Parents in all income brackets have the shaky economy on their minds, but in this spendy era of the $900 baby stroller and the ultra-birthday party, are they resisting the urge to splurge on their kids?
Many acknowledge there's a blur between "necessities" and "luxuries" for their young ones as prices soar for everything from gas to milk.
"There's definitely pressure to buy. There's more consuming and more competition," said stay-at-home mom Juliet Ewing-Kwan, who recently had her third child. "So much of it is about products. Even my husband knows who has the expensive stroller, who spent the money."
Ewing-Kwan dumped her pricey Bugaboo stroller to get around her New York City neighborhood with her newborn, opting for a lighter and cheaper jogger, but extracurricular Italian lessons, music class and yoga aren't on the chopping block for her 6-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old son.
"We do it for ourselves and we do it for our kids," said Ewing-Kwan, 39, whose husband works for a Wall Street investment firm. "Those things are really important when applying to middle schools and to make them well-rounded individuals. And they love them."
Fretting the economy is a national parental pastime these days in an age when preschool can mean a $25,000 hit and summer camps can top $7,000. A middle-income family with a child born last year should expect to spend $204,060 on food, shelter, clothing, education and other necessities through age 17, according to an annual government survey.
Taking into account inflation, the amount rises to $269,040, with variations for geographic location. That's far more than the $25,230 in 1960 dollars parents were up against the first year the survey was conducted.
Some parents will always be able to afford designer-wear for toddlers and fancy cell phones for grade-schoolers, but more average earners are scaling back, said Susan Smith Kuczmarski, a lecturer on family life and author of two books.
"Nowadays, given the economy, most parents are not spending lavishly," said Kuczmarski, who lives in Chicago and has three sons. Some might "indulge education," as she did with private school for her kids, while doing without structured play activities or fancy toys.
"Parents have lost touch with the notion that joy comes from bonding, being together and having fun, creative experiences," she said. "Parents simply forget to step back and decide what's important."
Stacy Francis, 33, the owner of a financial consulting firm just off Wall Street, has a Bugaboo, but she bought it on eBay for 2-year-old Sebastian. Rather than shop hipster tot boutiques in her lower Manhattan neighborhood, she heads to her hometown near Ann Arbor, Mich., to buy her son's clothes.
While she doesn't chase the Joneses, Francis understands the pull, recalling a black tie backyard birthday bash her family attended for a 4-year-old complete with tuxedoed waiters passing trays of hors d'oeuvres and Dom Perignon. There were roaming clowns, a popcorn circus wagon and an inflatable moonwalk, climbing wall and obstacle course for the kids.
"I think we just assume if this is what our friends are doing, the people that are part of our lives, our colleagues, well, that sounds pretty reasonable," she said. "As a parent you can definitely get carried away and start to believe that the amount of money you spend on your child, the clothes they're wearing, the activities they do, show how much you love them."
Melissa Ford, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom in Midlothian, Va., with two boys and a third child on the way, says she catches herself thinking her children "need" whatever her friends' children have. But she skips getting together with mom friends for romp-and-roll gym class.
"We romp and roll at the park," she said. "I've never heard someone say I really wish my mom would have gotten me that Barbie. I hear people saying I wish that my mom and dad had been home more or listened to me more or that I felt more loved."
For some parents, thoughts of their own childhoods bubble up when it comes to money.
Meri Rogers, who lives in the southwest Missouri town of Webb City, has three boys and a girl. Sophia, 6, is a budding Hannah Montana fan with exactly one Miley Cyrus item to her name, a "girls rule" necklace. The thought of piling on the Miley or spending big for Hannah concert tickets that went earlier this year for $350 and more doesn't enter into Rogers' parenting equation.
Rogers, 38, grew up on a 180-acre farm not far from her town, her family of five and nine foster kids living off their garden, and the cattle and pigs they raised for slaughter.
"I distinctly remember having one pair of pants for most of a school year and being thankful they were white because that way I could match them with different shirts," she said.
Rogers is content to live off her husband's $50,000-a-year salary as the controller for an electric company as they whittle down thousands in debt. Growing up as she did, it's hard for her to hear her kids beg for things at the checkout line or complain about coming up short in other material ways, like not being able to participate in expensive sports leagues.
"Our basic theory is you're not put on this earth to collect as much crap as you can before you die. We do very simple things for the birthdays and they seem to accept it," said Rogers, who tries for teachable moments with her kids on money issues without "making them feel guilty for having desires."
They attend free or low cost concerts and other cultural offerings around town and seek out discounts at the local skate park and gymnastics spot. They go to the library up the street once a week and buy store brands when grocery shopping. They rotate extracurricular activities.
"I don't want to begrudge them everything that they want. It's a balancing act. I was raised so poor and never, ever would I have asked for anything silly or expensive. My oldest was fussing the other day over his ice cream being wrong in the cup or something and it just threw me back. I was like, 'Don't you even ... "'
Jennifer Witteborg's dad hung sheetrock and drywall for a living across the country from Rogers in San Diego. Her mom stayed home with Witteborg and her eight brothers and sisters. Now a 49-year-old mother of five, Witteborg lives in tiny Rixeyville, Va., with her husband and two high school kids still left at home.
"Last year and this year, my younger daughter's prom dresses were purchased at the local thrift shop for $10 plus tax. Luckily she's cool about doing that kind of thing," she said.
Witteborg gives her kids $30 or $40 in cash for Christmas so they can shop the after-holiday sales and get "more bang for their buck." The couple pulled the plug on volleyball camp for their youngest daughter this summer because of the expense and renovated their kitchen and bathroom themselves ahead of a graduation party for one of their sons.
Said Witteborg: "At 3 a.m., my son Alan looked up from hammering the subflooring in the kitchen and asked, 'Haven't you heard of child labor laws?' I laughed and said, 'You're 18, get back to work!"'