well balanced kids when you set limits on not only how much they do these things, but also how many things they have.

    The most important point of the post is: Show What You Do. This has a greater impact on kids than almost anything else. They listen to about every third word a parents says, but they watch everything a parent does.

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  20. Being with like-minded families is such a huge factor. It’s hard telling your kids they aren’t getting the latest Wii when their friends have that and more!

  21. As a frugal web developer, I worry about the item on the list about limiting the child’s access to technology. The world is moving faster and faster to a more connected and technological era and your child WILL be left behind if not exposed to certain technology. Consider the generation gap between parents and kids today and multiply that 10x for children born today with tech knowledge vs. those without.

    There IS a way to be exposed to technology AND be frugal at the same time. I am living this lifestyle. I only ever buy used laptops or computers (some are given to me for free, actually), and I use a laptop for my job that is over 6 years old. Electronics are like any other item or “thing”: be smart about it, save money where you can, re-purpose it when it no longer suits its original need, and you can be frugal and tech savvy at the same time.

    As a project you can all do as a family: take a PC that is kind of old, download Mandriva Linux for free, which is a competitor to Microsoft Windows and install it. It’s meant to run on older hardware, is completely community driven and open-source, and you’ll learn something together as well. And you’ll also put that older computer to good use instead of throwing it away or having it sit in a corner.

  22. Carmen,

    I think that this article has a lot of merit. We are in complete agreement of turning off the TV, limiting the media etc…. However, just going through some of these principles such as “socializing with like-minded people” that have attributed to a cult-like behavior which we all know can be detrimental.

    My point is I think your children do have a right to know what is going on around them. My fear is that someone may read this article and create this bubble around their child. There is a happy medium out there and it’s your responsibility as a parent to find that. Thank you for some great information.

  23. LIMIT ELECTRONICS- ALL the friends I have whose parents did this are now struggling to function in their life, not just jobs. Electronics evolve fast and children learn fast. Children need to learn to use electronics and also to LEARN HOW TO learn to use electronics as they change.
    Don’t leave them behind. They may never forgive you.
    I was excited by the title, but thought the article was dumbed down, obvious and likely to create some weird little monsters with warped one angled views and a low intelligence that only you can love. On the plus they might also be cheap to raise. Hooray! Why not give them up for adoption? It’s cheaper still.

  24. Thanks for the great post. I really appreciated your practical advice about speaking with well meaning gift givers. Out of all of your suggestions, this one really hits a nerve with me. Our children are given an enormous amount of toys each year. We round things up periodically to give away to charity, and involve our children in this process, but I have ambivalent feelings about this. I don’t believe that poorer children should have rooms full of plastic toys either. Also, I understand that many charities are refusing toys these days out of safety concerns.

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  32. I enjoyed this article. We have a 3 year old and I am hoping we are instilling these types of values in him. Limiting toys is a hard one for us. We love to garage sale and I always find cheap toys hard to resist. I love to spend Friday mornings in the summer searching for treasures at garage sales with him. But we have given away plenty of toys he has grown tired of. He helps pick them out and box them up to pass on to another boy. He has suggested to my mom that she could freecycle something she was done with. I can’t agree more about the media. We only receive network tv channels and his tv exposure is very limited. PBS and dvd’s don’t have commercials, so that helps too. We did vacation at Disneyworld last year, but he had never even heard Mickey’s voice. “Mickey sounds annoying” he said on the bus to the hotel when they showed an informative video. Thanks for the tips!

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  37. This is a great article. My friend and I drove up to our college town this weekend and I was amazed at the clothing all the girls were wearing – designer jeans, etc. Not only that but most of the clothing at the boutiques downtown were in the $300 price range. It was not like that when I was in school, thrift store shopping was all the rage and I am glad.
    I am going to forward this to a few of my friends with little ones.

  38. Enjoy a sense of purpose, this is my favorite among the list. Frugality really needs a purpose to make it consistent. Purpose serves as our destination in doing things – hard or easy.
    Only one thing – to make frugality a good virtue, we should save money, not to the expense of other people, but for the purpose of helping more people.

  39. Just wrote a few thoughts about this last week.
    We had two foster boys with us for nearly a month and I think turning off the media/TV was the biggest help for us. It cut down on their distractions as well as the constant reminders of things they didn’t have.
    We also limited the number of toys they played with each day. If it was out of site – it was out of mind and they didn’t seem to miss the other toys as well.
    Good post.
    Just found your blog via Everett Bogue. Look forward to reading more.

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  44. Belinda Gomez

    Sounds like you should raise your kids in a cult, where they don’t read newspapers, don’t meet anyone who doesn’t think the way they do, and don’t know what’s going on in the world.

  45. Great post Carmen and thank you Man Vs Debt for bringing it to us.
    It makes me very happy to see so many other parents doing their bit to guide their children in what I consider to be a more positive and natural path.

    Money, material things, social hierarchies are all artificial creations which have gotten WAY out of hand. Teaching kids to slow down and enjoy life, how to break free from financial slavery (the “learn, earn, consume and die” cycle) and to give life to their particular talents and passions are some of the best things parents can do for their children – and you guys are all out there doing this every day! I’m sure that children raised in this way will bring more balance to the world and preserve the ‘human’ side of humanity.

    My wife and I have limits around the use of technology and discourage fad toys and gadgets. Yet, our 2 year old is happy and content with the things she has and does. I do however, look forward to introducing her to computers when she is old enough… knowing how to use technology and knowing how to apply it in order to help others in their lives is a wonderful thing. I am in awe of people who provided us with things like WordPress, GNU/Linux operating systems, Open Office and similar technologies… all for free. This very website (MvsD) is something similar – helping others and offering access to a community of like-minded people – at no charge.

    I guess my point is that there is room for everyone and every ‘type’. It is not about ‘my way is the right way’ and this I think is what some have missed (going by some comments). This blog is about a certain style of living and parenting and the post reflects this. No one is saying that another way isn’t possible. Its a matter of preference. Diversity helps us as a species and conformity does the opposite.

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