Image: Rebecca Bailey and kids
Craig Litten  /  AP
Rebecca Bailey hasn't cut back on basics like new clothes for the kids, all age 6 and under. "I want them to look nice and well cared for," she says.
updated 10/21/2008 7:11:30 PM ET 2008-10-21T23:11:30

Andrea Reynolds, a mother of four young children in southern Louisiana, can't remember the last time she bought a dress. She also can't remember her last vacation — unless, she quips, you count those three weeks in a hotel fleeing Hurricane Rita in 2005.

But like many parents, Reynolds will curtail her own luxuries way before she'll cut back for her kids — be it for new school clothes or afterschool activities. "I'd give up eating out with friends if it meant my kids couldn't do Boy Scouts," Reynolds says. "It's a no-brainer."

Are kids recession-proof? Perhaps not, but some consumer analysts call them "recession-resistant." As Americans struggle through a tough economy, spending on kids is often the last thing to go, for reasons both practical and emotional.

"Some people will cut their medications before they'll cut spending on the kids," says Candace Corlett, president of the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. She says her group's research shows 39 percent of adults — parents and non-parents — plan to cut back on adult gifts this holiday season, so kids in their lives can have more.

"That's a lot of cashmere sweaters that aren't gonna get bought," says Corlett.

Forget cashmere — Sheri Donner can't even recall the last time she bought a book, though she's an avid reader.

"I'd just rather cut for me than for someone else," says Donner, a Michigan mother of two. When the family had to cancel one of their three cell phone contracts, they canceled Sheri's, not that of her 23-year-old daughter, who needs the free incoming calls to stay in touch with her boyfriend out of state.

Yet Donner has cut back on some things for her daughter, who lives at home while she attends college. Each semester the two used to go clothes shopping. "Now we go through old clothes and see what's serviceable," she says. "I really feel bad because she doesn't ask for a lot. We've never had to do this before."

With older kids, at least there's the opportunity to have a serious discussion about the economic crisis, and why sacrifices might be necessary. With small kids, it's a lot tougher to explain why that shiny new toy is suddenly out of reach.

"Every time we walk into a store, it's, 'Can we have this? Can we have that?'" sighs Rebecca Bailey, the mother of four small boys in Landolakes, Fla. "That toy, that movie. I try to teach them that we don't get everything we see."

Bailey hasn't cut back on basics like new clothes for the kids, all age 6 and under. "I want them to look nice and well cared for," she says. So do many parents: Kohl's and Wal-Mart reported that one of their few strengths in September was in children's clothing. Kohl's noted that purchases are "need-based" and Wal-Mart said customers were "looking for basics for their families," while discretionary purchases were soft.

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In the words of Susan Kane, editor of Parenting magazine, "Moms are becoming more whine-prooof." And they have to, she says, no matter their economic status. Kane herself is dressing her young kids in hand-me-downs, and her own family vacation this year? "A stay-cation," she notes ruefully.

In Manhattan, where affluent families often pack their kids' schedules with activities of every conceivable sort, Emile Mosseri, who teaches private guitar, bass and piano lessons, sees evidence of some parents cutting back.

"Usually in September everyone starts up again," says Mosseri, who charges $60 to $80 per lesson to subsidize his other vocation — playing in a rock band. "This year I've lost five out of 16 students. People will say, 'I think we need to hold off for a little while.'"

Some think "holding off" — especially when it comes to material goods for young kids — could be a great thing for families, and not just for their wallets. Peggy Sradnick, who runs a daycare center in Manhattan and has been an early childhood educator for 37 years, decries a culture that has made American kids consumers before they can even write their names.

"Kids can be so overindulged," she says. A period of economic sacrifice, she says, "can only be a good thing. If people could just step back and ask, 'Does my child really need 10 of these American Girl dolls?' 'Do one-year-olds need four pairs of shoes?'"

But clearly American Girl dolls and lots of other highly popular toys will still be in demand this holiday season. "Santa's still gonna fly this year," says Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy consultant. What will probably suffer, he says, is the unplanned purchase, the impulse toy.

Corlett, the consumer analyst, said that in her marketing survey, about half of parents, 48 percent, said they'd be spending less on their kids this season.

One of them is probably Donner, the Michigan mother. She and her husband used to spend several thousand dollars on holiday gifts. "Now we'll be lucky if we can come up with $500," she says. For her, the issue isn't the losses in the stock market — her family doesn't have investments — but high prices. "Things seem to cost four times as much" as when they had their first baby, she said.

In the upscale New York suburb of Weston, Conn., Debbie Merberg recently blanched when she saw the latest statement of the family's investments. "This is their college money," she thought of her two kids, a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.

For now, the family hasn't had to make any real sacrifices. Still, Merberg wants her kids to understand what's happening. When her daughter coveted a $110 pair of sneakers, Merberg decided it wasn't going to happen. "Maybe at an earlier time, I would have said, 'OK, it's a treat,'" she says. Not now.

There's nothing important her kids have gone without. "But if push came to shove, I'd give up for myself first," says Merberg. "I'd rather do without than have them do without."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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