Making judgment calls about how others choose to spend their hard-earned cash is an etiquette misstep most people try not to make, especially within earshot of the people they’re criticizing.
Yet when my husband and I told friends and acquaintances about a recent purchase for our family that we were over the moon about, the shade came swift and hard:
Isn’t that a little over the top?
How much did that cost?
Wow, you must be rich.
That is just ridiculous.
The purchase in question? A pony.
Not a racehorse or a champion thoroughbred, mind you. We bought a sweet, round, tiny bit lazy, extremely huggable Welsh pony.
I should back up and explain here that Gilly was not an impulse buy. My 9-year-old daughter, Lily,* has been obsessed with horses and has taken riding lessons since she was 3. She devours books about breeds and equine first aid and is overjoyed when she gets to do chores at the barn where she takes lessons. For her last birthday, she asked for a lunge line—a 25-foot-long rope used to exercise horses—which she attached to our dog and tried to lunge in our backyard.
Lily’s love of horses is purely self-driven. As a parent, I’m overjoyed seeing her find her passion, and I’ve fed it as much as time and money allow. We’ve done horse camps and horse shows and horse-themed birthday parties. As of last fall, she was taking riding lessons at two different barns outside our home in Portland, Oregon.
Lily adores all horses, but last winter, she developed a clear favorite at one of the barns: a small, black Welsh pony with the most chilled out attitude we’d ever seen. Gilly allowed his mane to be braided, his coat to be endlessly brushed and his neck to be hugged. During each lesson, he obediently trotted over poles and cantered. And on days he didn’t feel like working, he was still awfully nice about it. From my perspective, Gilly seemed to really like Lily too.
“If I could ever afford to buy you a pony,” I told her one day, when we were hanging out by Gilly’s stall, “it would be Gilly.” Less than a month later, we learned that he was for sale.
Running the Numbers
The cost made me stop breathing for a few seconds: $6,000, non-negotiable. We’re fortunate enough that Lily’s grandmother pays for her riding lessons every month, which are $225.
But if we owned a horse, there would be plenty of other costs to consider: monthly board, which was just over $600. Hoof care: $50 every two months. Regular dental upkeep, which could run a few hundred dollars, and yearly vaccinations, which would be another hundred. We’d have to buy a saddle, saddle pad and girth—a strap that keeps the saddle from slipping away.
All of this would easily run into the four-figures range annually. And what if Gilly got injured or became sick? Colic can be fatal for horses, and surgery can cost thousands of dollars.
We are not flush with cash. I’m a freelance writer. My husband recently changed his career and is apprenticing to be an electrician. He has three years to go before his salary peaks. We drive a station wagon with more than 100,000 miles on it. I sometimes reheat old coffee rather than brew a fresh pot, just to save the extra pennies.
Since we already have a dog, cat and two gerbils, we knew Lily was a responsible pet owner. My husband and I talked to her about sacrifices—like giving up lessons at her second barn and having very small Christmases and birthdays from here on out.
And we discussed contributions, like how she’d need to hold a monthly bake sale or lemonade stand to put money toward Gilly’s monthly costs. She promptly made cookies with a friend, sold them to our neighbors and returned that afternoon with $28 plus change.
Once we confirmed that the riding academy would continue to lease Gilly for lessons, absorbing just over half his monthly costs, we said yes. The look on my daughter’s face when she walked into the barn and saw her name on Gilly’s stall was one of sheer astonishment. She burst into tears and said it was the happiest day of her life. It was one of mine, too.
Cue the Judgmental Comments
The joy we felt bringing Gilly into our family made the comments that came our way all the more hurtful. A sympathetic friend pointed out that she’d just spent $1,000 to register their daughter for one season on a traveling soccer team. No one ridiculed her. So why did a pony bring on so much judgment?
It made me realize: No one really notices how you spend your cash until it’s on something that they don’t deem valuable. A top-of-the-line SUV, two-week family vacation or private school tuition makes sense to many people. It’s obvious how these things provide comfort, education or a broadening of a child’s horizons.
But a horse? People assumed Gilly was a frivolous hobby or indulgence for a spoiled child.
I realize that something about owning a horse sounds privileged. That might be the case with some kids, but not any of the ones who ride with Lily. Like us, their parents sacrifice time and money to help their child develop their interests and skills. And as a result the kids are responsible and focused and have a work ethic that puts them well beyond their years.
Did anyone who tossed off those judgmental comments realize how much they stung me? Probably not, since my reaction each time was speechlessness. I grew up with the idea that it isn’t polite to discuss financial decisions, and I was too caught off guard to fire back and counter the people who made negative remarks to my face.
I don’t talk about Gilly anymore, except with close friends. It’s not my responsibility to explain this to people: that while Gilly was a big ticket purchase, the skills and confidence Lily has developed thanks to him are priceless. Adding our pony to our family was worth every extra hour I work and all the sacrifices my family is making—same as that math tutor, science camp or traveling sports league other parents spend their money on.
*Name has been changed