Don’t let toddlerhood break your piggybank

Now that I’m a few years out of the woods, it’s pretty easy to wax nostalgic about the toddler years.

I even get a little jealous when I hear about someone’s early morning toddler dance parties (even if they occur at 5 a.m. sharp) or when I see a heavy-lidded dad pushing a stroller to the park on a Sunday morning when any reasonable person would be relaxing with the paper.

I remember my family’s toddler years well — blissful days of bonding with my boys, feeling super well-rested (as compared to the infant era) and savoring every idyllic moment.

Just kidding!

I barely remember that hectic time at all. I know it was great (sometimes!). I know the boys were adorable (I have the photos!). And I know I was sick of ABC books (even the super-clever ones). Other “highlights” include lots of big, colorful, plastic toys — and preschool tuition.

For whatever reason

It’s true that our children’s toddler years contain some of life’s most magical moments. But it’s also true that they can drive us to the brink — emotionally, physically and, sometimes, financially.

Whether you’re facing extra medical expenses, childcare bills or just inflated household costs, it can feel hard to take charge of your spending when you’re in the midst of toddlerhood.

But looking back with some clear-eyed distance, I know there were ways to cut back that I didn’t take advantage of at the time.

Since everybody’s values, budgets, tolerances and priorities are different, everybody’s list of what they could do without is going to look different.

With that in mind, here are some simple ideas you can try as-is or adapt for your own situation.

They may save you money — and possibly even a small degree of sanity — during the toddler years.

Just go for the box

It’s true about the box. You know what I’m talking about because you hear it at every 1-year-old’s birthday party: “I could have skipped the present and just given her the box.” We’ve all seen the hard evidence: Toddlers often prefer playing with the wrapping more than the present.

Well, what if you really did it?

For your 1-year-old or 2-year-old’s next holiday, what if you skipped the present and literally gave your child a collection of recycled boxes, perhaps nested inside each other and all wrapped up in colorful paper?

Throw in a box of crayons so your kid can color the new “toys,” too.

Want to really see your kids’ eyes light up? Get down on your hands and knees and color, stack and pretend right along with them.

Keep your eye out for opportunities, and you can take this idea of “free substitutes” further. For example, we bought one of our sons a plastic toy drum set, but he was just as happy banging on bowls with wooden spoons and spat- ulas. Mix in a plastic bowl, a wooden bowl and a metal bowl or two and you get different sounds going.

Now that’s good, free fun.


Here’s another way to substitute free for fees: Create your own toddler-time extracurriculars.

Whether your toddler’s in childcare or not, chances are you spend at least some money on enrichment programs like mommy-and-me music appreciation or art for your wee one.

But here’s a secret you probably already know: These toddler-time activities don’t necessarily make parents and kids grow closer or kids grow smarter. What they do for sure is give adults and munchkins invaluable time for socializing.

  • Lights or power out
  • Troubleshooting
  • Storm damage
  • Emergency service
  • Fuse to circuit breaker panel upgrades
  • Bath exhaust fan installations & servicing

So why pay tuition to experts when you can meet everyone’s needs with a self-created “class”?

If you don’t already belong to an online community neighborhood like, see if there’s one in your neighborhood. They’re great for arranging playground meet-ups, art- or music-themed gatherings and good old-fashioned “mommy-and-me” play dates.

You and your new friends will have just as much fun as you would at a toddler’s music academy (maybe more fun), and you can all save on the tuition expenses!

Bribe with experiences

What about those store-bought treats we give for good behavior or to keep kids calm while we’re doing errands?

Of course we all know we shouldn’t be using cookies and toys as rewards, but if we’re honest, most of us do it. Instead of junk food, try treats made of something else toddlers love — your attention.

“When we’re done at the grocery store, we’ll sing Wheels on the Bus the whole way home!” Or: “When we get home, we’ll read all of your ABC books — twice!”

If you’re like me, your memory of these years will be frosted in nostalgia no matter what. But if you put the money you save into a savings or college account, you’ll have a tangible reminder of your wisdom.

Eric Braun of Minneapolis is a co-author of the forthcoming book for young readers, The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give. Send comments to