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How to raise frugal kids as you achieve FIRE

Children can become an obstacle on the path to financial independence and early retirement because they’re expensive to raise — unless you raise them to enjoy the journey alongside you.

Many parents participating in the FIRE (“financial independence, retire early”) movement are doing just that, by finding low-cost activities, quality hand-me-downs and simple ways to explain money to their kids. Teaching youngsters about mindful spending can be difficult, especially when classmates may have the newest toys or are participating in pricey after-school activities or sports teams, but these parents say they have those lessons down pat.

Kim, a stay-at-home mom who blogs at The Frugal Engineers, said “intentional living” is the biggest component of the financial discussions she has with her 5-year-old daughter. She and her husband don’t want their daughter to feel deprived of participating in social activities, but they do so in a less-expensive manner, by opting for classes at a local YMCA, such as gymnastics, instead of a private studio, which is also farther away. “We start with things that are the least amount of energy and money,” she said.

They also talk to their daughter about the cost of groceries, how credit cards and checks work and saving for college. They have openly discussed their cost of living, and why they were looking to move to a state with lower taxes. “She would say, ‘do they take your money in Tennessee and Nevada?’” the blogger said.

See: Suze Orman’s FIRE storm: Her advice for millennials retiring early is simple, bleak

The FIRE movement requires a balance of frugality and a hefty savings ratio. Some people save upward of 60%, or more, of their salaries, and live on a strict budget in downsized homes with one or no cars. Some critics argue having children makes this lifestyle nearly impossible, but not all hard-core savers agree. Children, especially younger ones, don’t necessarily need the newest clothes or gadgets, and toys can be very subjective — just think of any toddlers you know who find themselves perfectly entertained with an empty plastic cup or shipping box.

The balance starts well before parents can talk to their children about money, even if children tend to become more expensive as they age. Elizabeth Willard Thames, the author of “Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living,” and also the blogger behind Frugalwoods, said she and her husband opted for secondhand items when they welcomed their children, now aged 3 and 1. They asked family and friends for any used baby items they may be looking to get rid of, and also scoured web listings, garage sales and thrift stores. “One thing to keep in mind with babies and young kids — they don’t care if their nursery matches or they have brand new clothes,” she said, “so my philosophy is to save money now while it’s easy, for when it’s more important and meaningful.”

Also see: These people left their jobs behind to retire early — then life got in the way. Here’s how they coped with FIRE plans gone wrong

Some parents take the FIRE approach so they can retire early and spend more time with their children. They embark on a mission to find projects or activities for the whole family to enjoy for little money. Jillian Johnsrud, who is financially independent, retired and blogs at Montana Money Adventures, said she, her husband and their five children take road trips with a camper across the country, and spend time hiking, camping and going to museums. When the kids want to participate in expensive after-school activities, they’ll discuss the pros and cons of each decision and weigh those options against something for the whole family, like a trip to Disney, she added.

Thames and her husband are still working, but they do so from home. They chose to live on 66 acres in rural Vermont, where their children can play outdoors, go by the creek or pick berries — all of which are free. “There are trade-offs, but for us, this is the idea,” she said. “We built a lifestyle that incorporates things we love most into our every day.”

The lessons have rippling effects. Mike, who is living the FIRE lifestyle and blogs at Elite Life Warrior, said he and his wife were always talking to their daughter about money. They would play games at the grocery store with their daughter when she was young, having her add up the costs of the items in the cart, and when she got a little older, he gave her the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.”

And his daughter, Sage, said those lessons really impacted the way she viewed money. Although she had the choice of numerous private colleges with high price tags, she decided on a state university where she received a full academic scholarship to study chemical engineering, an industry that boasted a high starting salary. The 24-year-old, who already started her career, said she’s on the path to her own financial independence, though for her it will mean scaling back at work — not necessarily leaving the workforce entirely.

Her dad often told Sage money is about options and choices, and compound interest could work for her when she saved or work against her when she borrowed. “The most important message when communicating my approach to money to my daughter was to explain to her that managing money wasn’t this complicated concept that only a few people were destined to understand,” he said. “It was something that everyone could master.”

Sage said her father is a strong believer in paying yourself first, which she does by checking her 401(k) plan and other investments are in good positions and then looking into what else she can do. “It wasn’t at the expense of fun either,” she said, adding her parents enjoyed traveling and experiences and thought they were more important than having the nicest house or car on the block. “I maintained that for myself, too.”

Alessandra Malito is a personal finance reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @malito_ali.

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