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Baby steps, giant expenses

mumbai Updated: Sep 05, 2010 00:49 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Riddhima Mehta (6) is adamant. “Barbie is what I want, mama,” she whines, picking the Rs 1,200 doll off the store shelf.

Koyal Mehta (37) is holding up a very similar doll, trying to entice her daughter with a less expensive copy of the skinny icon.

“I don’t want a lookalike,” says Riddhima. “I want the real Barbie.”

Koyal raises her eyebrows; she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference, but her six-year-old is already brand-conscious.

Since Koyal and her husband, an MBA with a multinational corporation, recently forked out Rs 1 lakh for the little girl’s annual International Baccalaureate school fees, they are trying to cut down on expenses.

“But Riddhi is too young to understand that,” says Koyal.

On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court — much to the chagrin of parents — set aside a government resolution that sought to regulate fee hikes in private unaided schools.

But the really bad news is that school fees, as exorbitant as they sometimes are, form just a slice of what parents today are spending on raising and educating their children.

There are tuition classes, extra-curricular activities and hobby classes, sports gear and equipment, electronic goods, entertainment, birthday parties and gifts for others’ birthdays, plus pocket money. And this is in addition to the standard clothes, shoes, snacks, school supplies and doctors’ appointments.

As prices rise and demands mount — often driven by peer pressure, a fear of their child being overtaken and, of course, relentless marketing — parents are finding themselves forced to cancel annual getaways and take on extra work so they can give their children what are now considered basics in a certain milieu.

A number of parents are also choosing to have only one child because they simply can’t afford another.

Take Manjushree Patil (38), a Thane resident and education consultant.

A few years ago, she and her husband Prasad, an IT consultant, were intent on a sibling for their six-year-old son Anvay.

“Anvay often says he wants a baby sister,” she says. “But now we just want to give him a well-rounded childhood. Finance was one of the many factors that made us take this decision.”

A well-rounded childhood means exposure to sports, arts and entertainment. So Anvay attends gymnastic and skating classes that cost Rs 500 per week.

So far, Manjushree has consciously avoided the PlayStation and laptop, but even so, the first year of preschool alone cost Rs 80,000 — Rs 55,000 in fees, and an additional Rs 25,000 in ‘non-refundable admission fees’.

“I’m just glad we live in the suburbs,” says Manjushree. “Things are much cheaper here.”

The struggle between helping her husband provide for their son and balancing the expenses of a daycare centre or nanny have also seen Manjushree opt to be a “fleximom”, working as a consultant part-time.

“It’s a cycle,” she says. “You either go out, work hard and pay daycare centre or nanny fees. Or you stay home, lose the extra income and save on those expenses.”

Psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria says she meets several parents who are similarly feeling the stress.

“Most working parents spend on nannies and daycare centres. And then go through the guilt of not spending enough time with their children, which they try and make up for by fulfilling their materialistic demands,” she says. “In a competitive city like Mumbai, parents also feel insecure if their child does not have what the kid next door has.”

Take Heena (45, last name withheld on request). A Borivali resident, she spends Rs 1.6 lakh annually on school fees for her 14-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. And an additional Rs 10,000 a year — per subject — on after-school tuition classes.

“Given the tremendous competition, you want to give your children that extra edge,” she says. “And then there are school picnics, summer camps, projects, school bus fees and expensive stationery. Just multiply your school fees by three. That is what the real expenditure is — on school alone.”

To foot the bills, she and her husband — a businessman — have been forced to cut down on long holidays, expensive clothes for themselves and even socialising.

Entertainment is a whole other ball game. “Every time my family of four steps out, I spend close to Rs 2,000,” says Vikrant Sharma (37), a commercial artist and father of seven-year-old twins. “Each movie ticket costs Rs 250, then there’s popcorn and travelling costs… it all adds up.”

There are, of course, parents who say there are ways to make it work.

“My children call me ‘Monisha’,” says Dr Jyoti Vatsaraj (46), a dentist, referring to a famously stingy character from TV sitcom Sarabhai vs Sarabhai.

“I don’t mind. I grew up in a middle-class family and I want to make sure they grow up valuing money like we did.”

Vatsaraj doesn’t compromise on education, but she makes sure to cut expenses elsewhere. Her children go to reasonably priced schools, do not use branded goods and use public transport as much as possible. And they rarely complain, she says.

Her son, now 13, is in Class 8 and Vatsaraj has already started planning the additional expenses in the run-up to his Board exams.

“He’s old enough to go out, so he needs more pocket money,” she says. “Tuition fees will also rise. We know of these things, so we start planning in advance.”