Book Review: Not Buying It

I try to soak up as much perspective as possible on raising children well because 1) Sara (my wife) and I strive to help our own children become joyful, independent people and 2) Greater Than Financial claims to be suited to help parents do the same through their financial resources, and to back up that claim, I have to stay sharp.

So while perusing the library last month, Sara saw Not Buying It in the New Items section, and thought it was a great fit to move to the top of my reading list.

Not Buying It: Stop overspending and start raising happier, healthier, more successful kids was written by Brett Graff, a former US Government economist and editor of the site TheHomeEconomist.com. She has one daughter, and much of her advice comes from her own experience, often learning by doing the opposite of what she advises.

The book’s subtitle gives a thorough and accurate description of its content. Not Buying It targets parents who believe (or are easily convinced by marketers) in ways to buy an advantage for their children, whether through educational materials, teachers/coaches, food, clothing, or medical care.

Graff doesn’t claim spending in those areas don’t have real benefits. Her argument is there are more important factors in creating happy, healthy, successful kids. Many families put too much emphasis on expensive things and experiences, while not emphasizing what’s most important such as time with family and a college education.

The Value

Graff’s writing caused me to consider what Sara and I have spent so far on our children, and for that reason, I got value from this book.

In our heavily marketed culture, not spending money at every sale, on every idea, or at every whim doesn’t come natural. Especially when the marketing targets one of our most intense passions: our child’s well being. It takes training (aka hard work) to make wise purchasing decisions. This book helps condition you against being duped by clever marketing and to instead put your resources toward what is truly important to you.

To give an example of Graff’s philosophy let’s look at the chapter most challenging to my way of thinking. Chapter 5, titled Your Star, goes after the amount of money parents spend on cultivating their children’s skills and talents.  

How many families do you know spend thousands of dollars on training sessions for sports or dance or singing? I know many, have spent on such things myself, and have thought about investing a lot more. The idea is our kids’ skills will translate into a rich college scholarship so it’s a worthy investment, and maybe they’ll even become a professional,  turning their skill into money.

But what are the odds that your child will fall into the small group who become a division I or II college athlete, or even a professional? And if they do become a professional, what are the odds they’ll make a fulfilling income? Very few professional athletes get paid like LeBron. And even if they do, they may pay the cost with their long term health.

The worst part, if we are honest as parents, is much of our kids’ development is really about us:

But while our kids are winning, singing, or starring and we are beaming with pride, a tiny portion of that accomplishment is fueling our own lunacy. That’s part of what drives us to pay for lessons and police the practicing.

I admit, I’m already guilty of this with my 5 year old daughter’s piano lessons. I can easily rationalize my insistence as motivated by developing diligence and patience in our girl, but I admit I’m highly conscious of how her piano talent (and work to develop it) reflects on Sara and I.

Graff makes more of these points, with some backed by solid research. But other, less powerful points feel as if she added them to fill space. Many of her ideas for alternatives to high spending are already being practiced by the common sense parents I know (cue the cliche about common sense not being so common).

So much for examining alternatives

I don’t agree with Graff’s recommendation to use savings from spending smarter to fund your child’s college education. Her book’s main premise is to buck the status quo purchasing decisions and take up more cost efficient alternatives that are more effective at ensuring our child’s well-being, yet she abandons that philosophy by painting a college education as the holy grail for kids.

Here’s the reality: college education is rapidly becoming commoditized. It is not the best path for every child’s well being. For some, it makes a lot of sense, but not for all. If we’re looking for ways to get the most bang for the bucks we spend on our kids, then a college education should be front of the line for scrutiny, not the answer.

In chapter 4, Graff makes the case for choosing a public education over a private education, citing studies which show public school as at least on par with private school when controlling for demographics. Yes, private schools have better performance, but the correlation does not equal causation. It’s one of her strongest points in the book.

There is no such reference to studies that control for those same type of factors when considering how much value a college education gives. College education vs alternatives needs to be examined by Graff just as public vs private secondary education is. This glaring mistreatment undermines her credibility and makes the book difficult to recommend.

I would love to hear a dialogue between Brett Graff and Joshua Sheats, who spoke at length about college education in episode 276 of his Radical Personal Finance podcast, titled Why this financial planner refuses to save money for his kids’ college. I highly encourage you to listen to Joshua dissect the value of college education in 60 minutes.

Should you read this book?

If you have ever uttered the words “kids are so expensive,” then yes, you should read Not Buying It. There is enough content to cause you to examine or reexamine spending on your children and the value they (or you) receive from such expenditures.

If you are already highly conscious of the money you spend on your children, this book may not provide you much. There were no ideas I’d consider novel. However, it’s one thing to think you’re spending money with purpose, but another to practice it. For me, I usually err on the side of I’ve got something to learn.

My primary takeaway

Examine everything you spend on. Don’t believe what the world tells you. Do your own research. Especially when it comes to the education of your children, including preschool, primary, secondary, and postsecondary.

And finally, spend quality, purposeful time with your children.

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