Plastic fantastic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

There was a show on television recently that featured the Duggar family of Arkansas which has 14 children (due to become 15 during the course of the one- hour broadcast).

Those of us in Hong Kong with significantly fewer children watched in wonder, pondering such essential questions as: how do they all fit in the lift? (they live in the country); how many taxis do they need? (they have their own minibus); how do they find a vacant bathroom? (they're building a new house with nine bathrooms); where do they go to school? (they're home-schooled at their kitchen table); what do the neighbours think? (what neighbours? They all moved away after the 10th child.)

But one of the reasons I kept my eyes glued to the screen was to find the answer to a more perplexing, personal question: how do they pay for all those children? A recent American report stated that, for lower to higher income families, it costs about US$200,000 to raise a child to the age of 17. And that's only for starters. It keeps going if the child is frivolous enough to want to go to university.

I doubt that the cost in Hong Kong is any less, given the real estate situation that lures us into our gilded cages and the private education system that attracts us with its pledge of 'No exams for six-year-olds'.

Hong Kong parents do have fiscal worries even though, by and large, our output won't win the propagation sweepstakes. So how do Mr and Mrs Duggar do it? Manage their finances, that is.

For one thing, they live by three rules: if you can't pay cash, don't buy it; never buy new; and learn to make repairs. And the unspoken rule buried deep beneath their crates of string beans and laundry: there are a lot more important things in life than money.

As I watched the Duggars (above) in action, I was reminded of a trip my family took to Ocean Park about four years ago (for the Duggars that would be five children ago). Before we had taken 15 steps into the park, we had broken the Duggars' first two rules: we bought our admission tickets with plastic and we bought the first souvenirs we could find to appease our over-excited children.

Later that day, when my wife was out looking for food (a violation of another Duggar rule, I'm certain, which must be something like 'always bring your own food and water') I was in charge of the two kids. While I stationed the oldest in a line-up for a bouncing castle, I rolled the youngest in his stroller to a shady spot, where I began adding up the cost of the day in my already fiscally exploding head. Then I noticed my oldest calling me over. Because of the barrier stopping miniature queue jumpers, I couldn't get close enough to hear his words, but his gestures seemed to indicate we should buy one of these nifty bouncing castles on our way out of the park. After a few more ineffective attempts at communication, a father who was waiting with his own child beside mine cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: 'He says he loves you!'

At that moment, with apologies to the Duggars, I bought the sun, the moon and the stars. On Visa.