Three Fun Splurges Every Family Should Consider

President Obama tours the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


In our house, we talk a lot about money. That is largely a function of our station in life, with my wife’s nursing career on hold while she raises our kids, my teaching career behind me, and our start-up ahead of us, along with a future filled with line items that can tickle or turn your stomach, depending on your last quarter’s Actual-versus-Projected earnings.

For those blessed with parents who are not only still living, but always finding ways to lavish gifts on their grandchildren, it is tempting to forget that our parents can spend as they do now because they didn’t spend like this when they were our age.

When I think back, my parents were frustratingly frugal to my greedy little self, and they went out of their way to teach us basic money management, and more importantly, contentment and gratitude to combat entitlement.

But there were three events for which, if my parents had been smokers, they would have rolled their cigarettes with twenty dollar bills and lit them with tens. The results of their profligacy (read: generosity) on such occasions surpassed whatever was purchased in the moment, and accomplished more than making good memories. Their selective splurging now instructs their children as we pinch pennies so that we can drop rolls of them later.

Here are three fun events parents should splurge on, if they can find a way to do it:

1. One Recurring Budget Item on Your Family Vacation.

No one (well, not no one, but…) splurges on everything, and you don’t need to in order to make your family feel like you’ve rolled out the red carpet a little too far this time. Instead, pick one category of expenses you’ll incur every day of vacation–dinners, drinks, walks downtown or down the boardwalk–and stack your budget toward it.

This is totally affordable if your kids care more about candy than food. We have ours share meals with each other, or sometimes we–I’m proud to say it–stuff them full of free rolls and butter. They don’t care. And on vacation, we don’t either. Our nightly walks to the Gatlinburg Candy Kitchen (which they will remember) cost less than two kids’ meals (which they would forget), so we actually save on their red carpet.

2. Ball Games. 

We’re lousy baseball fans. I collected cards growing up but was generally terrible for the few years I played Little League, and I’m a notorious sports faker. If I see you on the street wearing a Rays, Tigers, Giants, Cardinals–or any team–shirt, I’ll give you a shout out and keep walking. It costs me nothing, but it makes you so happy.

But we are awesome baseball game fans, because we are enthusiastic ballpark food consumers. Watching my dad seek out and purchase multiple $8 Italian sausages with peppers and onions and $6 nachos is like watching a lamb being led to slaughter, and then eating the lamb.

3. County Fairs. 

My wife’s parents set the gold standard here. They’re not farmers. We’re not a 4-H family. We don’t understand what differentiates a first-place goat from a rabbit with an honorable mention. My father-in-law even raised rabbits as a kid, and he still doesn’t get it. But by golly, the county fair has fair food, like rib-eye sandwiches, boardwalk fries, and 20 flavors of homemade ice cream, which must be eaten, and carnival rides that must be ridden, even if you have ridden faster ones elsewhere, and even if one of them costs as much as a ballpark sausage.

Once my wife and I transitioned from DINCs (a double-income-no-children couple) into parents, we learned that it was never actually true that our parents weren’t looking at the check on fun nights like these. In retrospect, some years they were looking quite closely. But they always found a way to fool us, and it meant something when they did.

That takes creativity, not cash.

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