Bribing the grandkids to visit

Some grandparents spend tens of thousands to create kid-friendly spaces. Shopping is a preferred activity. Is this wise?

By Donna_Freedman Apr 8, 2013 12:12PM

Logo: Couple stood outside of villa (Image Source, Image Source, Getty Images)Would you have enjoyed visits to your grandparents' house more if they'd spent a hundred grand to get you there?

A recent Wall Street Journal article, "The ultimate play room . . . at Grandma's house," says that some grandparents are redecorating and even remodeling certain areas of their homes to entice their grandkids over.

Some shop on their own and some hire designers to create rooms full of things like electronics, trampolines, pingpong tables, personalized tents, whimsical furniture and even cosmetics. One designer said her clients spend from $40,000 to $100,000 to get the right kid-friendly vibe.

The article featured a Texas grandma and grandpa who'd remodeled the spare room in the style of a cowboy bunkhouse, added special low counters in the kitchen, and accessorized the yard with scooters and a jungle gym. Now they're mulling over "what attention-grabbing toy to buy next." (Odds are it will be an all-terrain vehicle.)

The average grandparent doesn't drop tens of thousands of dollars to create the ultimate playroom. But elders of ordinary means do spend quite a bit, according to a 2012 AARP survey

Just how much are they spending?

Of the just over 1,900 grandparents interviewed, 24% had spent less than $250 in the previous 12 months -- but 25% shelled out more than $1,000. There's not much middle ground: Only 4% spent between $750 and $999.

The spending isn't limited to personalized tents, however. More than one-third of grandparents are helping out with everyday necessities like groceries, and 23% are chipping in for medical or dental insurance. About half are contributing to education expenses.

The desire to improve their grandchildren's lives, whether through orthodontics or trips to the mall, is natural and even laudable. But grandparents could be putting their own finances at risk.

Covering basic expenses

In an article she wrote for Time magazine's Healthland blog, Suzanne de Baca of Ameriprise Financial noted:


"The current economy makes it harder for grandparents -- many of whom are retirees -- than when I was growing up, and the dollars left in their retirement accounts may be a bit more precious.

"But even though unexpected expenses like rising health care costs may already be straining grandparents' budgets, more than half of those surveyed in the AARP study said that the economy has not affected how much they lavish on grandkids."

Some of those elders cut their own budgets in order to spend on the children. That's troubling, de Baca says: "Whether grandma and grandpa are helping because they love to or because they feel they have to, it can jeopardize their financial health."

This is especially true if Social Security constitutes the bulk of post-retirement income. Two-fifths of retirees can't cover even basic expenses, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, requiring them to seek part-time jobs.


Other reasons to throttle back
That AARP survey also found that "shopping" was the second-favorite grandparent/child activity. (No. 1: watching TV or movies together.) While this can be a budget booster -- new shoes, school supplies, etc. -- it can also wreak havoc with your finances and your adult children's peace of mind.

Advice columns, parenting blogs and message boards are rife with stories of overindulgence. Some parents literally don't have room for all the toys and clothes their children accumulate during visits with grandma and grandpa.

Additionally, some of these treats run counter to the parents' values. The article "Do grandparents have the right to spoil grandchildren?" mentioned a grandma who showed up with seven Christmas gifts even though the family's four-gift rule had been communicated in advance.

Parents trying to instill healthy habits are dismayed when the children talk of the sugary cereal and fast food meals they had at Grandma's, or how late they sat up watching movies that Mom and Dad would never have let them view.

And yes, some parents privately despair over the money spent on costly, soon-to-be-outgrown toys and clothing, wishing some of it had been set aside for future education expenses. The dollars devoted to toy-store trips could also have been used for, say, music lessons or sports fees.

Even a non-overbearing grandparent's generosity can backfire. Suppose when the first grandbaby arrives you promise to put her through college. Can you really predict where your finances will be in 18 years?

Many elders don't realize how expensive college has become, according to this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article. Financial adviser Mick Endersbe told the newspaper that well-meaning grandparents "haven't analyzed their retirement situation and in many cases they don't have a disciplined plan for helping the kids."

Incidentally: What if you're blessed with three more grandchildren? If you can't afford to foot the bill for four degrees, you'll appear to be playing favorites.

Other ways to dote

One of my closest friends just became a grandfather. He figures the little one will get all the toys, games and clothes she needs from others. Instead of showering her with physical gifts for holidays and birthdays, he'll add money to an education fund.

Here's what else he plans to do: read her stories, sing to her, go for walks with her, let her help in the garden and teach her to cook. He won't be a Disneyland grandpa who takes her to the toy store or the movies every Saturday. But when she turns 18 she'll need fewer (if any) loans for college or trade school.

Want to increase involvement without overdoing it? Try these tips:

Remember that "love" isn't spelled "ATM." Restrict gifts or special treats to once a month or less and spend most visits, well, just visiting. "Read to them, or teach them something they could never learn from anyone else, like the tap dance you learned at age 6 or your old school song," advises Georgia Witkin in this article on

Give experiences and memories. A growing trend is the multi-generation family vacation, according to "Boomers spoiling grandchildren" on The Huffington Post. Cousins get to play together, moms and dads get to kick back a little, and grandparents get to see everyone. Shorter is probably better, i.e., a long weekend versus a month at the beach house: "A command appearance for a longer trip might consume more vacation time than (families) could afford to give up and could make them feel less indulged than controlled."

Save for their futures. You don't know if that newborn bundle of joy will want to go to college, attend trade school or join the military. No matter which route he takes, a cash cushion would be nice. Talk to a financial advisor about making the smartest choice, e.g., a 529 plan vs. a trust.


You could also . . .


Craft a pay-as-you-go college fund. Don't make rash promises to teenaged grandkids currently looking at schools. Leave it at "I'll help if I can" and then contribute to expenses semester by semester, paid directly to the institution. Of course, slipping the occasional bit of cash into a letter is a nice surprise. (So is getting letters.)

Encourage a Roth IRA. As soon as your grandkids get their first paying jobs, offer to match whatever dollars they put in. If Johnny or Susie can squeeze even $25 out of each paycheck and you add another $25, that will be $2,600 a year. Compound interest is the friend of youth, and instituting budgetary discipline at a young age might mean they'll continue to save on their own.

Use technology. When you're tempted to overspend on the grandkids, transfer the amount you would have spent to their someday funds. (The ImpulseSave app lets you do this right there in the mall, by instantly shifting that money to an online bank account.) If you live far away, Skype a weekly chat with your grands. Text them if they have cellphones. And remember, it's nothing personal if they don't want you to friend them on Facebook. You can still use social media to brag to the rest of us about their latest doings.

How do you make your grandkids feel special without overindulging them?

More from MSN Money:


Apr 23, 2013 12:54PM
....... if you have to buy love and respect , its not love ... its up to the childs parents, to make sure grandma and grandpa gets those visits.

My grandparents only used their love to entice visits.....and it worked

I spent every other weekend with them. Couldn't wait to get there; Didn't want to leave.


Walt Disney knew nothing about the happiest place on earth.


xoxoxo to my GP's. Love you. Still miss you!

If the little sh*ts don't want to have anything to do with you then the hell with them and their parents who did a p*ss poor job of raising them. After my grandpa died i was over at my grandma's once a week to make sure she was okay, at one point she got more active and i had to schedule a day with her but i never once thought of not going over or her having to bribe me.
Apr 23, 2013 1:32PM
Grandparents shouldn't have to bribe their grand kids to visit them. I work in health care and it is heart breaking to see these gentle people so lonely and always talking about either their kids or their grand kids. Instead they are put up in a retirement home and left to themselves. Have some heart people. Take your children and visit your parents because one day you would want the same.
Apr 23, 2013 1:58PM
Best thing grandparents gave me....Their Love and Time!
Apr 23, 2013 1:28PM
My MIL does this and it works for some of the grandkids. "Loaning" them $50,000 and giving them their inheritance early. They have no integrity and their personalities are blah, boring. My MIL is very superficial, impressed with wealth herself and has no guilt about cheating people to get the money she has today.

I am not materialistic, and neither are my adult kids. My one daughter would be so much happier driving around in her 17 year old van than having grandma buy her a new one if it meant my daughter had to spend more time with her.

My grandma did not give me anything, she had nothing to give. But I loved her quiet nature and all the walks we took all over Manhattan (could not afford a cab) and all the dirty subway rides. She actually spent time with me.

Apr 23, 2013 2:55PM

sorry, hit the return somehow. :-(


I just started something called '1St Mondays with Grams'.  My granddaughter loved to hang out with me until she hit about 14 and got busy with her life.  I understand and I know she will come out of this eventually.  But when she hit 16 I started this where I take her to dinner evry 1st Monday of the month.  We don't go expensive, we have gone to Olive Garden, Bob Evans, Chipotle etc.  But she makea a point of being available every 1st Monday now and I get to hear all about school, girlfriends, boyfriends, etc.  It is worth the little bit of money it cost me to do this.  If people have more money to spend to bring their family in, why not?  You only get the opportunity to pour into their lives for a little bit.  I hope my granddaughter is learning to love and treasure her family and building wonderful memories of our times.  I could not spend what those other folks are spending, but if the children are a priority and you have that much extra cash - more power to ya..... I'd spend mine on a trip and stick to the inexpensive dinner with my grandkids!  LOL!

Apr 23, 2013 2:03PM
It simply won't work.  Your grand children have to want to visit because they love you, respect you, or your just fun to be around.  Grandparents have to make an effort to make visits enjoyable, but that doesn't mean buying material things.
Apr 23, 2013 1:42PM
My Mom and Mother in law have toys at their homes not toy rooms.  They play with her and spend time not money.  She bakes with them and plays computer games.  I hope as she gets older she remember the times she spent not the gifts they bought her. 
Apr 23, 2013 2:44PM

My grandkids love to come to my home for 'sleepovers'.  I cook their favorite foods and we play board games, cards, and dominoes.  They consider it a treat when their parents let them come over on the weekends.  I attend their sports events to cheer them on!  For their birthday, they get to spend a day with just them and their grandma and they get to pick what we do, where we go to lunch, and shop for their birthday gift.  They spend days planning what they want to do.  Their parents call this 'making memories'.  I am truly grateful for my grandkids and their parents who are doing a great job bringing up kids with good values.

Apr 23, 2013 1:10PM
Apr 23, 2013 3:24PM

As a small kid, I loved visiting my grandmother.  She didn't have much to play with (we actually played outside in those days) and she was a great cook plus she doted on me.  Wonderful memories...


As a teenager, visiting her fell slightly out of favor to staying home and going out with friends or a girlfriend... my father put it to me once:  "You're going to see your grandmother with us this weekend because she loves you and misses you... and if you can't do it for those reasons then you're going because by God I'm telling you you're going!"... couldn't argue with that.


As a young man, I LOVED visiting my grandmother!  Turns out she was funny as all get out, plus she doted on me and cooked great meals...


I miss her.

Apr 23, 2013 1:39PM
My kids refuse to see my mother, their grandmother. They've tried over the years, but my mother is so self absorbed. She only talks about herself.

The only grandma my kids like is not even related to them. It is my father's second wife. She'll talk about anything, and actually listens too. She's into doing things, has a positive outlook and a great cook.

I guess the older generation is so used to entitlements, they also feel entitled to be loved, even if they did not put in their fair share of it.

Apr 23, 2013 4:05PM

Until my 87 year old uncle died last July, I used to go over to his house every few days in the evening.  Sometimes he had little jobs for me to do around the house, sometimes we'd just sit around and talk about whatever.  Regardless, I never even considered asking for any amount of money for the jobs, because I knew that what I was doing was really helping him.  And he was a cool guy to be around, he had lots of friends in the neighborhood.  I still think that somehow I could go over to his house and he'd be there, just to hang out with him one last time.


RIP John B. "Uncle Bun" Klanica, Purple Heart, USMC, WW2 Battle of Saipan.

Apr 23, 2013 4:08PM
My grandparents never had to bribe me to come to their house. More like my parents had to bribe me to come back home. It sickens me to read this. Most grandparents will do anything for their grandkids, I know mine did and still do; there was no need for bribing. Except maybe "We'll stop by McDonald's on the way home."
Apr 23, 2013 3:40PM
spoiling the grandkids is the grandparent's should go without saying that they shouldn't do more than they can afford, but Red Box and ice cream doesn't cost much!
Apr 23, 2013 2:04PM
I watch my granddaughter every day while my daughter works as a school bus driver. I had a HORRIBLE childhood full of abuse. I raised my kids to be happy, but I was most of the family they had. Our goal as a family is to build her self esteem so she'll feel good enough to receive good in life. Nice clothes, day trips good HEALTHY food with some ice cream  and lots of hugs and time have made my 8 year old granddaughter confident. In the future there will be plenty of people to knock her down, but for now Grandma puts out for the Lelli Kelly shoes bought on EBay I couldn't afford in my kids lifetime. Grandma makes the Turkey, pierogies and all the good cooking ang I plan on being the best grandma and mother I can be. Everyone says the world has become bad. Well GRANDMA says dance with Wii Just Dance, take the kids to theme parks, Kid Junction and ChuckECheese because you never know what comes tomorrow.
Apr 23, 2013 2:27PM

My parents did a great job at spoiling my sisters daughter who they have helped raise for the past 4 years. They would let her get away with anything and now she's completely unrully and has no understanding what discipline is let alone how to act when you don't get what you want or out in public. For dinner she only has to eat one or two bites of it then she screams for suckers and junk food and guess what the GP's will hop right up and get it for her. All I know is my parents NEVER did this for me as a kid and we had to eat what mom cooked for dinner or go without! I understand that they want to make my nieces life good since her mom is a captial B and her father might be abusive to her during the weekend that he has her. Still you can raise a GC right while taking good care of them and showing them plenty of love and discipline. I'm the only one my Niece will listen to when I say something she does it within reason. I tell her to put things up and I mean it or she doesn't get to play with the next toy until she does and i've only had to spank her one time when she kicked my mom in the ankle and made her fall down because mom didn't have any suckers during dinner!

Apr 23, 2013 2:08PM
When someone with little kids visits, it is easy to have "toys" for free that don't clutter the place later.  Some ideas:
1. Public library - get a big stack of age appropriate books.
2. Big box - make it into a fort, just cut a door, windows, etc into it.  Have the kids decorate it with pens or tinfoil and tape, or whatever.
3. Cooking utensils - use a pot and spoon to make a drum, etc
4. If you need stickers, cheapest way is to get a sheet of 1 cent stamps from the post office.  No where else can you get 40 stickers for 40 cents.

For 1 & 2 when the kids leave, just return the books or recycle the box.

Apr 23, 2013 1:10PM

Putting your own finances at risk is beyond stupid.  Then if you spend on the kids would they be the ones to be as willing to provide a roof over your bankrupt heads after going broke?

Common sense and competition to be bigger and better is battering even the older, supposedly, more sensible generation.  The stories proliferate of kids harming and worse their familial adults who run out of or suddenly refuse to continue to support or provide for crap.  Savings bonds or a set amount on BDs or other holidays, with a small gift.  Time, support and avaiability is so much more important, but does the roof have to fall in some to get that?

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