Mark and I are child-free by choice (though perhaps influenced by things that aren’t by choice), which has no doubt made our journey to save for early retirement much faster than it would have been if we had kids.
But we believe ardently that we’d still be on this path even if we did have kids (both of our dads retired early, after all, though under different circumstances), and that it’s every bit as possible for families or single parents with children, just on a different timeline. Look at our friends the 1500s, Northern Expenditure, the SSCs, A Gai Shan Life, the Frugalwoods, the PIEs and plenty more. (And Go Curry Cracker, though Jeremy and Winnie became parents after retiring early.)
It’s something we’ve thought about a lot, though – what we’d do differently if we did have kids. And while we would never pretend to know what parenting is like, we can at least share how we’ve thought about it.
(And parents, chime in! What do we have wrong? What do you think is different about your journey because you have kids? Tell us all in the comments.)
Reflecting on Our Own Childhoods
It’s impossible to think about what we’d do as parents without reflecting on our own upbringings, and we both had the benefit of highly engaged parents who valued education. Mark had a partial scholarship to college but his parents paid for most of the rest (he also worked), and while I got a scholarship that paid for college and most of my living expenses (I also worked in college), I had the benefit of not working in high school because school was my job, which allowed me to earn that scholarship. And if I hadn’t gotten it, I know my dad would have done everything possible to help me pay for college.
At the same time, we both went to public school for every day of our education, and private school was never an option. Nor were name brand clothes, late model cars or regular air travel. There were fewer things to spend money on then – thinking mainly about electronics – but I never had a Nintendo, and Mark’s was the last family he knew to get a computer, a CD player, a microwave and nearly all the things that just seem normal now.
And we both turned out just fine.
(Or, at least, we turned out just fine after maybe making up for some lost time during our baller years. But we got that out of our systems.)
While we both would have liked to have gotten to do more things as kids than we did (going to Space Camp comes to mind), neither of us feels like we were deprived of anything that was truly important to us. But more than that, we’re grateful that we weren’t spoiled. And we admire our parents for striking that balance of saying yes to plenty of things, but saying no enough. We’d hope to emulate that, something that I think gets harder when your kids can see that you aren’t working, so must clearly have plenty of money. (Props to the financially independent parents out there who pull this off!)
Lengthening the Timeline
Whether you believe or not that kids cost $233,000, it’s safe to say that you need more money when there are more people in your household. Health care costs alone for a family plan vs. a couple can add up to several thousand dollars a year, and that’s not counting everything else that goes along with raising kids.
It does strike me that having a kid now would be cheaper than having a kid while we were working. We would have had to pay for child care, and might have had to say no to some business travel when we were both away at the same time, or perhaps paid for overnight help. (And saying no might have come with career opportunity cost.) Now we wouldn’t need child care, and don’t have business travel demands anymore, so would save a lot of that expense, at least until said kid decided that they wanted to go to school (like Jeremy and Winnie’s son recently did).
But we’d still need to save more. And given my risk aversion, I’d probably aim pretty close to that average kid cost figure, even if we didn’t end up needing that much. Unless we’d managed to do our saving in our 20s instead of our 30s and plan to have the kid after we were fully financially independent, so we’d know the child care costs at least would be lower.
We were saving pretty quickly those last few years, so adding the cost of an average kid wouldn’t have added a ton of years to our timeline, but it would still have lengthened it. Especially because we would also have had ongoing kid costs that would have decreased our savings rate to some extent.
Securing (Imaginary) Kids’ Financial Future
At FinCon in October, I was on a panel on FIRE that also included Scott Trench from Bigger Pockets. And Scott had a super interesting idea for providing for the future of kids: for each kid he has (obviously he’s not the one having the kids), he plans to buy a rental property on a 15-year mortgage. That way, by the time the kid is ready for college, the house is paid off, he can turn that property over to them, and they can either live there rent-free, rent it out and use the rental income to pay expenses or sell the house and use the proceeds for their big life plans. So his view – albeit in a perfect world in which you can plan these things – is that he’s only ready to have each kid when he has enough saved for the down payment and closing costs on that rental property. It’s a cool idea. Sort of similar to a seed money for children idea I saw floated by New America many years back.
Whether it’s seed money or a paid-off rental property or a trust of some kind, we’d want to do something like this, so our imaginary kid or kids would go into adulthood with some level of financial security. As Warren Buffett calls it, “Enough to do something, not enough to do nothing.” Though we value our financial independence, we’re proud of having earned it ourselves (with boosts, of course), and wouldn’t want our progeny to have everything handed to them.
And a big part of that would be some sort of cost-sharing on college. We wouldn’t be in the boat of “you’re on your own for college, kid” parents, nor would we pay for every penny. Despite having a generous scholarship, I still came out of college with $10,000 in student loans, and I’m actually grateful for that. It gave me some skin in the game, and having to pay those loans back was part of what got me right in the head about my money. If it had all been paid for, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get responsible with my finances. So maybe our contribution would be that rental property, or a seed fund or trust fund built up to help offset college costs, but we’d want to be sure our kid didn’t leave college strapped with crushing debt that takes a generation to pay off.
Modeling a Good Work Ethic – When You’re Not Working
Aside from all the financial stuff – how much to save, how much to help them – something I know we’d struggle with is how to instill a strong work ethic in our kids when we aren’t working in a traditional sense. I really admire the parents who are working through this, and I’ve heard from lots of you over time who’ve managed to strike a good balance. Those notes have helped something click for me that didn’t before:
Just because you’re working doesn’t mean you’re modeling a good work ethic.
If you come home from work and complain about work constantly, you’re teaching your kids that work is bad, and that they should delay adulthood as long as possible. It’s only in showing the upside of hard and dedicated work that you’re instilling the right understanding in them.
And it feels like we could do that, showing them how hard we work on our passion projects, and modeling the value of always trying your best, not phoning it in. But there’s still this nagging feeling I have that part (all?) of my motivation to retire early came from seeing my dad do it, and that Mark’s motivation came from seeing his dad do it. That’s the positive way to put it, but what I really wonder is: Did we both feel entitled to a shorter career because that’s what we witnessed growing up? Like did we feel too good to have to work forever, like everyone else? (That’s the most negative way to put it.)
We can’t ever know the answer to that. But if we had kids, we’d redouble our resolve to show them the value of work, not just the value of not working. We’d have the luxury, though, of showing them through the lens of work we choose to do, not work we have to do. And they’d get to see the value of building something and owning something fully, which has its own merit.
Deciding Where to Live
Here’s the hardest admission of all: If we had kids, we’d probably move.
We love California with all our hearts, but the schools consistently rank among the worst in the country. Even without kids, I struggle with this topic a lot because the unspoken thing behind school quality is that schools in very white states tend to be better, while schools in more diverse states tend to be worse. (That is shorthand, and the quality of individual schools varies a ton. But we’re talking average outcomes and educational attainment. And there are obviously a ton of good and bad reasons for the differences which I’ll not debate here.) But when families seeking better schools move to where the better schools are, they make the worst schools that much worse. It’s a horrible cycle, and the last thing we’d want to do is contribute to it. But we understand why it’s such a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We would want our kids to grow up in a diverse place, surrounded by different languages and different cultural traditions. (That suggests staying in California.) But we’d also want them to be prepared to take on college-level coursework, and to be able to get into college in the first place. (That suggests moving.) I always cringe whenever I hear the phrase, “I want my kid to get ahead,” because I think, “Ahead of whom?” (That suggests staying.) I get it, of course, though, because you can’t change everything for everyone, but you can change things for your one or two or three people you’ve created. (Moving.) Like I’d like to be able to eliminate poverty and inequality for everyone, but I can’t do that alone. So I can at least make sure that my financial house is in order, help family where I can and give to causes working to make change at the systemic level. That’s the macro version of the “where to put a kid in school” question.
And in our case, the question is made easier by the fact that where we live now is not, in fact, diverse. California as a whole is super diverse and culturally rich and wonderful, but the mountains around Tahoe are white bread central. It’s our least favorite thing about the area. So non-diverse and underperforming schools? Easy decision. Move.
Instilling Non-Money-Obsessed Values
When we lived in LA, we always said that if we had kids, we’d definitely move. And there it wasn’t even about the schools, though they are less than stellar, too. It was about the general values of the region. LA is a place where you see conspicuous wealth on display every day. Where money – who has it and who doesn’t – is obvious in a million different ways. Not like the rust belty Midwest where I grew up, where everyone looked pretty similar, and income inequality was comparatively minor. Sure, someone might drive a slightly nicer car, but it would only be a degree or two nicer, not 10 degrees nicer. I didn’t grow up knowing what a Veyron or Maybach or Huracon was, but you actually sit next to those things in traffic in LA. (Okay, not the Veyron very often.)
There are plenty of down-to-earth, non-status-obsessed people in LA. And tons and tons of normal people. But the stuff that stands out and that must influence young brains are the ostentatious minority who flaunt that massive money. Even we felt it. We never got sucked into the status stuff, but we definitely forgot that $100 on sushi on a weeknight wasn’t normal for a while there, because that’s what we were surrounded by. And that’s not what we’d want to raise kids around. We’d want them to appreciate a splurge as a special occasion, and to not think about money and who has more or less of it every day.
In Many Ways, It’d Be a Different Life
So in this imaginary world in which we have kids, we’ve left California (or at least found a happy medium between money-obsessed LA and non-diverse Tahoe), we’re working a little longer and we’re focusing more on our own passion projects to demonstrate a good work ethic. That would look quite different from our lives now.
Now we have no problem wasting a whole day doing nothing, if that’s what we need. Would we feel that same way if we had kids watching us? We can’t really know, but it’s hard to believe we wouldn’t at least be asking ourselves that question. We can travel for a big chunk of the school year right now without blinking an eye (in fact, we plan to travel more when school is in session to save money and deal with smaller crowds), and that would have to change, because we’d want our kids to go to traditional school, at least for most of their education.
There’d no doubt be countless other small ways our lives would be different, and I’m sure in some ways our lives would be better. There are trade-offs to every decision, just as there’s no such thing as a risk-free life, and while we’re happy with our choice and grateful to have been able to make it, it’s always a good exercise to try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think through how that would change your thinking.
Share Your Thoughts!
Tell us, friends – what did we miss? I’m sure the parents can tell us 5000 things we haven’t thought about, because there’s no way you can know some things until you’ve lived them. And for our fellow child-free peeps, what would change in your planning or journey if you had kids? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Categories: the process