How to make meaningful memories with your kids – WITHOUT creating debt

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I hear it all the time: “I'm spending money on things I cant afford, just so I can give my kids memories!” Mamas, that's not helping anyone, especially not your kids.

In my own life, the moments and rituals that meant the most, gave me comfort and truly shaped me, were free. It's cliche but true. The things that really matter aren't necessarily glamorous and expensive, but they do make you feel connected. It's important to teach our kids that.

What memories will YOU make with your kids that they will remember fondly?

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Full podcast transcript

I’m laughing today, but I’m a little bit crying inside – a lot actually. My good friend Carmella Coleman passed away a couple days ago. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s a really special person. She’s an artist. She laughs so much. She’s really generous. She’s just really devoted to living a really full and happy life. Sensibly, we maybe didn’t really have a lot in common. She’s a good 10 or 15 years older than I am. She’s married, I’m not. She doesn’t have kids, I do. But we always connected as, I think, thoughtful people. I was just always really inspired by her joyful life. In fact, I’m going to visitation for her right after I record this. You might notice my pretty, colorful dress, and Carmella’s art was very colorful, her homes were very colorful, and I just thought that she would love this.

As these things happen, when someone you care about passes, you think about the meaning of life and what’s important. It got me thinking about my grant program, the Kickass Single Mom Grant, where every month I give away $1,000 to a single mom who’s doing something really awesome in the world. I’ve had thousands of really incredible women apply, but I make it very clear in the application process. This is for somebody that is doing something really amazing. Maybe it’s a big regional or national initiative, but more likely, it’s something smaller in your community and I think that’s very important, because it’s inspiring others around you.

Despite these very clear qualifications for this program, I get so many requests for women who want me to give my money, this is my money that I’m giving away, they want me to give it to them so they can go on vacation, or go to Disney World and they’ll tell me things like, “Well I’ve never been to Disney World and I think my kids deserve to go.”

Why Disney World is NOT worth it

This whole Disney thing I think is really incredible to me. It seems like it’s been assumed to be a right of passage in America that children go to Disney World and/or go on a Disney Cruise. My kids have never gone. If someone else wants to take my kids, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with Disney World, per se. I personally do not want to go. And PS, it is freaking expensive. I don’t know that you can get in and out of there for under $5,000 unless you stay with relatives in Orlando and can drive there or something. I don’t even know if that’s possible, it is so unbelievably expensive. Hand it to Disney, they have done a marketing number on you, that they have convinced you that this is something you must do.

I know that the average American household is like $50,000 a year and we know that the average American is somewhere like $15,000 or $16,000 in credit card debt. Not to mention, over leveraged on their house, their car, student loan debt. So, what is going on? Why does everybody think that they have to go to Disney? Well, what I see women doing all day long is saying, “Well, I’m spending money that I don’t have. I’m spending money I can’t afford, to give my kids memories. I’m spending on things I can’t afford, to give my kids memories.” Well, let’s unpack that a little bit.

A trip to Disney World is not a good way to make memories

Spending money on something big and glamorous, like a trip to Disney does not equal memories, or it doesn’t equal good memories. Let’s put aside all of my judgement about how that’s setting a really bad example for your kids in terms of money management, but it’s telling your kids if you do X, you will be happy. If you do Y, that is guaranteed good time spend. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In fact, I think about my own childhood and my own life, and the moment and the rituals that I have good memories from, I have lots of memories, but the ones that are the most meaningful, the ones that give me the most comfort the ones that really shake me in a positive way, they were things that were free. They were either spontaneous moments, maybe of connection, of intimacy of somebody that I cared for, maybe they were just rituals that gave meaning and rhythm and security to my life. But they weren’t things that cost a ton of money, I’ll tell you that.

I think of growing up, some of the things from my household with my single mom, she’s a really good cook and every morning she would make my brothers and me a hot breakfast. I have such nice memories of waking up in the cold months of Illinois where I’m from in my small town, we had this very small rental house, but there was always something really good cooking from the kitchen. My mom said that she spent millions of dollars on food, she was very frugal, but she could cook really nutritious, healthy, tasty food, and it made me feel really cared for. It was a ritual and there was a rhythm and I could depend on that, and that was her way of showing love. That was not an expensive, glamorous thing.

How to make real memories with your kids

I had nice memories of learning how to sew with my grandma who lived nearby. She was a farm wife and a teacher and she loved the sew and she would make many of her own clothes and we would make clothes for me. We would go to JoAnn Fabrics and pick out patterns and material and we would sew clothes and that was the way my Grandma connected with me and made me feel very cared for. Not only did it not cost money, but it would save money because usually the inspiration from these projects would be that I wanted a piece of clothing that we couldn’t afford, so we were going to sew it. The residual of that was that I learned something new. I don’t really practice sewing now but it was a life skill  and it connected me to somebody that loved me very much.

I could go on and on. I think about these things that I’m doing with my children. What are they going to remember? Next week, spring break, I’m taking my kids to Vietnam. I think I can do this whole trip, for ten days, fly around the world. My goal is to do it for less than $2,000. I got a really good deal on airline tickets, but even if I spend $3,000 I’m taking them for 10 days and having I’m hoping, a mindblowing experience. I’m hoping this will change their lives. I hope they remember this for the rest of their lives, for $2,000 or $3,000 but you know what? I can’t control that and you can’t control what your kids are going to remember either.

So, what is the answer? Is the answer just to be super cheap and frugal? Is the answer never to take your kids to these commercial things like theme parks and big expensive resorts? No. I think if you really want to do those things and you really can afford them, look moms, if you love doing it yourself, I would die a thousand deaths if I had to stand at Disney in the hot sun. I would just be miserable grumpy mom, so I’m not doing that. But, if you love Disney, we probably aren’t going to be friends and that’s fine, you love Disney and you can afford it? Go. I’m not saying anything bad about that experience. I’m saying, if we want to be giving our children good experiences, investing in good experiences, focus on rituals.

The importance of routines, rituals and connected moments with your kids

Rituals are so important and something so often overlooked in our culture. Every culture in every society since the dawn of time has had ritual. That can be anything. You can make it up out of thin air. I know at my house for example, bedtime ritual is very important, and it’s grown and evolved. I was thinking about that recently because we recently made a change. We always read. When the kids were little we would have story books with the pictures and then they would start to read the story books to me. For the last few years we’ve had chapter books and they read things that I’ve enjoyed reading too. Right now we’re reading some books about refugee families because this is a political issue that’s important to me. They’re young adult reader books.

When my kids were babies, I could have both of them in my glider and I would read the book. We would all be cozy in this glider and they got too big for that. So we moved and we sat on the couch. Then we decided we would sit in my bed. We would read in my queen sized bed, which by the way, that’s my queen sized bed right there. But lately they’ve gotten too big for that and they’re bickering about the pillows and the blankets and it’s super annoying. So, we moved back out to the living room and they started a new ritual over the last couple of weeks. We have an adult coloring book that my friend gave me and I never really used, and they have this nice set of markers that my boyfriend gave them, and they like to do the adult coloring and they said it’s really soothing and relaxing while I read to them. I don’t know, maybe they’ll forget that totally, or maybe that will become one of the coziest memories. It’s costing us nothing, but it’s something that I love doing that I’m giving my children from my heart.

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Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

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