Parent educator Janet Lansbury is a great in my personal collection of parenting literature. Among other things, she writes about how very young children need “wants nothing quality time” with an observant caregiver. This means the caregiver spends uninterrupted blocks of time, maybe 30 minutes a few times a day, observing the child attentively and without an agenda. It means your presence is enough.

I loved the idea of slowing down and just “being” with my kids from the start. But my partner and I didn’t think through how we did this initially and ended up buying much of our quality time with our kids. That sounds far-fetched, right? Actually, though, it’s not hard to fall into doing this if you have two average-or-above income earners in the home. Check this out: Much of our discretionary spending went toward services meant to grant us more unstructured, quality time with the kids. We hired a house cleaning service for awhile, had groceries delivered, went out to lunch most workdays instead of packing lunches, shopped on Amazon instead of at local stores, and drove to work every day instead of taking a little more time to use a less wasteful, more physically active mode of transportation (that last one was just me; my partner has taken public transit for ages).

Realizing we were buying our quality time

There’s an Iris DeMent song, “Quality Time,” about a family that’s so far down the consumerism road that they’ve lost touch with themselves and their priorities (they have other demons to deal with too, but I’ll stick with the consumption part here). Here it is:

Quality Time
Written by Iris Dement

She’s got a phone in one hand, a hairbrush in the other
and she says, “Life’s too short to stay home and be a mother”
She says she can have it all ’cause that’s The New Deal
so God give her a hand, ’cause she needs one for the wheel

When he gets home from work, it’s well after seven
But he drives a nice car so he thinks he’s in Heaven
and his kids hardly know him but they’ve all got nice clothes
and in just a few hours more overtime he can pay-off that boat

And they’ve got nice big houses, and they’ve got nice big cars
and it looks, from the outside, like they’re really going far
but there’s trouble in the engine and we’re junkyard-bound
if some moms and some dads don’t start hanging around

When they get around to dinner they’re damn near half-dead
so they drive through McDonald’s and put the kids off to bed
But they’re upwardly mobile and everything is fine
’cause when they do get together, it’s quality time

And they’ve got nice big houses, and they’ve got nice big cars
and it looks, from the outside, like they’re really going far
but there’s trouble in the engine and we’re junkyard-bound
if some moms and some dads don’t start hanging around

They want stickers on the music, they want the laws turned around
They want the cops to run Beavis and Butthead outta town
They say they care about their children, but it’s just too damn hard
To turn off that TV or sell off that car


There’s a whole lot of people who can’t make ends meet
and on the wages that they’re earning, I know a family can’t eat
But I’m talking ’bout people who would sell their kid’s soul
to keep up with the Jones, no matter the toll


When they do get together, it’s quality time

I’ve always thought of this family’s scenario as cliche and depressing. “Thank god that’s not us,” I’d think when I heard the song. You probably thought something similar to yourself when you read the lyrics. And it’s true; my family was never anywhere near as mired in consumerism as the one in this song. When I stopped to size up whether our spending lined up with our priorities, though, I found we were closer to this family’s end of the consumerism spectrum than we wanted to be. It was just a matter of degree. So I stopped congratulating myself for how my family differed from this one and started paying attention to how we were similar.

Now, nobody I’ve ever met would consciously “sell their kid’s soul.” But without realizing it, a lot of us dig ourselves into a hole of spending, one little spending decision at a time. For my family, spending decisions to “save time” had a tendency to snowball into even more spending. Take my decision to commute more quickly by driving a car, for example—and bear with me, since there are a few seemingly different but connected threads in this example. For awhile, we also had a monthly YMCA membership, which we canceled after months of not going to the gym often enough to justify the spending. Add to this that, for seven of the eight years I’ve lived in my current home, I’ve worked two miles from home, an easy bike commuting distance. Finally I realized that, since I have to commute anyway and can’t find the time to get to the gym, why not convert this part of the day to exercise? It only takes slightly longer to bike than to drive, and, in contrast to driving, biking is free, far better for the environment, way more fun, and much more physically active. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit now that it took me so long to snap out of conventional thinking about commuting (“you drive”) and exercising (“you carve out separate time for this by going to the gym, going running, etc.”).

Unlike many people, we didn’t get into all this spending due to a lack of privilege or income. We don’t deal with some of the many things that can threaten savings, such as the high cost of being poor or self-destructive behaviors that stem from trauma. Rather, we did it because we thought it would help us be better parents or make life easier. We also simply never questioned why we did things a certain way—we looked at each aspect of life as an isolated problem (e.g., not enough time to buy groceries) and dealt with each one individually instead of looking at all parts of our lives as interconnected. So we hired people to cook, shop, and clean for us. Overall that sounds excessive and ridiculous, but each individual decision made sense to us at the time.

You can’t buy your way out of a spending hole

If I had to sum up all the stuff I’ve mentioned so far in this post, I’d say this: We had ended up trying to buy fixes to problems that stemmed from our spending habits. We were trying to get out of a hole by continuing to dig. Some big problems with this approach are:

  1. It doesn’t work. The hole just keeps getting deeper. The Mr. Money Mustache blog has really helped us figure out alternatives to digging deeper into this hole. Biking to work instead of driving to “save time” is an example of one of those alternatives.
  2. It limits your ability to problem-solve creatively. There is an endless supply of solutions marketed to us for any problem you can think of. None of these sellers truly has your family’s well-being at heart, though; they mainly just want to sell their products. On the other hand, since we started making changes to live more frugally, we’re far more attuned to how interrelated the seemingly different aspects of our lives are. We also notice more how much one improvement can solve problems in other areas as well. For example, biking to work not only saves money; it also means I need less additional time to exercise, I don’t need a gym, and I spend less time getting ready for work each day. Every other step toward frugal living has also had similarly positive ripple effects. Taking this idea a step further, we can often “shop” in other parts of our lives for solutions rather than the standard response of buying a solution from someone else.
  3. You may end up acting inconsistently with who you are, just to keep up. Some examples for us were buying too much disposable shit for convenience and not taking good enough care of our bodies.
  4. It doesn’t ultimately improve quality of life. Our spending never made much of a dent in our quality of life. It didn’t really increase the amount of free time we had to hang with the kids or increase our physical activity in order to take better care of ourselves, for example. Ultimately all these individual spending habits that were meant to help us actually led us to feeling too busy to keep up with our own lives (e.g., “Ack, when am I supposed to get to the gym?!?!”).

Quality time can be free

How did we start moving in a different direction? Early on this Fishtailing Joyride, we made a bunch of changes in order to stop buying stuff in general. We weren’t specifically focused on not buying our quality family time—I hadn’t yet thought of what we were doing in that way. But all these changes had the same effect of building up our family’s quality time together at no cost:

  • I started dealing with my inner self-critic, who had long enjoyed way too much influence over how I spent my time. This helped me let go of time-consuming stuff like keeping the house cleaner than it needed to be, spending a lot of time on body care, and so on.
  • I began taking one kid, usually the oldest, grocery shopping for some built-in one-on-one time together.
  • My partner started taking the kids on long Saturday morning walks so I could get shit done and have some down time.
  • We stopped going to restaurants and coffee shops, which took more time than we realized. Making food at home wasn’t taking all that much more time, and the downtime between different steps of making meals was still time with the family. Moreover, sometimes our kids pitch in with making meals, which is also quality time in its own right and doubles as a chance for them to learn important skills.
  • I started biking to work instead of driving. While the commute takes a few extra minutes, this takes away some of my need to spend time exercising when I could be hanging out with the family. Family walks plus these bike commutes actually add up to a fair amount of physical activity.
  • I found a more efficient way to do additional exercise. I plan to add in some weight training to increase my physical activity and, hopefully, longevity. I can do this at home with a few weights we already have and, when I’m ready for more weights, very inexpensive weights bought off of Craigslist. There are a few resources like Starting Strength and the New Rules of Lifting for Women that cover how to accomplish significant strength gains in minimal time (hint: it has nothing to do with the typical advice to women that we should do endless reps with small amounts of weight). I’ve been checking these out of the library, they’re fantastic, and I’m ready to get started. More on this in another post!

Further reflection

One moral of this story, for me, is that I need try to notice anytime I feel good about being different from someone else (like the family in the song above). When I do this, it’s probably a clue I’m pushing away some aspect of myself that I don’t like. I’d much rather look squarely at how I am, understand it, and either accept it or make improvements if need be.

* As I’m an Iris fan, this is the first of what may be many Iris references here. You can probably look forward to some Lucinda Williams references too.

One thought on “How We Stopped Paying for Quality Time

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