I Can't Stop Buying My Kids Expensive Sneakers. What Is Wrong With Me?

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I understand you’re not supposed to keep up with the Joneses. As a personal finance reporter, I know full well that the Joneses will kill your retirement prospects if you pay them any mind.

They’ll lead you down the primrose path of lifestyle inflation, upgrading your car just because their car is fancy, or putting on a home addition because they’ve added more space. So I keep my head down and do all the things you’d expect from a MONEY staff writer: contribute 13% of each paycheck to my 401(k), stay out of debt, and put $100 a month into each of the 529 college savings accounts that I opened when my sons were babies.

There’s just one problem: my sons pay attention to the Jones’s kids. In particular, they watch what’s on their feet. And where we live, in Brooklyn, the Joneses wear really expensive sneakers. It’s not just their immediate peers — some of the after-school counselors my sons look up to are sneaker heads with pair counts in the hundreds. My sons, 8 and 12, pine for the latest Kyries, the freshest Vans or Converse, and the coolest Timbs.

“Mom, can we go to Foot Locker?” is a frequent refrain, and it’s not like I can say it’s out of the way because there’s a Foot Locker right around the corner from our apartment, and a couple more on the way to school. In the unlikely event we’re out of range of that particular emporium, there are plenty of other places to buy kicks in New York City, the cradle of sneaker culture and home of the original collab, the Run-DMC-Adidas partnership of 1986.

Too often, I give in. Where I am content to troll the discount racks of DSW for my own shoes (to shod feet that are not growing, it should be noted), I find myself routinely shelling out $100 or more for shoes that will be worn for three to four months, max.

Here’s the thing: This need to keep up with the Junior Joneses is blowing a hole in my budget. By my calculations, I forked over at least $810.23 on sneakers over the past year and a half (excluding their cleats for baseball or flag football). That’s more than the monthly mortgage on our two-bedroom apartment, bought 13 years ago in a still-not-hip part of town; it’s 48 pepper and onion pizzas from our go-to-spot, Frank’s on Flatbush, and it’s about what you’d earn on a $10,000 balance in a high-yield (2% APY) savings account after four years.

But it’s not just the money, which, at the end of the day, we can afford because we economize in other areas of our life (see: $800 mortgage). It’s also compromising my values and those I hope to instill in my sons.

What’s wrong with me? I enlisted an expert to help me find out.

Confronting My Bobo Baggage

Turns out, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to my sneaker spending.

There’s baggage that goes all the way back to my own middle school days. Growing up, if they didn’t sell it at T.J. Maxx, I didn’t wear it. That meant no Guess jeans. And that was a problem, particularly in seventh grade. That vicious year, girls would go around asking each other what brand of jeans they were wearing. Since I didn’t have that cute triangle on my butt, I got taunted with, “Elizabeth wears bobo jeans!”

So it’s no surprise that some 30 years later, I don’t want my sons to suffer the same fate, being teased for their bobo sneakers. The $85 that I dropped on my 8-year-old’s Kyrie 5’s is a small price to say for social acceptance at a sensitive age, right?

n one sense, yes. But as much as I want my kids to fit in, my sneaker outlay also makes me queasy. I cringe at the brands that think it’s reasonable to charge $100-plus for what is essentially a cone of rubber and leather. And I cringe at the message I’m sending my kids when I get them the footwear they want. Every. Single. Time.