The Best Toys For Kids Are Free

My kids hanging out in The Fort.

Most of personal finance is not about portfolio or tax planning. It is much more far reaching than that. It is about life. It is about balancing or optimizing the two-way exchange between time, effort, comfort, pleasure, and security with the common currency of money. That is no different for high income professionals – the amounts exchanged are just larger.

One of the areas in our lives where personal finance matters is with our kids. Whether you are talking time, effort, discomfort, or money – kids are expensive. Physician on FIRE recently did a great detailed review of the cost of procreation in the financial context. A quick peak at the Loonie Bin Budget revealed that our kids are similarly expensive… when converted into US dollars.

One area where we don’t spend much money on our kids is on toys and electronic devices. The best entertainment for our kids costs little or no money.

We are not sanctimonious anti-electronics zealots – our kids can watch stuff on the parental iPad or TV for a limited time each day (which they unerringly seek out like moths to a flame). We are also not immune to the lure of advertising and consumerism. For example, I previously mentioned the Combat Spiderbot that we got for Christmas one year.

It is just that when I look at what our kids spend the most time actually playing with, and get the most pleasure from – it is rarely some store bought toy.

Two examples played out before me this past weekend. We had a couple of our close friends over with their two kids who are the same ages as ours (~10 and 12). The adults got caught up while the kids disappeared for eight hours only re-appearing for food and the final extraction when it was past all of our bedtimes.

What were they doing?

#1 – The Cardboard Box Castle 3.0

Ain’t she a beauty.

Version 1.0 was dismantled when we moved houses and Version 2.0 has been so extensively renovated over the last 7 years to really be considered a whole new castle. Over the years it has morphed to have a courtyard, throne room, treasury (with secret door), luxuriant royal chambers, and a tower for fending off the hordes.

Whenever we get a new piece of furniture or large appliance… My wife is usually gloating over finally getting rid of its predecessor (that was way past its prime)… I am reeling from the bill… and my kids are ecstatic about the box and the potential for building a new wing onto the castle.

My kids aren’t the only ones who are cardboard crazy in the house. Version 2.0 had a functioning drawbridge, but the dog ate it.

So, I lied. It is not a free toy – you have to buy stuff that comes in boxes and some tape. One could argue that the pleasure brought by the box helps to offset the financial cost of the major purchase, but there are also other benefits.

  • Developmental: My kids have learned to engineer and problem-solve to construct this architectural marvel of cardboard and duct tape. That mind-expansion has been ongoing with all of the imaginary games that they play down there. Their fine motor skills have also improved, so that they can accurately shoot a Nerf gun through the tiny windows at the defenders inside. Eat your heart out Montessori.
  • Environmental: These boxes never even needed transport to a recycling facility, let alone the energy costs required to reprocess them. They have been re-purposed on site. I’ll play that carbon credit off against my motorhome. Ok, well some of the cardboard was also digested and composted via the dog with the production of some greenhouse gases along the way.
  • Social: This prop has been the scene for our kids developing relationships with each other and their friends for years. Every birthday party, play date, or other kid gathering ends up down there at some point. That has not all been fun and games. There have been plenty of fights. However, having them on a separate floor from us has helped them learn to sort those out with each other rather than turn to us to referee all the time. Provided that there is no non-Nerf violence involved, having them figure it out on their own not only builds their social skills, but also their confidence that they can solve their own problems (which they are sure to face throughout life).
  • Sentimental: This castle is like a living document for our family. There is graffiti spanning the years from their early random scribbles (not their best work) to more complex decorative labels for the various rooms in “Castle Dragon Fire”.

#2 – The Fort








The first thing that my kids did in the morning, this past weekend, after breakfast was drag me out into the forest behind our house. Actually, my son even left a pop-tart uneaten on his plate, so that meant it was serious.

The issue at hand was that the fort that they had all been out building the day before required some Dad-sized logs to be moved.

Building forts and tree houses was a major part of my youth. Visions of my kids playing happily in the forest, like I did, was one of the main reasons why we bought our property. I try to be careful about projecting the “scripts” from my childhood onto my kids, so that they can develop into their own unique people. However, luckily they have taken to this one quite happily.

I got to reminisce with them about some of my life stories. Dr. Networth recently pointed out that kids knowing their family’s stories helps them to build resilience. The most effective family stories involve both the ups and downs of life. So, I was sure to tell my kids about my brief stint as a criminal.

My friends and I got caught taking scrap lumber from outside various people’s garages that we were using to build a fort. The neighbour who caught us made us go and prostrate ourselves before all of the victims. Not one of them made us return the lumber; but, we all learned lessons about asking rather than taking, accountability for mistakes, and the grace of good neighbours. Their reverent response to my moral-laden story was a sensitive “Dad. We’re not idiots.”

The “Neighbourhood Daddy Treehouse”. It wasn’t free. We used ~$2K in materials, several days, a case of beer, and minimal bloodloss.

We are fortunate to have a similar support group of neighbours in our current little rural enclave and by afternoon all of the neighborhood kids were out back playing in the fort. Most of the parents in our cluster of country houses moved out here due to this desire for their kids to grow up with nature as their playground. Even the grown-ups still build forts and tree houses together, but that is another story.

Again, The Fort has been something that my kids spent more time with and derived more pleasure from than any toy or entertainment device. It cost no money. However, I did mention that money is an exchange for time/effort/comfort.

We did not spend any money on The Fort. However, I did put in a morning of my time and the effort of hauling logs. The discomfort cost became apparent when I rolled out of bed the next morning.

The best entertainment for our kids does not cost money.

It can cost our time and effort, but that is usually immediately compensated by the intrinsic rewards. As professionals, the value of our time is quite high. However, I can think of no better return on investment for this time/effort exchange than in raising our kids. And it is in after-tax-inflation-adjusted dollars!


  1. Hello Dr. LD!

    The kids’ post secondary expenses are the most noticeable. Plus my daughter’s 5 years of gymnastics classes. Everything else was relatively cheap. I do not count my kids’ housing, transportation, hotels, etc since we would have spent almost the same amount whether we had kids or not. My kids refused to go to Disney so I never had to take them. They would rather go to the local events because then their friends could join them instead.

    1. Hi Dr. MB,
      We did do Disney this year, but it was camping there with friends. We were there 10 days and only did “The Parks” for two days. We are a few years behind you, but I can already see the friends factor becoming dominant in activity choices – great point.

  2. I think that some high-income parents may actually feel guilty if they don’t spend as much money as they can on their children’s activities (private school, sports, music etc….) and stuff (electronics, cell phones etc….). They work long hours, and may feel guilty about not seeing their kids as much as they want to, therefore, they spend money to try to quench that self-conscious guilt. It can be a never-ending cycle.

    I love the cardboard castle! Is there a kitchen in there?

    1. I think the guilt-spend cycle factors in for people for sure. It is easier to spend money than change behaviour. Kitchen is good idea. If it leads to more cooking for us for real, then an even better one!

  3. Your cardboard box castle brought back fond memories. We had a similar one in our basement for many years. We didn’t even have to buy the contents of the boxes: our neighbour bought a new set of kitchen appliances, washer and dryer, and our kids happily took all the cardboard from him.

    It’s a pity that their housing requirements can’t still be solved by a decent cardboard box. Unfortunately housing costs at university are higher.

    1. Sadly building a fort in the nearby forest probably wouldn’t work either. Housing costs for the up and coming generation, in general, seems to be a major issue in the major centres. I am glad my kids are still a ways off because I’ll need the saving time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *