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Mary Feely: They want us to start spending? Well here's one surefire way -- just bring the children shopping

By now we all know the theory: to get our economy swinging again (or at least quivering), consumers need to feel confident.

Once consumers believe they're on the up and up, goes the thinking, they'll pry the padlocks off their piggybanks. The shops will fill, sales staff will be hired, VAT will pour into Government coffers and all will be well.

This line of reasoning is why economists -- and God knows why we're still listening to them -- issue report after report tracking consumer sentiment.

It's all nonsense, of course. Some of us are quietly terrified, but nonetheless spending as if it's Christmas Eve 2006.

Despair

Step forward the unrecognised heroes of the recession: Irish parents.

We're the consumers who are forced to keep on consuming, no matter how dark the despair in our hearts.

Do I feel richer than last year? Do I think I'll be richer again next year? Of course not.

I'm distinctly worse off, just like everyone else (well, except most judges). Much as I'd like to put all my earnings into a tin box and bury them in the garden, I just can't stop spending.

My heart says, save. My head says, would you ever shut up and let me get on with this shopping list?

When you have children, you have to buy them stuff. You yourself may be wearing socks you bought on sale six years ago, but they need new stuff.

All the time.

So it's a whirlwind of spend, spend, spend, no matter how gloomy I may feel about my future prospects.

In the past month alone, I've shelled out €75 on hiking boots so that the Scout of the family could go camping in the Lake District (cost of trip €400, plus €100 spending money).

The middle child needed runners (€50), school shoes (€45), school trousers (€16) and pinafore (€20).

The youngest also needed school shoes, plus a school tracksuit (€34).

Then, oh joy, the school books: €340 so far, with more to be bought, plus all the pencils, pens and gel pens, crayons, Twistables, rubbers, copies, refill pads, binders, dividers, plastic pockets...

Miser

So many extras are ignored by the cost-of-living index.

One child just finished her first round of swimming lessons and had to be registered for the next level (€73). Two had to see an orthodontist. (This usually costs €100 per mouth, but he felt sorry for me and cut the bill to €75 each. Possibly this is because one child definitely needs braces, and hundreds of euro will flow from me to the orthodontist over the coming years.)

Even as my inner miser moans, we're eyeing up some big-ticket items. We need a new chest of drawers and maybe a new wardrobe for, yes, the kids' clothes. Our 1994 car is just about extinct. Much as we'd like to replace it with the cheapest motor on the market, we can't because we need five seats (at least).

Don't get me wrong. I'm not whingeing about the cost of raising my children. I'm just using these real-life examples to prove that children are the true engine of consumer spending.

One Government minister, dour Dermot Ahern, recently said we should all stop saving and start spending. Let me suggest one surefire way of making this happen: insist that all shoppers are accompanied by a five-year-old.

As I staggered through a department store, grabbing armloads of girls' tights, socks, polo shirts and knickers, the sales pitch from my youngest was unrelenting: "Sunglasses! I want sunglasses! Flip-flops! I need flip-flops! These would be good shoes for me! Cool, a princess pen. Can I have a princess pen? And bubbles! Will you get me bubbles?"

As I stood waiting to pay (€35), I had one question on my mind.

Whatever did I spend money on before I had children? I can't imagine.

It sure wasn't princess bubbles (€2).


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