Buy less, play more

Delaying a purchase and gifting an experience instead of a toy help reduce clutter and the kids' urge to spend on faddish items

When we went to Thailand for a 10-day holiday last month, I told my two older children I would give them 300 baht each to spend during the trip.

"So much?" said my guileless seven-year-old daughter.

"On anything?" asked my 11-year-old son, before adding: "Wait, how much is that in Singapore dollars?"

"About $12," I answered.

"Sounds good," he said, pleased.

$12 may not sound like much, but it was a treat for my kids.

We have been on a mission to pare down the stuff we have at home.

Giving them a fixed amount of money eliminated the endless "can I buy this?" requests. Knowing they had a finite sum meant they tried to maximise the amount by looking for the best deal. After a while, it became almost like a game to them.

At the same time, we have been trying to limit the things that come into our small five-room flat. This means putting a cap on the toys they have and want, and thinking harder about new purchases.

Visits to toy stores are just that - visits. We rarely, if ever, walk out with a toy.

"This looks so fun," one would say wistfully.

"Yes, it does, I agree with you," I would answer.

"I wish I could have it," he or she might add.

The conversation could go on with me suggesting they could either save up for the toy, or we could consider buying it nearer a special occasion such as a birthday.

More often than not, the interest in the said toy would have waned by the time the occasion comes around.

Sometimes I might say to my son: "Are you sure you want to spend $99 of your savings on a toy you might lose interest in after a while?"

"Nah, I don't think so," he would answer with a grin, because it's always more painful to part with your own savings rather than your parents' money.

It wasn't always like that. When we were a dual-income family, it was easy to make up for mummy guilt by splurging on a new toy for them. And we are blessed with a large extended family that showers them with gifts.

Before we knew it, our home filled up with so many toys that, ironically, they stopped playing with them.

After donating usable toys they had outgrown, trashing broken ones, rotating the rarely used ones, they are now left with a smaller stash of games and toys, which, to me, is still plenty.

With less clutter and fewer choices, they can better pick out their favourite games or toys to play.

My stock reply to any request to buy a new toy or stationery, even if they plan to pay for it using their savings?

"Let's think about it first."

Delaying the purchase often works.

A couple of years ago, kendamas (a traditional Japanese toy) were all the rage. Despite my son's repeated requests for one, I did not think $16 for a faddish toy was worth it. His uncle later found one lying at home and gifted it to him. But the fad ended not long afterwards, and he later told me he was glad he did not spend his savings on one.

These days, when he asks to buy a new toy, I give him my stock reply, before reminding him about the kendama he was glad he did not buy.

Another way to reduce unnecessary clutter at home is to gift needs rather than wants.

When my son was younger, he was delighted with a pack of underwear with his favourite cartoon character print for Christmas.

One more method that has been useful in stopping more stuff from getting into the home, is to gift an experience rather than a present.

When my daughter turned five, she asked to take a ride on the top deck of a double-decker bus as a birthday treat. So she got dressed in a Princess Sofia costume and we took the bus to town, with her looking excitedly out of the window all the way. We got an ice-cream cone, before boarding another bus back. It was a fun afternoon spent with Mummy that she remembers to this day.

Likewise, my son spent his birthday this year playing, swimming and feasting with three friends. The only condition? No presents allowed. I explained to him that he had everything he needed and his buddies' presence more than made up for any gift. Thankfully, he agreed.

Other examples of no-clutter gifts we have received over the years include a River Safari membership from their grandma and a movie ticket from my son's English teacher for doing well in an exam.

Even with our ongoing efforts, they still hanker after the latest fads or toys, but we are making some progress.

In the past, when I turned down a request for a new toy, I would get a "you are so mean" response, followed by a tantrum.

These days, I'm rewarded with a "you are such a mean mummy" response in a teasing tone, before we walk out of the shop hand in hand.

In Thailand, armed with 300 baht each, they kept a lookout for their souvenirs.

My son eyed a fidget spinner and my daughter, a fluffy bunny keychain - items I would not usually buy them.

After visiting dozens of shops, they each found the best deal for what they wanted, with money to spare for chocolates.

Giving them a fixed amount of money eliminated the endless "can I buy this?" requests.

Knowing they had a finite sum meant they tried to maximise the amount by looking for the best deal.

After a while, it became almost like a game to them.

Ultimately, I hope they treasure the fun we had as a family, the thrill of searching for their souvenirs, more than that of gathering more possessions.

The fidget spinner and bunny keychain are now lying on their desks and may not be there when they grow up.

But the memories we made rowing a rickety boat in Samut Songkhram and snorkelling for the first time in Krabi will hopefully stay with them forever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Buy less, play more'. Print Edition | Subscribe