The best things in life may not be free, if you spend a lot of time on social media

  • Turns out, browsing social media is not free. Looking at Instagram or Pinterest could take a bite out of your wallet.
  • About a quarter of parents say they’re likelier to spend money on their kids when they see other people spending money on the same activity on social media, according to a Credit Karma survey.
Mother and little son relaxing together on the couch with cell phone and tablet
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We're used to kids caving to peer pressure — yet parents, too, can fall victim to the "everyone else is doing it" mentality when they're on social media.

Financial advice website Credit Karma reached out to parents to learn more about their biggest struggles.

The survey revealed intense feelings of FOMO, or the fear of missing out, and people admitted that social media and other outside pressures were driving them to go into debt, according to Maizie Simpson, data and news editor at Credit Karma.

More than half of parents answering the survey, commissioned by Credit Karma and conducted by Qualtrics, said they'd spent money they didn't have on nonessential items or experiences for their kids. Parents said they had borrowed money, turned to credit cards or taken out loans to pay for these things.

The site surveyed 1,000 U.S. parents over the age of 21 online in May. Most parents in the survey have kids under the age of 18.

The survey defines nonessential items as anything not necessary for survival.

"Another thing that really stood out," Simpson said, "is that a quarter of parents said seeing other parents do something on social media made them more likely to spend money on those things."

In other words, all the other parents are doing it.

"We think of social media as something that inspires younger demographics to do things, but it has a similar impact on parents," Simpson said.

Reasons for overspending include fear of being judged by their friends or by other parents. Some parents expressed concern that their kids would face judgment by their peers.

At a time when a quarter of Americans across all ages and demographics have no emergency savings, Simpson says this behavior leading to debt is concerning.

"We knew it was a trend, but we were surprised at the extent," Simpson said. "That the majority of parents in the U.S. are doing this is pretty shocking."

Overspending seems to pair with another behavior: keeping secrets. About a third of parents don't tell their partners when they go into debt, Simpson says. They also don't tell their children.

Financial experts say parents need to set priorities and base their spending decisions accordingly.

Once you've chosen college and music lessons as important goals, set aside money on a regular basis, says Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and senior advisor at Money Matters. "If there is money left over, then and only then should any money be spent on anything else," Moraif said.

Watch these expenses

Kids are expensive, says Todd Hoffman, a CFP at Steward Partners. Families need to control their spending in these categories if they want to meet their longer-range goals.

School costs

First up is the all-important school decision. If you have limited resources, Hoffman recommends asking yourself if it makes sense to pay for private school, or set that money aside for college.

Some public schools have specialty programs, such as the International Baccalaureate, that make them worth considering. Religiously affiliated schools may offer appropriate programs and cost less than other private schools.

Vacation spending

Everyone needs a vacation, Hoffman says, recalling some favorite memories of leaky tents and crowded station wagon seating from his own childhood. A Disney trip would have been fabulous, "but it wasn't in the cards for my family," he said.

Overspending on extravagant vacations at the cost of more pressing things is a huge mistake, Hoffman says. There are activities and getaways to suit a range of family budgets, without turning to credit card financing and the resulting debt.

Gifts and parties

Like vacations, gifts and parties should be for the kids, not the parents. "It's not about outdoing your neighbors or having Instagrammable pictures to post on social media," Hoffman said.

Clothes, games and events

When you add up clothes, computers, games, online subscriptions and special events, it can be a daunting amount. "Remember that spending online is still spending real money," Hoffman said.

That means your subscriptions to Netflix, HBO and the Disney channel can add up. Once you throw in the monthly cellphone bills and some concert tickets, costs can spiral out of control. Recurring monthly expenses can derail your plans, Hoffman says.

"Parents often need to just say 'no,'" Hoffman said. "Buy what your budget allows and spend the time teaching your children about the value of money and how much luxury products actually cost."

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