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The Incomparable Advantage of Having to Work for what you Get

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“Early Retirement? But what about paying for your kids’ educations?”

“I could never match your low spending – I’ve got two teenagers in the house, and that means two more cell phone plans, two more car insurance premiums, and a heck of a lot of clothes.”

“I call myself “Mom’s Taxi”, because most of the driving I do is shuttling my kids around town to their activities”.

“I don’t want to retire with just enough money for myself – I want to leave something for my kids!”

“I’d be close to financial independence now – if I didn’t have two daughters getting married next year with weddings at $35,000 a pop!”.

“This year, we decided to really go all-out on Christmas, so we spent about $3,000 on gifts.”

 

It’s all noble and generous-sounding on the surface. As a parent, you want to give your kids all the advantages you didn’t have when growing up yourself. You earn much more than your parents did at this age, and so it is appropriate for a person of your economic standing to splash it out onto your offspring. Isn’t it?

The only thing is, in most cases you’re creating a double whammy of wrongness. Wrong because you’re spending more money than necessary, which means incurring more debt, working longer, and having less time to live your own life. And more importantly, you are probably programming your kids to expect handouts, and displacing their own healthy learning, effort, and growth with the leather-upholstered La-Z-Boy of your easy flowing cash.

Once again, my odd upbringing in another country is what allows me to bring you this new perspective. Although it may be hard to imagine for members of the wealthy middle-class of the United States to believe, it is not actually necessary to fund the lifestyles of your children, once they stop being children.

Let’s use a bit of Money Mustache history as an example. I’ve got two older sisters and a younger brother. As was prone to happen in the 1960s, our parents started the family far too young, and with far too little money to comfortably handle so many offspring. Over time, a spartan lifestyle and increasing income allowed them to get ahead of the curve eventually, but the frugal habits never left them – and still haven’t to this day.

As a result, we kids never experienced the fabled lifetime shower of parental handouts. We each got a bedroom and some great home cooking every day, but beyond that, the financial benefits thinned. A $1.00 per week allowance could be extracted if you handled the household trash-hauling. $5 was on tap for anyone willing to cut the 1/2 acre lawn. Getting places by car was something you could do once you turned 16, funded your own insurance and gas, and asked politely to borrow the minivan. Although mobile phones were not yet invented, good video games were just coming to market, and I’ll let you guess who was expected to pay for those. And a university education, while it was understood that you would want to get yourself one, was something you work for several years to save for, so you could get through the first year in order to resume working to pay for the second. Parental assistance was provided, but it was just enough to boost your own savings to the level required for a debt-free education.

Fashionable clothes in high school? Easily handled with the generous pay from your part-time job at the convenience store. Beer and other party supplies? Likewise. Restaurants and coffee shops? Dream on, those are for adults with real jobs. Plane tickets to Daytona Beach for spring break or Amsterdam for a summer of backpacking? An ideal thing to save for, perhaps in a few years once you are financially independent!

And as for the concept of inheritances and estates that are so popular with the rich: What a load of rubbish! By the time you die, your kids will be out prospering on their own. What good will extra money do them, when they have already figured out how to earn it for themselves? And why would you want to deny your grandchildren the opportunity to learn the same thing?

If you could go back to the early ’90s and ask Teen Money Mustache if he would like any of those perks, his eyes would glaze over at the possibility and he would suddenly be overcome with jealousy and desire. But if you ask me right now if I wish I had received such pampering, you already know the answer: “Hell no!”. I’m eternally grateful for every bit of hard work I have had the privilege of doing in my life so far.

Thank goodness for that job working at the gas station in the dead of winter. Without that, I never would have known how great every subsequent job was. And thank you for the completely barebones life I lived all through university, for without that I would never appreciate how incredibly luxurious my family’s almost-$30,000-per-year  lifestyle is right now. And thanks, Mom and Dad, for ensuring that money was treated as a precious resource not to be wasted, for without that perspective I never would have learned to handle it properly, allowing me to save enough to retire from corporate work before starting my own family.

This is not to say that I’ve deluded myself into thinking I am some kind of superlative self-made man. I have had loads of advantages handed to me, including being born in a rich country, raised by the right parents and siblings, taught by the right teachers, and many other things.  There is plenty of good luck in my past, not the least of which is the luck of having parents which handed me fewer silver-plated luxuries than most other parents give their own kids.

What’s this? Am I saying that a disadvantage actually ends up being an advantage? I sure am.

Because of being raised in an environment where money was something that was never wasted, all four of the Money Mustache Siblings are responsible with the stuff now. I don’t think any one of us has ever run a credit card balance or financed a shiny new car. Everyone knows how to drive a manual transmission, use a table saw, give a good haircut, and set up a tent. And we’re no anomaly – this pattern is seen among children of frugal and non-materialistic parents around the world. It’s not a guaranteed recipe, but it’s great odds.

Meanwhile, the misguided use of pampering has the opposite effect. From my morose and spoiled first Trust Funder housemate in Boulder, through the bratty teens of reality TV shows and all the way up to the troublesome offspring of certain well-known billionaires, it is clear that money does not grease the way to a better upbringing for kids. While it is certainly possible for rich and highly generous parents to raise wonderful offspring, it is never the money that is creating the good character.

And this brings us to the second part of this equation. You.

If you are one of the 99% of people who is forced to live with only a finite amount of money, you should probably give some thought to how that money is spent. You can buy things, like cars and cell phone plans for your kids, or you can buy freedom, in the form of paying off your debts, saving most of what you earn, and soon being able to choose your own work schedule or even retire early.

When you become a parent, this kind of freedom takes on a far bigger meaning. Your children become the most important thing in your life, which means your job can no longer occupy this place. And that’s great, because with money worries out of the way, it no longer has to. Instead, you can start devoting mental energy to figuring out what kind of real advantages you can give those kids. Do you want to make their lives easier, and give them an early taste for as many material things as possible? Or do you want to do the opposite – putting a bit of challenge into each day, and teaching them that life is not about you and your stuff. It’s about you and the people around you, in the natural environment in which we all share.

My own son has learned that you generally don’t buy toys or presents – you make them*. TV is something people in previous generations used to watch – nowadays we have the unlimited book collection of the Library for entertainment. And getting to and from school is not something you’d use a car for – since you’re strong enough, you use your bike. In the dead of winter, you add a hat and gloves.  As he gets older, this old-fashioned education will expand to include how to take care of your health, how to build and care for things, and eventually how to become rich. I find it fascinating to watch my little boy as he grows up and figures things out for himself. Outside observers find it shocking to observe how rarely the spending of large sums of money is required in such an endeavor.

It takes more time to raise a kid this way, but that works out well, because more time is exactly what you get in exchange for showering them with less of your money.

Addendum on Education:

After publishing this, I can see that the comments are bringing up a discussion of whether or not it is helpful to pay for a child’s higher education. While everyone will make that decision for themselves, here are my thoughts on it:

Mrs. MM and I are more excited about supporting our son than anything else in life. We’ve got his back. So in the likely event that he chooses to get a university education and the unlikely event that he has not found ways to earn his own money in advance and/or get enough scholarships, we have the resources to pay whatever bills might come up.

The thing is, you don’t have to know this stuff in advance. First of all, university is far from being the only gateway to a successful and productive life. Second, the cost varies astronomically depending on how you approach it. And third, given the right opportunities and an entrepreneurial upbringing, it is entirely possible for kids in high school to earn five and six-figure incomes based on brilliant things they have come up with on their own.

As a parent, you don’t depend on  things like this to make ends meet. But you also don’t close the door on them by telling your kids, “You will go to university. It’s the only way to get a good job. We will pay for it, so there’s no need for you to think outside of the box. Just go study for your calculus test.”

If you teach your kids the true nature of society and life, there is no box.

 

*with the enormous loophole that certain toys come from grandparents – you gotta bend to reality at least a little bit, right?

  • FI Pilgrim July 3, 2014, 9:04 am

    My first “real” job was working at a contaminated dirt processing plant, where I raked the lime-coated wet dirt away from all the conveyor belts for 12 hour night-shifts, 6 days a week. It only lasted for a few months when I was 16 years old, but I credit that job for lighting a fire under my butt and giving me a lot of the success I’ve had in the IT industry for the last 16 years. What an advantage!

    Reply
  • Nikki July 3, 2014, 8:47 pm

    The only thing I ask any parent is, keep your promise to your child. My mother promised to pay for my college education, as long as it didn’t cost more than the local college. I got an almost full scholarship to an Ivy-League college – the only reason it wasn’t a full scholarship is because they believed that the student and family should contribute to the college education. The difference? About the same as the cost to attend my local college. My mother refused to pay for it. I took out loans, and did okay (despite some really stupid mistakes), but I really wish she had kept her promise – it caused a lot of resentment for years.

    Reply
  • Linnea November 27, 2014, 3:14 pm

    And by the way, there are countries where higher education is pretty good and 100% free.
    Sweden, Denmark and Germany for example.

    Reply
  • Geraldine April 20, 2015, 12:57 pm

    Excellent post, I totally agree with your point.

    Reply
  • Reinventedbyme April 30, 2015, 12:37 am

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time (I read a lot). My wife and I grew up in families where we didn’t have to work TOO hard EVER. Differing degrees on each side but let’s just call us both pampered princesses in relation to this article.

    But at 19 the safety net was drawn, umbilicle cord cut and I was left to find my own way.

    Due to some unknown factor that my siblings and spouse don’t share, I managed to to sneak into the white collar world and do “just enough” to climb near the top of that corporate ladder with no college degree.

    Problem is: the ladder seems “so tough” and there were quite a few lucky boosts along the way.

    Wife and I know our pampered upbringings were not the best thing for us and that we more than likely lucked out to have our current income level.

    I’ve always known we need to do it differently as parents but this perspective is more than helpful. It’s eye opening.

    Reply
  • snowcanyon November 6, 2015, 8:35 pm

    Wow, just came across this post. I guess for me this is a YMMV situation. I grew up middle class with wealthy relatives and have had a totally different experience. My cousins had music lessons and sports and private school. I had public education and zilch for extracurriculars. No sports, no music, no foreign languages, nothing. Years of underfunded school, scrimping, and hard work. I hated watching my parents pursue their fruity artistic careers while I had few opportunities. I have no idea what I gained from all that hard work. Just more hard work, I guess.

    It’s great that the MMMs find happiness in a midsize city with hot weather and doing their own projects. But some people really are better suited to piano and tennis lessons and big cities. For those of us with different needs and tastes, working to achieve a middle class lifestyle is at best tolerable but not fulfilling.

    The lessons I learned were that hard work is crushing, opportunities are lost that can’t be regained, and that maybe the only solace is isolation and reading. None of us has the choice to be born into wealth, but if I had the choice I certainly wouldn’t pick having to work for a living.

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    • Aimee February 26, 2016, 10:19 am

      With an attitude like yours, I’m sure you’ll get far in life!

      Reply
  • Mukene August 20, 2016, 4:30 pm

    When I was done high school, I needed a new pair of shoes and my dad said to me, ‘here are tomatoes. Sell them and whatever money you get is yours.’ Was I ever unhappy. I was his child and it was his responsibility to provide for me. I sold the tomatoes and I sold them with an angry passion! I made quite a bit of money (more than enough for many pairs of shoes) and in hindsight I realized that yes, he would have bought me shoes and that would have been the end of that, however, a great discovery had been made about what I was actually capable of.

    Fast forward to my move to Canada where my dad told me that he would pay for one year of Uni and after that, I was on my own. I had some really tough times because I was paying international student fees but I hustled and made connections like you wouldn’t believe. As well, because I was paying for myself, my grades mattered a lot! International student scholarships were very few and had specific requirements that tended to exclude me. And then I discovered that after a few conversations with the scholarship and awards office that the scholarships were hardly exhausted and if you had the grades and a compelling letter to back your application, you would almost always get a scholarship. I would never have known that had my dad continued paying for my tuition.
    That being said, being allowed to fend for myself was likely the best thing that happened to me. With kids, I would likely point them towards those avenues that I had to discover for myself. That will be my helping hand. If I have tomatoes, I will also get them to sell them.

    Reply
    • Juan August 22, 2016, 9:37 am

      Completely agree! As an international student my parents could not cover the high costs of tuition in the U.S. so I always had to find scholarships and/or work to cover most of the education costs. I can say I am much better off now as a result of having to go through it!

      Hoping to be able to pass on the same benefit to my kids. I have to admit it will be difficult to do it through college costs because I will be able to pay for their tuition if need be, and I can imagine it would be hard to say no to that.

      Reply
  • Erica November 30, 2016, 2:08 pm

    My dad always had a rule: education was my job and he’d take care of the necessities. We always had the clothes we needed, and he’d fund occasional and approved activities as long as we had good grades. Additional or summer money I earned would fund additional activities, and I did things like work with Student Government to get into dances and school games for free. Even for prom, which my dad did pay for, I spent a total of $100 by sharing a limo, buying my dress at a discount store and buying my shoes in clearance. I used my great grandmother’s costume jewlery instead of buying new cheap crap.

    Because my state has a generous free-ride scholarship for those in the top 10% of your class, my parents offered free room and board if we stayed at a state school. I ended up getting a full ride plus several more scholarships at a state college on the east coast thanks to my grades and SAT scores, and I am eternally grateful to my parents for helping me focus in high school. I felt accomplished before I even left because I was able to do it all myself.

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  • Kevin April 17, 2017, 10:40 pm

    interesting topic. I did not get financial help to pay for tuition from my parents, though i did live at home during my undergrad. my tuition was paid for with a combination of summer and school year work and about $7K in student loans (i know, tiny amount in the grand scheme). now in graduate school (where i’m fully funded), that debt is now destroyed (not soon enough, but i didn’t read MMM and realize it was a flaming debt emergency until a couple months ago). I think i will not provide post-secondary tuition for my kids either. even for myself, i could easily have gone the no loan route if i’d just taken a year off after high school and worked, and if i had a do-over i would do just that. at the time that seemed like a non-starter, but that’s just the naivety of youth and trying to stick with the crowd who were all hell-bent on immediate university. the ease with which the government finances the middle class in this area is kind of troubling, and even though it is made out to be a strength of our society, it really just ends up being another burden on the middle class and below, because we are too dumb and the culture too entrenched to realize what a bad deal we are getting. it flies under the radar because folks will say it’s an investment in themselves and people shouldn’t judge, but it’s not all that far from financing a new V8 Dodge pickup, especially in cases where degrees dont lead to employment and debt snowballs. i also think about the number of people who start school and dont really know what they want, and they end up jumping around from field to field, all the while piling up even more debt and lost time. maybe if they took a year off, worked, maybe traveled, volunteered, whatever, they’d come in more focused and just bang a degree out in minimal time with no debt. loans should be for folks who really can’t front any of the tuition themselves, or where staying at home is a non-starter. if we got rid of all the mostly frivolous loans, those really unfortunate folks could just get a grant and have a better chance to get ahead (or we’d pay less taxes). like everything else, it seems we have a tendency to overindulge.

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  • ginna July 17, 2018, 12:03 pm

    BUT the real comment I want to make is that people are so weird about their kids feeling ‘disadvantaged.’ I’ve brought up to friends that their 16-year-old child doesn’t need their own car (much less a brand new one), and their 12-year-old doesn’t need a cell phone plan. Their rebuttals are twofold:

    1. But ALL THEIR FRIENDS have cell phones. Cell phones are the way people make plans now!

    I’m calling bullshit on that right now. All their friends have cell phones because their parents said the same thing. If your kid doesn’t have a cell phone, then the friends’ parents can no longer say that ALL THEIR FRIENDS have cell phones. Secondly, there’s this instantaneous form of communication called EMAIL that is already provided at school, home, and the library, soooo…. if ALL THEIR FRIENDS have cell phones, all their friends will be able to communicate with them instantaneously.

    You can also get phone plans that allow you to pay for texts as you go, so your child could still get important texts without a big bill.

    2. “But it’s DANGEROUS, what if my daughter winds up our of gas on a dark highway at night?”

    If anything, the sharing economy and rise of car / home share businesses has shown that the vast majority of strangers want to help out. I’ve been broken down on the highway 2x, and so many people stopped and offered to call for help on their phones.

    If you’re so worried, get them an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone for emergencies, not a phone with 5 million game apps and email and, and, and.

    2. I want to throw up when people say they don’t want their kids to feel ‘disadvantaged.’ Since I’ve become more independent (working, thrifting my clothes, and riding my bike), I have so much joy in making my own way in the world. I also value what I have so much more.

    The truth about kids (including me growing up) is that they are BORED. They have no independence due to car-clownacy and life in the burbs. They have little purpose in life other that ‘get good grades.’ That little bit of independence they can have doing babysitting, pet sitting, lawn care gigs is a taste of freedom and a break from the boredom.

    Reply
  • David December 17, 2018, 10:09 pm

    When I turned 16, I asked my parents about getting a driver’s license. They said OK, but I’d have to pay the incremental insurance premium. I chose to defer getting my license until age 22, after my education was complete. Biking for transportation is still an important part of my life!

    Reply

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