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Parents, you don't need to buy more stuff

By Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Special to CNN
August 8, 2013 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton say time spent with your kids on outings is more meaningful than an expensive toy.
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton say time spent with your kids on outings is more meaningful than an expensive toy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Waiting to have children until you have more money won't mean better parenting
  • Writers: It's not how much money you have; it's how carefully you spend that money.
  • They say buying expensive products means you have to work more, have less time

Editor's note: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are co-authors of "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending" (Simon & Schuster). Dunn is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and Norton is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

(CNN) -- The cost of raising a child in the United States can be as high as half a million dollars, according to Babycenter.com's online calculator, at least for parents who want to send their child to college.

Many people put off having children until they have more money, reflecting a belief that more cash equals better parenting. New research suggests that wealthier parents sometimes get less, not more, out of parenting. But it also reveals ways to turn cash into happier parenthood.

Our research team recruited about 200 parents and asked them about their activities on the previous day and to rate how much meaning and purpose they experienced during each of those activities.

Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn
Michael Norton
Michael Norton

Overall, parents felt that the time they spent with their kids was quite meaningful. But parents with more income and education reported less of a feeling of meaningfulness than those without so much money.

Why is that?

Research shows that having a lot of money changes people's way of looking at things. Because money allows us to get whatever we want, it reinforces our desire for independence. And as any parent knows, wanting to be left alone to do your own thing is not perfectly compatible with parenting.

It's this incompatibility that undermines the meaning that people typically get out of parenting: If you have enough money to be flying off for a weekend getaway, diaper-changing seems even less appealing. The wealth people accumulate before having kids surprisingly impoverishes the experience of parenting.

Our recent research suggests it's not how much money you have, it's how carefully you spend that money.

One of us (Liz) recently had her first child and was stunned by the dizzying array of products marketed to new parents, each of which seemed worthy of purchase. But there are simple guidelines for deciding which expenditures are worthwhile -- before you reach for your wallet, ask yourself whether spending this money will change the way you and your family spend your time.

How to avoid the 'empty threat,' an easy parenting pitfall

This basic question helps diminish the seductive power of many modern products, such as the beautiful Fresco high chair by Bloom, which retails for $545 for the Special Edition. A world away from the plastic high chairs in which most of us enjoyed our first Cheerios, the Fresco ensconces your toddler in a soft, futuristic pod nestled in a gleaming metal frame.

But online reviews reveal that the appeal of this high-end high chair quickly fades once it's covered in pureed sweet potatoes.

As one reviewer explains, "Anything mashed or pureed becomes embedded deep in the weave, and you won't be able to get it out without some serious steaming, scrubbing, and screaming." Spending hundreds of dollars on this high chair commits you to spending hours cleaning it -- and cleaning ranks among the least happy activities in most people's day.

Pouring money into countless expensive baby products creates a more general time trap, by compelling parents to work more to afford them all. A study commissioned by nonprofit Center for a New American Dream found that almost 90% of parents wished they had more time to spend with their families, but many said they simply couldn't afford to do so.

Spending less money on things for our kids can actually make it easier to spend more time with them, by limiting how much time we need to work to afford all that stuff. And the time people spend playing with their children ranks among the happiest minutes of a typical day.

The same principle applies for less pricy purchases.

Read more parenting stories on CNN Parents

Accept every hand-me-down you can find and let your toddler put a vegetable colander on his head rather than hitting the store for the latest Hot Wheels Monster Truck. Use the money you save to score a baby sitter and have a monthly date night with your spouse. It's a surprisingly good long-term investment.

Couples who report doing exciting activities together report higher marital satisfaction over time, sparing their children the pain of squabbling caregivers.

Luckily, there's a way out of this time trap. We can use money to change the ways we use our time -- for the better.

When Liz placed newborn Oliver into his bassinet for his nap, he immediately dissolved into an attack of purple-faced misery. At 4 months, Oliver was still waking up every few hours, all night, every night. That's when Liz hired a night nanny named Claudia, a sort of modern fairy godmother who can teach any baby to sleep. Hiring Claudia cost as much as a Fresco high chair, but helped Oliver and Liz sleep better, turning money into better time.

Parents everywhere want to give their children the very best that money can buy. But purchases that seem the most compelling can be hidden time traps.

Focusing on buying better time instead of buying better stuff offers the potential for parents to give their children their very best.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

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