Buying stuff for kids: How much is too much?

Older children want fancy cellphones, vehicles to get around and the latest video games and consoles.

Where do parents draw the line on what they buy for their kids?

It seems clear that parents should pay for food, shelter, health care, adequate clothing and costs of basic education. But beyond that, decisions become tougher.

Here’s a sampling of ideas from spending experts around the country:

Needs versus wants: “Parents are supposed to pay for the things that kids need but not necessarily for their wants,” said Gary Foreman, editor of The Dollar Stretcher website. “If kids feel that they can’t live without those things, they should be invited to earn the extra money.”

“Once kids have skin in the game, they may better decide what purchases are most important to them,” said Paul Golden, spokesman for the National Endowment for Financial Education.

A wealth disservice: A child may become accustomed to the parents’ lifestyle rather than one they will be able to afford on their own, said Steve Economides, father of five and co-author with his wife, Annette, of “The MoneySmart Family System: Teaching Financial Independence to Children of Every Age.”

ROI, return on investment: “Does the item help the child do his or her ‘job,’ a large part of which is being a student?” Steve Economides said. Ask that question in regard to a personal computer, instead of using the family computer, or a cellphone.

Struggle for success: “I can tell you unequivocally that anything your child can purchase with their own money, they will take ownership and pride in,” said Josh Elledge, chief executive “angel” at coupon site

“When our kids struggle, there is something beautiful in that struggle,” Annette Economides said.

Cellphones and college: Jill Cataldo, a nationally known blogger and coupon instructor, said she and her husband set specific rules for various purchases.

She bought her high school daughter a cellphone by adding her service to the family plan but refused to buy her a smartphone. “If she would like one, she will be paying the difference for that upcharge,” Cataldo said.

When it comes to college, the Cataldos will pay for two years of community college and two years of in-state university.

Spending envelope: Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, had a system when her children were old enough to start the “gimmes” in the supermarket checkout aisle. She kept an envelope with the child’s name on it and money inside.

“When the child asks for something, hand them their envelope,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, once they realize they’re going to have to buy the item with their own money, they’ll hand the envelope back to you.”

Unusual circumstances: Teri Gault, frugality expert and founder of, said her oldest son wanted to get a job at age 16 to buy a car.

But, she said, he had “standout baseball skills that could win him a scholarship worth much more than a minimum-wage job.”

They bought him a clunker and paid for insurance and gas in exchange for honor-roll grades and hard work in baseball. He ended up with a $96,000 baseball scholarship to college and signing bonus from the Minnesota Twins, she said.

Gregory Karp, the author of “Living Rich by Spending Smart,” writes for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at

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