A while back, I got to take my family to Disney on Ice at NRG Park, and over the past several years, I’m also the reporter who tells you fine people whether or not the circus is worth attending (generally, yes, but I’ll let you know for sure this summer). Every time I head to these big stadium events, I drop around $50 on food for a family of three, and not really good food at that. Why?
For a long time I resisted doing it. Paying $12 for cotton candy just because it includes a free tiara that looks like it came from a Dollar Store craft aisle is insanity by most conventional definitions. That’s not even getting into my collection of decorative mugs, each one costing $15 dollars, to provide my daughter with a snow cone as she watches ice-skating princesses or human cannonballs. I just grumbled like the cheapskate I am as I shelled out dough for this stuff.
Last year I tried to explain my opposition to my wife, why it made sense to just eat a nice big dinner before heading out so we didn’t end up spending so much on food that wasn’t particularly restaurant quality and that on top of it was a pain in the ass to get to your seat in a crowd. She was quiet for a minute, and told me that she mostly wanted to do it because some of the happiest memories she had of her father involved eating popcorn with him at the circus. That’s when I really got it.
When you struggle financially like we used to, it becomes a habit to view every single thing you do only in the context of the money it costs and not what it buys in the context beyond basic needs. You would never pay $5 for a small plate of nachos and a soda at the grocery store, so it feels weird to do it someplace else. There’s always something in the back of your mind adding up what “treats” are going to take out your ability to keep the lights on.
That’s a really hard mind-set to turn off, even if you’re no longer struggling. You just get used to going without to get by, and even something like Disney on Ice or the circus you do by half measures. You experience a lesser version of everything out of habit.
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So this year I decided to stop. Just stop. Stop thinking of everything in terms of overspending for food, and budget it all as part of the experience. Yes, I’m shelling out $15 for a snow cone in a commemorative cup in the shape of Olaf the Snowman’s head. Yes, I’m going to get an old-school box of popcorn that looks like a movie prop, and I’m going to munch on it sipping on a lidless soda the way I used to with my dad at Astros games. I’m going to get a hot dog and smear it with mustard and onions, not giving one single flipping damn whether or not it lives up to other, better dogs in Houston or costs the same as an entire package of those cheap Bar S wieners I used to eat three times a week.
The kid wants a pretzel. The wife wants nachos and maybe one of those fancy lemonades in yet another overpriced silly cup. Sure. I put those things on the budget for going out now instead of grudgingly trying to talk everyone out of the consumable aspect of a family outing. Why? Because it’s the simple, tangible and in this case taste-able aspects of growing up that form memories, and I’ve got a six-year-old girl who is forming those memories right now. Teaching her financial prudence is important, sure, but teaching her that family is worth spending money on is also on the list of things she should know.
I worked for movie theaters in Houston most of my teens (miss you, River Oaks!), and I’ve heard every complaint about concession prices you can think of and probably a few you can’t. I’ve even been one of those people a few times, but I can tell you one thing I know for sure. You will remember the film that captivated you as you sat sharing a tub of popcorn with your family more than you will ever remember whatever brief window of extra financial security you bought by not buying that. Everything in moderation, of course, but sometimes expensive, crappy food is worth more than you think.