Apr 17, 2008

Teaching our children value and to accept "no" as an answer

This post was inspired by Michelle at Scribbit, who wrote about her decision not to pay for her kids' college education and other alternatives to help prepare children for college financially. One of her suggestions is to teach children to "think cheap," since public universities are a fraction of the cost of expensive private colleges.

Her post got me thinking about my dentist, whose oldest will be entering college in the fall. His daughter's first choice is Tufts. My dentist's first choice for her is UC Davis. The difference in annual expenses? Approximately $25,000.

My dentist doesn't want to say no to Tufts just because of money. And his daughter simply isn't used to her dad refusing her something, particularly when it comes to something as important as education and certainly not just because of money.

My conversation with my dentist reminded me of my own decision on where to go to college. Foolishly, I picked the most expensive private school that I had gotten into - one that hadn't offered me a scholarship. Even more foolishly, my parents didn't say no. (If you're reading this, Mom and Dad, sorry.) Or maybe it wasn't that foolish, at least from a non-financial perspective.

Here's the thing: If my parents had said no, there's no way I would have understood. I probably would have resented them for it - particularly my dad, since he was the family's financial manager. The problem is, I wasn't used to being told I couldn't have something simply because of money.

I grew up very privileged, particularly when it came to experiences and education. My parents spent a lot of money over the years to provide me with enriching experiences and a top-notch education. So by the time it was time for me to go to college, I fully expected that they would prioritize those two things more than, say, managing the expense. And they did.

In retrospect, I wish I'd been mature enough to understand the sacrifice they were making and that they had refused to make it. I'm sure the money could have been put to a much better use, which isn't to say that I didn't have a great experience and that part of who I am is surely due in part to that time in my life. And I'm certainly grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made. But 15 years after graduating, nothing about where I went to college matters. I realize now that all that really mattered after graduation was my GPA, my major, and how hard I worked.

So what I have learned to pass on to my kids?

I've learned to say no.

Not to everything, of course. But I do already explain to my three-year-old that we aren't buying a certain item that he wants because he has too many of the same type of toy at home, or it's not on sale or a good value (even a 99-cent toy is a waste of money if it breaks immediately). As the boys get older, I'll expand the concept to other things (e.g., why get an iPhone when there are less expensive phones that do the same thing?). I know they won't always understand. But at least it won't be a surprise when Mom and Dad refuse to pay $200,000 per year for college (which is probably what private universities will cost!).


Anonymous said...

My daughter started getting allowance when she was 5 years old. It was divided into church/charity, savings, and spending, both short and long term. As she's gotten older, the allowance is bigger; she's now 12 and it's $10/week. $1 to church, at least $1 to savings, $1 to vacation spending, $1 to long term spending, and $6 to spending whenever/whatever. She gets it every 4 weeks, so that $24 is burning a hole in her pocket when it arrives. She's gotten better at it, though. We sit down and go over what she has coming up in the next 2-3 months that we know will require money and she is starting to budget for those items. She also buys a lot of clothes as rummage sales and thrift stores, although I will supplement as needed to make sure she has a basic wardrobe.

The good thing about an allowance is the child no longer keeps asking you if they can have this or that or the other thing because the answer is "do you have enough money for it?" If yes, they can buy it, if no, they can't. Unfortunately, you have to let them buy a crappily made or duplicate item a couple times until they realize they wasted their money. At that point, you can go over with them whether they really need it or if they think it will last or if they wouldn't rather save their money to buy something else that they've been wanting but didn't have enough money for.

It's a good learning process and sometimes they won't pass the test, but eventually the learn and get much better. True for all of us, don't you think?

Kris said...

Great post, Cathy, and you're right on about college. With few exceptions, it doesn't matter where you go, as long as you've acquired some kind of halfway decent degree. So why blow the extra $20,000 a year on private school if a solid public school will give you exactly the same education? A friend of mine went to a pricey private business school in Massachusetts, and ten years later, her loans are still crippling.

Anonymous said...

As you say, it's all about expectations. If you won't be able to realistically pay for your kids expensive colleges then you have to let them know that well in advance. And encourage them to get scholarships and so on.

If they're older and they really don't like the *no* that you're giving for financial reasons, help them to find ways that they can say yes themselves - probably by earning an income, or by hunting out a good deal or,...

Scribbit said...

Thanks for responding to the post, I appreciate hearing your experiences.

I heard one "child expert" (whatever that means :) say that children should learn to get used to wanting something that they can't have because that's part of life. If all of their wishes are fulfilled then that's what they'll come to expect. Seemed to make sense to me.

I mean there are certainly things out there I'd like but can't have right? A Mediterranean cruise . . . my own private spa . . . fresh flowers every day . . . :)

Anonymous said...

This is a great post Cathy! I also wonder how poverty plays into this? There have been some great poverty studies done (Ruby Payne etc) that talk about how often in cases of poverty kids growing up are often never denied anything because their parents desperately WANT to provide everything they can for them. I don't know how many of those same kids go on to college...

I'm so conflicted as a parent about what to do. I was raised in poverty, but had strict parents that never spoiled me because they didn't believe in anything excessive. They never granted an allowance because they believed that families need to help each other (we also had a family business to run). I was a first generation college student and paid for it on my own because they made it clear they didn't know a thing about college, but they thought it was great that I was interested in going. Now as an adult I have the means to provide well for my children but I don't know what to do with all the conflicting messages I received as a kid?????


Chief Family Officer said...

@Mar - I think that's rather brilliant, what you're doing!

@Kris - I guess it's all a matter of perspective. I don't know that anyone or anything could have convinced me when I was 17/18 that it didn't really matter whether I went to a public or private university as long as I did really well.

@Plonkee - Excellent suggestion about older kids - I'm definitely going to remember that one!

@Michelle (Scribbit) - The "expert" certainly makes sense! In my case, though, it's not that my parents never said no, they just tended to say it rather infrequently when it came to education. I'm sure I put them in a very difficult spot when I told them where I wanted to go.

@Jennifer - First, congratulations on putting yourself through college and getting out of poverty. You ask a tough question, but I will say off the bat that I think it's important to share your experiences with your kids as they grow up. Just matter of factly, as neither a good nor bad thing.

My favorite writer, Madeleine L'Engle, often wrote about a "happy medium." Generally speaking, I find it's a good thing to shoot for. I haven't really decided what we're going to do about allowances and so forth, or at least, Marc and I haven't agreed on anything yet. But when we do, I'll let you know!

Janette said...

I think leading by example is best. Everyone knew the household budget(to a certain extent). No credit cards or car loans during their "awareness times" of the teen years. There was always one parent at home or at the school they attended (my dh did the teen years!)
Two kids- same approach- two different outcomes. Child one- knew about college money- went through every penny in four years (and about 60 credits), joined the air force, got married and is VERY happy being a frugal SAHM.
Second child- knew about college money, got into West Point, went to college- spent the money on travel and a car, is becoming a helicopter pilot with a physics degree and is VERY happy being in the air.
Both are VERY good with money.
That is the end goal- correct?

Shan said...

Whenever my husband and I discuss finances, more specifically our long term goals he always brings up our girls schooling. He's always been very concerned about how we will manage to pay for both of them to go to school. My response has always been, why in the world do we have to pay for it. I'm not saying we couldn't help out, but I have no plans on footing the entire bill.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Janette - Great point about leading by example. Thanks for sharing your experience - and congratulations! You obviously did a fantastic job raising your kids!

@Shan - The "experts" always say to make sure you save for retirement before you save/pay for your kids' college education. But I would try to get you and your husband on the same page, even if your kids are young, so that you share the financial priorities and there isn't any resentment in the future. Good luck!