If you agree that life is more complicated every day and any help in simplifying matters would be welcome, then consider for a moment a two-step approach to dealing with the leading cause of disagreement in my house: Money!
My children ask a lot of questions and, for most of their lives, I have taught them that the simple answer to every question is always: Money.
Yes, that is callous and no, money is not the answer to every question they pose, but it is definitely the dominating factor in the discussion, especially if they have reached their teen years. Any parent who has to think for just a few moments before answering a question from a 15-year-old, likely is trying to decide if they can … or can’t … afford the answer they’re about to give.
Which brings us to Part II of one way to lead a simpler life: Can I pay cash for this?
It’s a yes or no answer in my house. Yes! I have the money in my pocket (preferred answer) or I have it in the bank if I choose to write a check for it. We don’t use credit cards with our kids, meaning they don’t have one and we don’t use ours to answer their questions.
I will confess that this has caused disagreements, especially when first applied. My oldest son regularly asked for something while standing in the checkout line, and I regularly asked him if he had the money in his pocket to pay for it.
“No … but I,” he would whine in his little voice, and I would quickly cut him off with my standard reply: “Do something around the house to earn some money, and you can use it to buy whatever you want, whenever you want it.”
Kids Catch On Quickly
It didn’t take long before the same answer worked as we passed fast-food restaurants and toy stores and sporting goods stores, etc. He didn’t want things nearly as much when the money came out of his pocket.
Fortunately, the oldest passed that along to the next two boys, who asked all the same questions and would have received all the same replies, if their older brother didn’t step in and do the work for us. That alone – having a peer answer the question instead of the parent – was worth the effort.
Of course, as they got older, this did not stop them from wondering out loud the same thing most teenagers wonder: Why can’t they go on vacation President’s Day weekend like so many of their friends? Why do they have to wear the same jacket they wore last winter? Why aren’t they getting a car for their 16th (or 18th) birthday? And why do they have to pay for most of their college education?
These are all legitimate questions that led to some great discussions about the value of having money, why it answers so many questions and how to get some of those answers yourself.
Zero Debt is the Goal
Two of the three boys are in college now, and we saw the value to all of this as soon as they left home. The oldest one has paid for 75 percent of his education himself. He will graduate in May with zero debt. That is quite an accomplishment when you consider that 67 percent of the graduating class of 2013 has taken out loans to pay for school, and their average debt is $27,000.
My second son is only a freshman at a state university, but he learned fast from his older brother. They both started with a prepaid college tuition plan. The second one also went away to college, accepted no loans and kept expenses low. The result is that savings from a high school job will allow him to get through his freshman year of college with no debt. He understands that he needs a summer job to re-supply his bank account and already has made plans to work.
Our youngest son is a sophomore in high school. He has applied for a summer job and intends to put away money for the same purpose. Like his brothers, he does not own a car, does not have much of a wardrobe and doesn’t own a credit card. He pays for what he wants with the cash in his pocket … or waits another day.
That’s really not such a bad thing for kids to do. The unexpected bonus from this life of thrift is that they have plenty to look forward to. Buying a car, going on vacation, dining out – getting a credit card! – will be great moments for them in the coming years. It’s a guarantee that they will appreciate those milestones a little more when they reach them.
And for me and my wife? We feel lucky that we stumbled onto a simple, productive way to answer our children’s questions.
Bill Fay is a staff writer for Debt.org, America’s Debt Help Organization. Bill has a wide-ranging background in reporting and writing, including for daily newspapers and magazines and also for public officials.