How Much Should We Give Children?

I was eating lunch with a coworker this week and we were discussing college funds for our kids.  Beyond the fundamental discussion of college savings plans and state versus private college was a more important question; are we even responsible for funding our children’s educations?  Or, should they work their way through college, like we did?  We both agreed working our way through college was one of the things that prepared us for adulthood.  As parents, we want to set our children up for the future.  But, how much is too much?

First Car

A-Body with a 350 ci V8, turbo350 trans and Rochester 4-barrel

Bret's 1970 Buick Skylark

I rode a bicycle five miles each way to work and back, until I could afford a motorcycle.  Then, I rode the motorcycle for a year until I could afford a car.  I borrowed part of the money for the car, which I paid back promptly.  I fixed it up with parts from a junk yard and paid for my own insurance.  I even had to buy my own tools to work on the car.  The Buick became an incredible sense of freedom and accomplishment for me.  Having a car my senior year improved my high school experience dramatically.

I bought my kids reliable used cars, with their full agreement to keep good grades and to pay me back.  Maybe I’m naive, but that turned out to be more difficult for them than I anticipated.  After a while, I began to suspect they were trying to wear me down.  Unfortunately for them, I believe your word is your bond and my requirements for teenage driving never wavered.  I have to admit I was a little disappointed in my kids.  I hoped they would have been more appreciative.  But, most of their friends were given cars and I probably seem like a cheapskate for making them earn theirs.

College Education

Educations is very important to me. It’s very important to everyone in my family.  We all worked our way through college, paid for our own tuition and books and graduated with degrees.  We have also put most of our kids through private school, for at least part of their education.  It’s a huge commitment in time, energy and money.

There is nothing I would rather do for my children than to send them off into adulthood with a college education.  That’s why I started college funds for each of them when they were two.  Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to earn a college degree.  And, cracking the books is a lot harder than watching Greek on TV.  Fortunately, I think my kids both understand why they need a college education.  And, I’m confident they will succeed.  Right now, my son is working his way through and saving his college fund for a house.

Living Expenses

I never mooched off my parents as an adult or what is now fashionably called “getting ahead, by living at home”.  I paid rent from my 18th birthday through my first year of college.  I moved out at 19 and never asked my parents for another dime.  Sure, my folks would have been there for me if I had a problem.  And, I could have stayed at home for much longer, while in college.  But, I wanted to make my own way in the world.  It’s a decision that led to a rough start financially, but it’s one of the things that made me resourceful and self-sufficient.

As for my kids, I have no problem supporting them through college.  I’d much rather have them focus on curriculum than on finding something to eat.  But, I have been very careful to make sure they know it’s a temporary educational situation.  I’m not subsidizing their lifestyles, just their educations.  As soon as the grades drop or they start wasting money, the party’s over.

Weddings & Houses

By now, you are probably starting to see a pattern.  I saved up for my own house and paid for my own wedding.  So did all of my brothers and sisters.  In fact, we were so broke when we got married that we asked everyone to donate towards dinner, in lieu of gifts.  It was a quirky request, but nobody had a problem with it.  And, we’re still married 19 years later.  A fancy wedding has never ensured a long marriage.

I will probably help my kids with their weddings and houses, provided they are more than half way there, on their own.  In my opinion, if they can’t save up some money for a wedding, they aren’t ready to be married.  And, if they can’t save up a down-payment, they aren’t ready to buy a house.  I’m pretty sure this opinion won’t be popular with my wife or kids.  But, it’s based on many years of watching people get divorced and lose their homes.


I haven’t inherited anything of value in my lifetime and I don’t expect to.  My Dad left me a watch, which I cherish.  There is a person of modest wealth in my family and she is worth way more to me than any of her possessions.  Since I’m doing pretty well on my own, I don’t want to see an inheritance for many years.  An inheritance should be considered a gift, not a birthright.

As for my children, I may or may not leave them anything, depending on how well they do on their own.  I certainly don’t want their financial plan to be waiting around for me to die.  I want them to become successful through their own efforts.  I got this idea from reading the Richest Man in Babylon.  If they aren’t responsible with their money, I may leave most of my belongings to charity.  Easy money has never been good for anyone.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, sometimes the more you do for others, the less they do for themselves.  As society’s values have changed from respecting the self-made to pacifying the entitled, so have people’s expectations.  The question is, are you helping or hurting by contributing so much to your children?

What do you expect to give your children?
What do you think they deserve from you?

“If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.”

Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abbey) – Advice Columnist

Recommended Reading

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8 comments to How Much Should We Give Children?

  • I don’t have kids, so it’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t spoil mine (at least by today’s standards). I’ve seen many friends and family struggle with the cultural pressure. One friend didn’t buy his kids a lot of junk, but relatives would just drop off the toys their kids were tired of. He was only able to solve this problem by selling most of what he owned and hitting the road with his family.

    BTW, I linked to this post from my Global Asset Strategist Facebook page.
    .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..7 Debt Survival Tips =-.

    • Jennifer,

      I’m the youngest of four brothers and our kids got tons of gifts and hand-me-downs. That never bothered me. What I did was to sort toys into three piles; keep, donate and throw away. Every year, after their birthdays, I would sort all their toys and clean house.

      Thanks a bunch for the link. I enjoy reading your blog and I added it to my blogroll.

      • Hi Bret, I tried to reply a few days ago but apparently Firefox ate my comment 🙁

        That sounds like you have a good plan to keep the level of junk down. Charities are always looking for toys. I admit my friend’s plan is a little extreme, but it works for him.

        Thank you so much for adding me to your blogroll! I will have to look into doing one of those.
        Jennifer Barry recently posted..Home Sweet Home or Debt Trap?My Profile

  • I think you hit the nail on the head, Bret, when you say,”sometimes the more you do for others, the less they do for themselves.”

    Maybe I am being too cynical, but I think human nature ensures that will be the case more often than not.

    That being said, I am thankful my mom and dad allowed me to live rent free for a couple years at home after I graduated from college so that I could save up for a down payment for a home of my own. I plan on making the same offer to my kids.

    All the best,

    Len Penzo dot Com
    .-= Len Penzo´s last blog ..Having Fun Yet? 9 Ways to Ensure Your Road Trip Sucks =-.

    • Len,

      I learned this lesson from my old roommate. He always had a million reasons (excuses) why he couldn’t do important things, like the dishes. Then, one weekend, I watched him take a bus 70 miles each way to hook up with an old girlfriend. That’s when I realized I should stop “helping” and start demanding he pull his weight.

      I moved out early and it was tough. It took me 10 years to save for a house while working through college, supporting a family and paying rent. I’m still not sure if this was good or bad, but I am very proud of it.

  • It’s a great topic and age old question. I have a nearly 7 year old daughter, and have given this increasing thought (as a personal finance blogger is likely to do!) of late.

    I would like to be able to provide her with a reliable, safe used car in about 10 years, and then make sure that she has a college education paid for. Beyond that, I would actually hope to be able to contribute to her graduate school expenses as well. I’m a big believer in education, which of course is also a mindset and takes place throughout life beyond just formal education. Finally, I hope to be able to provide an inheritance someday – just not too soon:)

    Anyway, we all have different views, and mine is that I want her to have what I think are necessities, without having to worry about it. I do think there is a big risk to having a kid not appreciate what is given, but I hope to reinforce this throughout the years in other ways. For example: while I hope to pay for select things, I plan to take a different approach for things I consider not to be necessities – such as brand name stuff, expensive toys, movies at the theater with friends, etc. This is what allowances and their own work is for.

    Saying all this, I do agree with the idea that the more you do for people, the less they do for themselves. Good principle to keep in mind in general. I just think that there are certain select things that one can do for a child that are good to take care of for their best long-term interests.
    .-= Squirrelers´s last blog ..Is Your Nest Egg Large Enough? Calculate the Required Rate of Return =-.

    • Wise Squirrel,

      Seven is a fun age for kids. Just wait until your daughter turns 17 like mine and then you will know what parenting challenges are all about.

      It’s tough to know if kids will appreciate what you do, because they go through stages. Right now, my daughter doesn’t seem to appreciate anything. She acts like the whole world was created just to serve her needs. We had a similar experience with our son at that age. But, he is a lot more mature and appreciative now.

      You just have to do what you think is right and keep the faith that it will help them in the long run. There are no guarantees.

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