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Published: May 29, 2019 8 min read
Photo Illustration by Lixia Guo; Shutter Stock

I understand you’re not supposed to keep up with the Joneses. As a personal finance reporter, I know full well that the Joneses will kill your retirement prospects if you pay them any mind.

They’ll lead you down the primrose path of lifestyle inflation, upgrading your car just because their car is fancy, or putting on a home addition because they’ve added more space. So I keep my head down and do all the things you’d expect from a Money staff writer: contribute 13% of each paycheck to my 401(k), stay out of debt, and put $100 a month into each of the 529 college savings accounts that I opened when my sons were babies.

There’s just one problem: my sons pay attention to the Jones's kids. In particular, they watch what's on their feet. And where we live, in Brooklyn, the Joneses wear really expensive sneakers. It's not just their immediate peers — some of the after-school counselors my sons look up to are sneaker heads with pair counts in the hundreds. My sons, 8 and 12, pine for the latest Kyries, the freshest Vans or Converse, and the coolest Timbs.

“Mom, can we go to Foot Locker?” is a frequent refrain, and it’s not like I can say it’s out of the way because there’s a Foot Locker right around the corner from our apartment, and a couple more on the way to school. In the unlikely event we’re out of range of that particular emporium, there are plenty of other places to buy kicks in New York City, the cradle of sneaker culture and home of the original collab, the Run-DMC-Adidas partnership of 1986.

Too often, I give in. Where I am content to troll the discount racks of DSW for my own shoes (to shod feet that are not growing, it should be noted), I find myself routinely shelling out $100 or more for shoes that will be worn for three to four months, max.

Here's the thing: This need to keep up with the Junior Joneses is blowing a hole in my budget. By my calculations, I forked over at least $810.23 on sneakers over the past year and a half (excluding their cleats for baseball or flag football). That’s more than the monthly mortgage on our two-bedroom apartment, bought 13 years ago in a still-not-hip part of town; it's 48 pepper and onion pizzas from our go-to-spot, Frank's on Flatbush, and it's about what you'd earn on a $10,000 balance in a high-yield (2% APY) savings account after four years.

But it’s not just the money, which, at the end of the day, we can afford because we economize in other areas of our life (see: $800 mortgage). It’s also compromising my values and those I hope to instill in my sons.

What’s wrong with me? I enlisted an expert to help me find out.

Confronting My Bobo Baggage

Turns out, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to my sneaker spending.

There’s baggage that goes all the way back to my own middle school days. Growing up, if they didn’t sell it at T.J. Maxx, I didn’t wear it. That meant no Guess jeans. And that was a problem, particularly in seventh grade. That vicious year, girls would go around asking each other what brand of jeans they were wearing. Since I didn’t have that cute triangle on my butt, I got taunted with, “Elizabeth wears bobo jeans!”

So it’s no surprise that some 30 years later, I don’t want my sons to suffer the same fate, being teased for their bobo sneakers. The $85 that I dropped on my 8-year-old's Kyrie 5’s is a small price to say for social acceptance at a sensitive age, right?

In one sense, yes. But as much as I want my kids to fit in, my sneaker outlay also makes me queasy. I cringe at the brands that think it’s reasonable to charge $100-plus for what is essentially a cone of rubber and leather. And I cringe at the message I’m sending my kids when I get them the footwear they want. Every. Single. Time.

I never aspired to flaunt multiple pairs of Guess jeans. I would have been thrilled with just one. By the time I was 12, I had reached my adult height, and one pair would’ve seen me through middle school.

My kids are still growing, though. And it’s not like I can send them to school barefoot. So where to draw the line on something that is both a want and a need?

My Frugality Complex

“It’s really deciding your principles and putting them forward,” says Debbie Pincus, a parent coach with offices in Manhattan and Westchester, N.Y. Kids do just fine when their parents set clear limits. “Just because they want it, doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to go,” Pincus adds.

She nailed my problem: I’m conflicted. And if I haven’t fully articulated my principles to myself, how can I convey them to my sons? Part of me identifies with my mother’s frugality and her refusal to ever pay retail. I like shopping at T.J. Maxx today. As long as the price and the fit are right, I couldn’t care less what’s on the label.

But part of me wants to spare my sons any teasing, at least over things I can control. If anything, wearing the right sneakers in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2019 is more important than wearing the right jeans was in Alexandria, Va., in the waning days of the Reagan administration. For one, my hometown lays no particular claim on designer jeans the way New York owns sneaker culture. And in my pre-Internet youth, advertising was less pervasive and social media didn't exist. If I had been lucky enough to score a pair of Guess jeans, there wouldn't have been an Instagram or Snapchat on which to flex my new purchase.

The bottom line? I need a more balanced approach. My kids can have their brand-name kicks, just not every time. Every other purchase, we’re going to look for a more affordable option. That could mean brand names at a second-hand store, or new but less trendy shoes at a discount store.

It’s not just about helping them become savvier shoppers, Pincus says. It’s about imparting my values of (semi) thrift. And it’s teaching them about marketing. There’s a reason that they crave the latest Jordans. Everyone -- them, the Joneses -- gets the same relentless messages from commercials, YouTube, and social media influencers. Companies pay big bucks to get you to spend your money on their stuff. And kids should at least be aware that they’re being wooed, Pincus says.

My sons’ sense of style will probably evolve as they get older, and with luck will become less dependent on the latest trends. That was the case with me. My Guess jeans mania peaked at age 12, and nothing really replaced it as my sense of style matured. But I still remember my epic yearning, and I’ve mentioned it to my sons. So this Mother’s Day, they bought me my first pair.