The One Big Splurge for Our Kid That Made Our Friends Judgy

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DillyinbarnMaking 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.

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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.

Dillynaptime

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.

RELATED: 60 Seconds With a CFP: The Beauty of the $20 Happy Splurge

*Name has been changed

  • flours

    It’s a shame that people still talk tolerance and acceptance and yet are so judgmental. I think it’s a wonderful thing to make conscientious decisions that involve sacrifice to allow any member of a family to pursue their dreams…parent or child alike…Lily will take those lessons with her long after Gilly.

  • Donna Lee Bogue Huston

    This is the sweetest thing I’ve ever read on LearnVest. You invested in your daughter! She will never forget this and Gilly is her responsibility and teach her many many great things about how to care for an animal and how to earn money to help with her costs. And what stuff really costs. What if Gilly had been sold to someone else? And moved away??? It would break everyone’s heart in your family. There is no dollar sign for that. Also it’s priceless when you saw the look on her face. Blessings!!!

  • Jessica Hilton

    Thank you for sharing your story. I think you made a beautiful, very personal gesture to show what sounds like a deserving young lady that her parents listen to her, understand her, support her in her interests and have high expectations for her continued growth in responsibility. All while teaching her the very important lesson that sometimes, you have to make long-term sacrifices for big-ticket commitments. It saddens me that others have made you feel like you have made an unwise decision. You haven’t. Continue being the thoughtful, discerning parents you are, no matter what people may say. That will also be a gift to your sweet daughter. I’m so happy for her. My own childhood involved a lot of horses — as many as my city-dwelling, not-wealthy parents could possibly expose me to — but never one of my very own. What a special experience.

  • Platypus72

    This story brought tears to my eyes! People do exactly what you say: no commentary on Disneyland or brand new SUV but THIS gets negative talk?! Crazy. Especially on social media where people are very “brave” to pipe up. Your daughter has a passion, which is something many people never have. Good job and enjoy that pony!

    • Erica

      Glad to know that I am not the only one who cried. Brought tears to my eyes too.

  • NJS007

    A pony is a great friend, companion, activity, sport opportunity, exercise partner, skills teacher, etc.

    My pony, Comanche, was a life saver. I was bullied from the time I started a new school in the 5th grade through high school. A mean teacher started the bullying, and I would later find out this was her MO every year. One student to pick on and encourage others to do the same. What did I do to deserve this. I was ugly and from an unimportant family. Yep, I wore braces, coke glasses, corrective shoes, dark thin straight hair, and my mother liked to make me old-fashioned dresses. I thought about ending everything, but my new pony needed me to care for him.

    My parents had purchased my younger pretty sister a beautiful dapples trained pony with a saddle, and another pony (no saddle and untrained) was thrown into the deal. This pony was a mess. He was a pinto with red mud stains, stunk like manure, an unruly mane and tail with burs, shaggy coat, mites in his ears, with a large stallion’s attitude. I cleaned him up, cut off the bottom of his tail, and cut his mane to around 6 inches. He cleaned up good! Now he looked liked small Trojan horse.

    After several weeks, I was able to be on him. My first ride was only a few minutes until my sister came galloping by and bumped him. He was my only pony, and gave me much pleasure. I had several horses as I got older. Move forward, and I was riding an ex-race horse (also a rescue) at a fox hunt with my friends.

    Your family will probably get new “horse folks” as friends. Your daughter has just started her great adventure in the wonderful world of horses.

  • Marilynn Gassen

    We had horses for our 2 older kids, best thing we did for them, they are 40 and 33 now and still have friends from all over and are confident human beings that can take the ups and downs. I credit the horses for a big part of that. Now will I have to work a few more years before I can retire, yep, but was it worth ever minute I got to spend with my teen-age kids, sure was. We will have those memories forever. Enjoy!

  • toni

    I’ll apply my motto for how I live my life: I have no opinion on how what ADULTS want to do with their money. We all put our money where our interests lie and everybody interests is different. If you had bought her a dragon I would still say “good for you”. Not because I wouldn’t make the same decisions you make, doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want. Now IF your decision starts impacting me, then I will have an opinion. But if I’m neither contributing financially or otherwise to you, why should my opinion matter? Do you.

  • monica south

    as a kid who was obsessed with horses who now, as an adult, owns a boarding stable and rides nearly every day for the joy it brings me. I love this story, I love your commitment to your daughter, I love the thought that went in to making sure it would work for your family financially. So proud of her and you and from one horse family to another, it is hard to imagine the poverty of those who cannot understand and so second guess your decision.

  • Carrie Gates

    What a great article! Thank you for posting it. Unhappy people often try to spread their unhappiness to others. I’m sorry you faced this and wish you and your family the best.

  • Gert Gatorie

    Similarly, I have a young friend who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Her love of horses was the one thing her parents observed as consistently making all their lives more manageable, so they made an investment similar to the one you made. My friend also responded with energy and diligence, and has grown to be a successful and happy young woman. Her family credits her relationship to, and her work with, her horse for the improvement in her health and well-being. I celebrate your family’s decision. Congratulations.

  • Erica

    One: You nailed it when you said that it is not your responsibility to explain Gilly. To me, the pony IS the birthday/Christmas present for years to come. i did the math for the lessons (since I did not have the other pony expenses to work with) and Gilly’s lessons come to 8 $ per day. That, if you did this, would equal to one 5 dollar coffee and a muffin at Starbucks.
    Per day. For one week.
    So in my humble opinion, since Lily is responsible at her young age, this is money well spent. This IS her “entertainment” for the month. Like I said, money well spent.
    And to hell with what others say about this. They aren’t paying your rent,they are not paying upkeep on Gilly,and they are not raising your child.
    You are.
    And alot of kids want a pony. Lily is one blessed child. You have realized that there are sacrifices that must be made,and Lily gladly made them. Lily is blessed with great parents, and from what I have seen the feeling between Gilly and Lily is one of mutual love. :)

  • Sarah Dalton

    This is article was fantastic!! I wish more people would invest in horses when their child shows an interest that long. I have grown up with horses and now almost 40 and own 8. People whom knock it are just jealous. Owning such a large animal is an expense but that expense is minuet when you look at the big picture. The responsibility it instills, the unconditional love, the physical side, and the most important the no more need for a psychologist. I give a huge amount of my confidence to owning horses because you can’t be timid around a 1200-1500 lb animal. This flows right into my work life. If your daughter wants to ride all through college, please let her but don’t force her.
    Anyone whom has horses knows they are the best thing that could ever happen to good people.

  • http://www.engageyourstrengths.com Xtravert621

    Stephanie, this is the first article I’ve read on LearnVest and congrats on beautifully expressing such a terrific story. I’ve been a horse lover since I was a young girl and also have a teenaged son. His passion was Tae Kwon Do and we prepaid the program for him to get his 1st and 2nd degree black belt, paid monthly for his demo team and extra lessons, not to mention uniforms and equipment. He loved it all and, like “Lilly”, it made him confident, happy, and responsible.

    Thank goodness for parents like you who understand that children who have their passions nurtured and balanced by a “you need to contribute also” mindset grow into responsible, well-adjusted young adults. I help corporate professionals change careers, and – by definition – meet people much further along in life (30′s and 40′s), many of whom either don’t have any idea what they want or expect it all to land on their plate because they didn’t have the type of experience you are providing. Best wishes to your and your daughter!

  • Susan

    That was a great story, albeit unfortunate in one sense–unless you are asking these judgmental people for money, it’s none of their business. I suspect most of these people have spending habits at which stones could be thrown, but who has the time, or the negative energy to do so. You did something that made your family, and one lucky horse, happy. Good for you!