5 Ways to Spend Money NOW to Smartify Your Kid

Smartify Your Kids

[Warning!  The following is the strong opinion of the Crispy Cabbage Blog.  Reader discretion is advised]

Are you saving for your kids’ future education?  Are you frantically putting money away for college?  Are you socking money away in a 529 like everyone says to do, biting your nails to the nub hoping tuition doesn’t really skyrocket as much as they say it’s going to?

Save your nails!  Stop pulling your hair out!  Put away the tuition calculators, please!  Especially if your kids are under 5 years old.  You’re worrying too much about all that.

Break open that piggy bank.  Spend those dimes and nickels freely on mind-candy for those chubby little kids of yours while their brains are still spongey and eyes are still wide, and get more of a return than you could possibly imagine through any other plan.*  

About 6 months ago, I wrote an article about why my wife and I have decided not to lock good money up in a 529 for college for our son.  I said we’re putting some of that money in a brokerage account for him instead… for maximum flexibility.

I gave what I think are some pretty good reasons, including that the cost of higher education may actually go way down by the time my son graduates high school.  The four-year university model is outdated and unsustainable in a rapidly changing job market.  People are starting to realize the crippling costs may not actually be worth it.  Technology and the free flow of easily accessible information could make the four-year degree almost totally obsolete by 2032.  That’s my prediction, anyways.

And I was dead serious about the smart pills.  I think that could end up being a thing…

Smart Pills

But the best reason, was the first one.  We’re not putting money into a 529 plan because we want to invest more in our son now.  Education is one area where I believe spending now is orders of magnitude better than scrimping and saving for the future.

So, here’s a follow-up to my original article.  Here are 5 ideas for how to spend on your kids now to set them up to be nimble in the unpredictable and sure-to-be fascinating future.  In the coming months, my wife and I will be carving out line-items in our budget based off these 5 ideas:

1) Buy Educational Books, Project Packs and Toys

Geez, man!  Books?  That’s what you’re leading off with?  Pffft.  Fully funding a 529 isn’t going to keep us from buying books for our kids.  Plus there’s the library, genius.

Yeah.  Books.  That’s pretty obvious.  And not that expensive.  But have you actually intentionally added books and other educational stuff to your monthly budget?  I mean, besides what the teacher says your kids need for classes?  It’s an easy line-item to leave out.  Especially if you’re already squeezing your budget to direct money toward your kids’ future education.

Of course, the library is a great free resource.  But there are some great books out there that just aren’t the borrowing kind.  For example, we get cool sticker books and other great interactive activity books for our son through my sister’s Usborne Books shop. ⇐ Shameless plug for one of my side-hustlin’ little sisters (I’m paid in hugs).  And buy one of her custom toddler tote bags to carry all those books in, while you’re at it!

Or, maybe you want to go beyond books but don’t have time to research fun projects and buy a bunch of materials.  Subscriptions through sites like KiwiCo (formerly Kiwi Crate) offer a variety of prepackaged project packs sent monthly that inspire scientific learning and artistic creativity for young people of all ages.


The link below is my first affiliate link, so this is a little awkward.  But I was going to talk about KiwiCo anyways, so I thought I’d check out if they have a referral program and see what this affiliate thing is all about.  It turns out they do!  I get some money for every purchase through this link at no extra cost to you:


I know I ripped on monthly “box” subscriptions six months ago in Peak Consumer: Cash Flow Suicide By A Thousand Box Cuts.  But, like I mentioned in that article, I think subscriptions services like KiwiCo are the good kind.  They are a great hands-on alternative to TV and other screens and I think they can add a lot of value.  I’m excited to try them out for my own son.

Or, just buy your kids more toys.  Maybe not so heavy on the Ninja Turtle action figures and Power Wheels.  I’m thinking of toys that inspire creativity, problem solving and scientific learning.

I’m really intrigued by these things called Little Bits.  If you’ve never heard of them, they’re kind of the Lego of the future.  They are little electronic building blocks that can be configured and reconfigured to build all kinds of little inventions.  They look like they’re fun for even adults to play around with.  Yes, they can be spendy, but it might be worth carving off a slice from college savings to fund this kind of positive obsession.

Consider adding line items in your budget for educational books, activity packs and toys:

Per Year

Per Month

Usborne Books (3-5 educational books and/or activity packets)

$540.00

$45.00

Little Bits allowance

$1000.00

$83.33

Kiwi Crate (1 year)

$203.40

$16.95

Estimated Cost

$145.28

2) Spend Money On Family Field Trips

My sister-in-law got us the best Christmas gift this past year.  She took her family and mine, along with Grandma and Grandpa, to the Minnesota Orchestra’s rendition of Peter and The Wolf.

My son was captivated.  It was absolutely priceless to see his reaction to all the different characters miming to the beautiful music on stage and I can tell it had a lasting impact.  It has been 5 months since and he still talks about it.

I want more of that.  And we’re fortunate to live in a city that is drowning in this kind of cultural stuff.  You may not think it, but the Twin Cities have great zoos, a science museum, children’s museum, excellent art museums and great performing arts centers.  And an annual membership for a lot of these places usually pays for itself by the second trip.

Make family field trips like these a top priority, especially if you are blessed to live in a community with abundant amenities:

Per Year

Per Month

Minnesota Zoo

$139.00

$11.58

Minnesota Science Museum

$139.00

$11.58

Minnesota Children’s Museum

$129.00

$10.75

Walker Art Center

$65.00

$5.42

Minnesota Orchestra Mini Package (2-3 Concerts)

$141.00

$11.75

Minnesota Children’s Theater Full Season (cheap seats)

$150.00

$12.50

Estimated Cost

$63.58

3) Fund Those Dead-end Hobbies

I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. ~ Thomas Edison

When I was about 10, all the kids in my horse-shoe-shaped street got into skateboarding.  Probably because Chad, the cool teen on the street, started “thrashing” and “launching” himself off of quarter-pipe ramps.  Kids would flock to his end of the ‘shoe to see him land sweet jumps.

Then, the whole block went all-in.  We built all kinds of ramps to launch ourselves off of.  Our parents even helped us build quarter-pipe ramps.  Sometimes we’d squeeze them together to make little half-pipes.  We’d crank up Poison’s Unskinny Bop on our boomboxes and try to land our own cool tricks.  And for a few of the way too short summers in the late 80s way up in Fargo, North Dakota, half the ‘shoe was a skatepark before skateparks were really a thing.

My folks even gave me a few hundred bucks to build out a killer Sergie Ventura skateboard with a print of some kind of pointy, sword thing with roses and thorns.  I chose fluorescent green trucks and matching wheels and custom-cut my two-toned grip tape.  I slapped some stickers “randomly” on the bottom of the board (careful not to cover up the picture) to make it even more legit.

Sergie Ventura
It’s still in pretty good shape.  I bust it out from time to time to see if I can still “ollie” over a pop can.  Also, it helps bring large pieces of furniture to the curb.

Sadly, I did not grow up to be the next Tony Hawk.  I was too scared to launch off any of the quarter-pipe ramps and couldn’t land a kick-flip to save my life.  I definitely didn’t do any rail slides.  That would just scratch up the picture on the bottom of my beautiful new deck.

And even though that spendy skateboard was way too much board for me (and they probably knew it), my parents allowed me to go as far as they did with that dead-end hobby so I could discover for myself that I’m not, in fact, an extreme athlete (Checked that one right off the list)

Or maybe my mom just felt bad for backing over my other crappy skateboard with the station wagon.  Maybe that’s a bad example.  Model trains, hot-air ballooning or clown school might be better examples, I suppose.  It’s just fun to reminisce about my thrashing days.  I’m getting old.

My point is, I don’t know what my son will be interested in as he grows up.  I could push him in one direction or the other, but I’d rather he weaves in and out of things to find his passions on his own with just a little nudging here and there.  And I think it’s important to have a slush fund available to enable deeper discovery of what really makes him happy.

If I’m wrong and four-year college is still a big thing by the time he’s 18, I’d rather he not flounder around for the first few years wasting time and money trying to find himself.  He should already know exactly where he is, why he’s there and where he wants to go.

Help your son or daughter eliminate their dead-ends early in life, so they can find their true path as early as possible:

Per Year

Per Month

Build-your-own skateboard

$120

$10.00

Vans skate shoes

$80.00

$6.67

Helmet, knee and elbow pads (safety first!)

$65.00

$5.42

Go Pro camera and accessories

$200.00

$16.67

Thrasher Magazine Subscription

$17.95

$1.50

Estimated Cost

$40.24

4) Bankroll A Real Business

Plant the entrepreneurial seed early.  THIS IS A SKILL YOUR KIDS ARE GOING TO NEED.

The days of the life-long career are quickly coming to an end (Read: Starving Artists: Cockroaches of the Coming Job Market Meltdown).

By the time my son joins the workforce, the vast majority of people will be cobbling together a living from a string of contract gigs and micro-businesses enabled by the internet and sharing economy (Who knows, there may even be a livability stipend from the government to help out).

Rather than selling himself once in an interview to land a lifetime career with a large company, my son will need to market his skills and the fruits of his creativity over and over and over again to potential buyers if he wants to make any money.

He needs to learn the ins-and-outs of how that all works.  He needs to learn how to add enough value to people’s lives so his customers are happy to pay for what he’s selling.  And he needs to learn what to charge so he can actually live and thrive off the proceeds.

Consider helping your kids set up storefronts of their very own to teach them these critical skills.  A real-life business to sell wares from one of their “dead-end hobbies”, perhaps?  The World Wide Web helps you go way beyond the Kool-aid stands I used to run when I was young:

Per Year

Per Month

Website Domain + Hosting

$120.00

$10.00

Marketplace Fees

$240.00

$20.00

Business Materials

$480.00

$40.00

Virtual Assistant (2 tasks)

$480.00

$40.00

Estimated Cost

$110.00

5) Buy Back Some of Your Free Time

Finally, what’s free time with your family worth to you?  What’s it worth to your kids?

If you have the option, consider buying back some of your free time and use it to spend quality time with your kids while they’re still growing up.  Carve out the extra time to help them out with the experiences and activities you’ve decided to fund with my first four ideas.  That’s infinitely more impactful than stashing away a few hundred bucks extra a month in their college savings account, in my opinion.

It would be huge for your kids to have you home more, assuming you’re the quality human being who would be willing to work fingers to the bone to fully fund their future.  Spend that life energy a different way.

Don’t work more to fund college.  Work less to be with your kids now.  Maybe you can relax that schedule of yours just a little bit.  Consider taking a pay cut or not taking that big promotion that requires a ton more travel and late nights.  Buy back some of your time and reap the rewards for you and your kids:

Per Year

Per Month

Forgo a roughly 6% raise at work for more time with your kids (Estimated take-home for someone making $60,000 per year)

$2578.80

$214.90

Estimated Cost

$214.90

574 Bucks!  

That’s the grand total.  If you add up all the line items of my fake budgets in this article, they add up to $574 per month.

Whoa!  That’s some crispy cabbage (if you know what I’m sayin’).

Coincidentally, that’s the exact amount this online calculator says my wife and I need to start putting away each month in a 529 fund to cover the almost $50,000 per year it predicts it will cost us to send our son to the University of Minnesota in 2032.  Like I’ve shown, you can do a lot of other things right now with that kind of money.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t fund a 529 plan.  I’m not saying don’t put money away for your children’s future.  I’m not even saying you should do any of the alternatives I talk about in this article.

I’m just asking the question, What if we redirect at least some of money we had planned to put into a 529?  What if we use at least some of it, right now, to help our kids become the smartest, most confident, most creative, best versions of themselves as early in life as possible?  

Maybe, just maybe, they won’t need so much money from us when we finally kick them out of the nest.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!  Please comment below.

* As always, these are just my opinions.  Nothing in this article is financial advise.  Please do your own research when deciding how to spend money on your children.

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10 comments

  1. Great way to look at this. I’m really interested to see how the educational model changes by the time our kids are fine with high school. At 7, 5, and, 5 we are hopeful that they will be able to get a quality education without spending an arm and a leg.

    We’ve also focused on letting our kids follow their passions without mandating a 4-year degree. If they want to go get an associate’s, we are cool with that. The biggest thing is that we encourage them to (as you pointed out) explore what the possibilities are so they know where to invest their time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the model has to change. With so much information and training available online for a tiny fraction of the cost of college, and more going online every day, I just don’t see a reason to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars like the online college calculators predict for most “careers” (what will those be in the future anyways). It just becomes a matter of self-curating the content and being able to prove that you learned it.

      Nowadays, I don’t know if a college degree really proves you learned anything. I got a philosophy minor and I can name exactly 2 philosophers off the top of my head, Aristotle and Socrates. The later, I learned from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure 😉

      Thanks, Chris!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I like the focus on experiences/education along the way (vs skipping these opportunities for a college savings plan).

    This is something my husband and I are beginning to grapple with as we plan for our future with an almost 2 year old. We both attended liberal arts colleges studying philosophy… not very practical and we had to prove that we could translate what we learned to the workplace. It definitely was not an easy switch, lots of learning on the job but it was the practical skills learned all through life (business club in high school, summer jobs, hobbies, etc) that gave us a more practical side to round out our value proposition.

    Hopefully we can give our son the tools, support and experiences he needs as he learns and grows!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everyone learns on the job. It’s expected. Tons of graduates don’t get a job even remotely in their field of study. The degree is just a foot-in-the-door kind-of check box for a lot of companies and they fully expect to have to train their employees like they don’t know anything. That’s a pretty spendy way to just check a box.

      Some companies (tech especially) are going away from that degree requirement, which I was happy to find out. Companies like Google value the kind of life experiences you talk about more and more.

      It’s an exciting and unknowable future. Best to stay as flexible as possible.

      Thanks for the comment, AdventureRich!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My daughter is 9 and I just starting dropping $120 into a regular old savings account (for now) just to try to get into the habit. Another few truths to consider: your kid might want to go to college. And you are right. Who knows if college will really be valued. Two: More states are trying to cover college tuition for state residents. I could be wrong but I think NY and CA (maybe Vermont?) Three: There are worse things than student loans and working yourself through college. Sure we want better for our kids but I’m smart, college-educated, and am not dead. Four: Many experts say to prioritize your own retirement funding over your kids college fund. (I’m not exactly clear of the financial reasons but it something about putting your own mask first before helping others.) Five: The rules and regs of 529 could change, right? Who knows.

    Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your candid yet detailed writing style. Your blog concept (name and hand-drawn illustrations) is really stand out. I will be following you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • All great points, Lady! I’ll take them one at a time, and maybe slightly disagree with your third point.

      1) You’re right, our kids may still want to go to college. The great thing about this plan (vs 529), is it’s about setting them up with the skills, character, knowledge of themselves, etc to know exactly what they want to go into and get in and out of their field of study as quickly (and cheaply) as possible. And maybe even get some scholarships to help with the cost

      2) Great point! Many states are taking up the Bernie Sanders mantel and trying to pay for a baseline higher education for residents. It’s a trend that’s likely to continue in some form or another as long as we continue to value higher education as a society.

      3) I wholeheartedly agree. There are worse things in life than working yourself through college. It is definitely possible. Especially if you get creative about your education.

      I would disagree a little on the student loan part. Maybe take out small loans to pay for a small part of college. But I think taking out student loans to cover all of college nowadays is one of the worst things a young student can do. A) they don’t truly know the cost (it’s just free money to them). B) It instantly shackles them to sometimes crippling debt just as they’re trying to get started in life, setting them up for a life of decisions about work that revolves around what can pay the bills and not about what fulfills them as a person.

      If it’s between taking out tens of thousands in loans to go to college and not going to college at all, I’d advise my son to do the latter. He could do a ton more with that money, time and a clean, debt-free slate (in my opinion).

      4) Agreed. Focus on getting your own financial affairs in order, so you’re not a burden when your son or daughter is in the prime of their life.

      5) Yes. The rules of 529 plans could easily change. I tend to think they’ll relax a little as technology continues to blur the lines of what is and isn’t education. But government tends to move much more slowly than technology. And the rules could easily go the other way and become more restrictive. Who knows. Flexibility is king in the future and I don’t see it in 529 plans.

      Thanks for all your comments. I really appreciate you reading my blog! I hope to get more content up soon

      Liked by 1 person

      • Boom. Drop the mic. EXCELLENT counterpoints. I’ll only clarify to say that I agree that students loans DO suck and I’d discouraging starting out your adult life burden with lots of debt.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh man, I totally agree with that! I often wonder which direction my life would have gone if I had come out of school debt free. Irrelevant now, though, because that’s in the past and somehow I was still blessed with a great life 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an excellent point of view, and one that is not mentioned all that often either. Congratulations for finding a different way to prepare your son for life. Also, by being raised this way he will feel less pressure that he actually has to go to college when something like trade school might actually be what he would prefer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Christopher. It’s a bit of a different way of looking at it. There’s so much emphasis placed on college education, it’s easy to take early education and childhood experiences for granted. Not saying we can’t have both. We’re just swinging the pendulum back toward the early years a little bit.

      Liked by 1 person

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