Does raising kids always have to be so hard on the wallet? Not necessarily, as I learned after moving to Japan with my husband and young children. Here's a smorgasbord of 10 frugal parenting insights from Japan and other cultures. Although they can help us save a few pennies, their greatest value lies in what they teach us (and our kids) about being content with less.
1. Get Out Those Handkerchiefs. I hadn't seen anyone use a handkerchief since I was a little girl. I didn't even know they still existed. But in Japan, everyone carries one -- from preschoolers to old men and women. Hankies are used to wipe hands after washing, to mop off a sweaty brow or clean a smudge of dirt. Little children learn early on how important this is: They're required to bring a hankie to preschool, and elementary school teachers sometimes hold "handkerchief checks" to make sure the habit is ingrained. If a family of four in the U.S. uses two boxes of tissues a month, each priced at $3.69, the annual cost approaches $90. Use handkerchiefs instead and save $90 (minus the initial investment and the ongoing cost of cleaning them).
2. Buy Fewer Back-to-School Supplies. In Japan, the list of back-to-school supplies a first-grader needs is daunting: a set of colored pencils, regular pencils, scissors, erasers, glue, pencil box, gym clothes, and a few notebooks, all to be stored in a special backpack that is meant to last throughout elementary school. (The same tradition prevails in Germany.) That sounds like it could be costly, but think about it: there's no buying new backpacks every year or two. And while there's a large initial purchase of school supplies, each pencil and every last eraser is labeled with the child's name so he'll take care of them and use them until there's nothing left. Assuming a backpack costs about $40 in the U.S. and school supplies run about $48 a year, according to a survey by Parenting.com and Women & Co., a Citibank personal finance service, you can save at least $50 a child by reusing last year's backpack and cutting down on supplies.
3. Tone Down the Birthday Parties. I almost couldn't believe it when I realized that the kids we knew weren't making lists of things they wanted for their birthday or at holiday time. In Japan, gift-giving isn't a focus of these events. Instead of holding a big birthday bash and getting lots of presents, Japanese kids celebrate with a family dinner and one gift at most. In France, holidays like Christmas (another occasion for gift-giving in the U.S.) are traditionally celebrated with a family dinner. And while Christmas dinner is followed by a few carefully chosen presents, enjoying a meal together is the focal point. In Germany, birthday parties are simple, at-home affairs, which keeps costs to a minimum. In the U.S., informal surveys indicate that in some regions parents spend at least $200 on their child's birthday party; that's $400 for two kids. Assuming two children each bring a $10 present to 10 birthday parties, that's a yearly outlay of $200. Go light on the parties and the gifts and save several hundred dollars.
4. Borrow Your Toys. Parents in New Zealand are lucky -- instead of buying new toys, they can borrow them from the widely available "toy libraries" that lend out toys and DVDs for the price of a yearly membership that costs about $100. Not only do parents stave off boredom/clutter syndrome (i.e., a new toy gathers dust after an initial wave of interest), borrowing toys reinforces the message that kids don't have to own everything. According to the NPD group, parents in the U.S. spent an average of $284 a child on toys in 2010, or $568 for a family with two kids. Reach out to a couple of friends and see if they'd like to start a toy rotation. The potential savings are significant.
5. Share Your Toys. Due to small living spaces and the lack of a heavy toy-buying tradition, children in South Korea claim title to just a few toys. Any toys a family owns are always meant for sharing among siblings. Sharing of toys and clothes extends beyond the family in South Korea, as well -- many neighborhoods hold a swap event twice a month for families to exchange clothes and toys for free. Here in the States, this is another opportunity to cut costs by joining forces with friends.
6. Make Your Own Toys. The first time I saw my friend's 4-year-old daughter come home proudly from preschool lugging a used grocery bag full of what looked like trash, I didn't get it. But once my own kids started school, I understood. It's common for Japanese preschools to use recyclables -- bottles, caps, milk cartons, egg cartons, cardboard boxes, newspapers -- extensively and regularly for crafts instead of buying new supplies. Not only does this give kids a chance to exercise their creativity, it teaches them about the value of recycling in a concrete way. Kids also see their parents reuse everything, including paper and shopping bags. Based on prices posted at Walmart.com, a rough estimate of the cost of new craft supplies, including paper, sequins, markers, glue, paints, etc. in the U.S. comes to about $100 dollars a year. Repurpose what you might have thrown away and you'll save a hefty portion of that sum.
7. Play Outside. Consider doing away with toys completely and just have the kids play outside, as many parents do in Brazil. Brazilian parents aren't in the habit of buying many toys for their kids because they expect them to play with friends or cousins, on their own -- and you don't need much for that.
8. Two Wheels Beat Four. People commute to work or school by bicycle in places such as China, Denmark, and especially the Netherlands, a famously bike-friendly nation. In Japan, bicycles can be fitted with two child seats -- one in front, one in back -- for the ride to and from preschool or the grocery store. Once a child is in elementary school he walks to school on his own or takes public transportation. It is almost never the case that a child commutes to school by car -- if his family even has a car. (Two cars per family is a true rarity.) The average American family spent $4,416 on gasoline for the car in 2011, according to CNN Money. Think of the savings if you eliminate the twice-daily back and forth to school.
9. Forage for Your Food. In Finland, an extremely modest and frugal mindset prevails. The high cost of new items means parents often go to one of the country's many flea markets or secondhand stores to buy clothing. And it's a tradition for families to forage for berries and mushrooms together in the summer, gathering enough to stock the freezer with a winter's supply for the entire family. Cost of fruit in the U.S. varies by region and season, but I estimate a family might spend about $8 a week on fruit (e.g., several apples, oranges, or bananas and a bag of frozen blueberries), or $416 a year. Consider joining a community garden to cut down on produce costs during harvest season.
10. Eat Meals Together. In countries with robust food traditions such as France, Italy, Spain, and South Korea, there's simply no such thing as a separate kids' meal. Kids eat and enjoy the same food as parents do, which saves money and time (no separate ingredients to buy and prepare or separate dishes to wash) and has the added bonus of teaching kids to eat widely and well. My friends in the U.S. report spending between $20 and $40 a week on an assortment of kiddie food items, such as frozen kids' meals, chicken nuggets, pasta and sauce, macaroni and cheese, and apple juice. Potential savings are ample when everyone at the table feasts on the same menu.
A parenting expert with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Christine Gross-Loh raised her own children in Japan for five years. Christine's new book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, will be published on May 2 by Avery/Penguin. For more information visit: www.christinegrossloh.com