Will the Kids Ever Leave?

Category: Weekly Columns

What an interesting contemporary question: will the kids ever leave? I left home at sixteen to go away to college and never returned, except for visits. I stayed close to my parents, and they did help me financially through college, though I worked every summer to supplement my education expenses and pay for my own spending. ShortRib (my wife) and I wonder when will our kids be independent enough to afford to leave?

The other day I talked with a mother who has two teenage daughters. One is graduating from high school this year while the other has two more years to go. I asked what were their plans, and had she discussed it with her husband, and I was surprised to hear she had no clue. Neither she, her husband, or the kids really knew where the girls were heading, especially when it came to the idea of supporting themselves with a real job, after college.

Her kids have had short-term minimum wage jobs, enough to pay for the occasional designer jeans they love, but certainly not enough for life, as we know it. It seemed clear that they were going to have to support their daughters through college, but then what? From everything I’m hearing from other friends, this is more typical than not of the current state of preparedness of our kids to live on their own. And, more and more, the kids are returning home after college still unprepared to support themselves and, now, with the added problems of diminishing job opportunities.

My older son, GuitarHero, will be turning sixteen in the fall. He has begun looking for a summer job with the expectation that he will make about $16,000, enough to buy the cool Scion that he wants. When I asked him about the math and began to talk some reality to him, he just adjusted his time frame, but still doesn’t seem to understand the costs, let alone what take-home pay is. With taxes and other charges, when one buys a car for $16,000, he is more likely to actually spend more than $18,000. All this is irrelevant if he doesn’t have a B-average, which he is struggling to maintain. Our family rule is “no B-average: no license, no driving,” which he has understood for a long time.

Is this naïveté among my sons’ generation rampant or have I really failed in providing my boys a financial education? I think it’s a combination of both, as I have had numerous discussions and implemented various financial limits and expectations on the boys. For instance, when they were younger and well before our country’s present economic troubles, I gave them a book allowance one summer. It was $5 a week, which meant if they wanted a $25 book, they had to wait five weeks to buy that book, which was the case with one big coffee-table book that GuitarHero wanted. He waited. Jughead, being the younger one, just couldn’t wait and always found a book within his budget.

When the national financial meltdown happened last fall, we sat down, the four of us, as by then ShortRib was living with us, and went over our day-to-day expenses and put in effect various changes, including suspending any allowance and replacing it with doing extra chores to earn specific amounts of money. We stopped eating out as often and implemented other cost-saving measures. The boys seemed to be both in shock and denial, understanding the words coming out of our mouths, but not really digesting them.

So, when GuitarHero spouts the nonsense that he might earn so much money for a not-yet-secured summer job, I worry. We’ve talked about it and he’s smart enough to revisit his expectations but I know he has a lot to learn about money. He’s asked if he can have his own bank account once he’s got a job, to which I readily agreed. I said that he would need permission, however, to spend any more than $100 at a time. Will he really save money or will he follow the path of many Americans these past few years and maintain a zero saving rate and spend all his paycheck, the moment he gets it? We’ll find out, as learning by living it will hopefully teach him better than another lecture from Dad.

While ShortRib has taken on the role of stepmother wholeheartedly, she can’t help but ask, in our private moments, what our plans are. She doesn’t like the idea of the boys living with us indefinitely, as she believes they should and need to learn to lead independent lives, outside the home, even if we offer some financial support along the way. She’s completely right, yet this dad has to admit that I’ve grown accustomed to their faces, to misquote the title of a song from my second favorite movie, “My Fair Lady,” and the idea that they may live with us, after high school graduation, while going to community college AND working, doesn’t fill me with dread. But, that is not what ShortRib signed up for when we got married, as our lives are very affected by the responsibilities of taking care of the boys. She’s been a total trouper so far. And, she deserves that this problem be addressed seriously.

I don’t know the answer yet, but I know that I don’t want to wait until one is graduated and the other is just behind, as my friend has. For now, we’re going to do our best to instill in them more financial common sense. We’ll teach them how to save (with their own bank accounts), hold them accountable for securing and holding onto part-time jobs, as well as allowing them to suffer the consequences, by not bailing them out, for any of their failures in these areas. I can hope this will work, can’t I?

Update (7-24-09) – Just saw an editorial cartoon that I thought was so relevant to this topic.  It is by Cam Cardow and is has two panels with the large word “Aspirations” across the top, covering them both.  On the left panel is a boy, with 1969 written under him, saying “I want to be an astronaut and walk on the moon one day…maybe even go to mars and visit other planets.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll be the one that discovers life somewhere else.”  On the next panel is a similar looking boy, with 2009 written under him, saying “I want to be a contestant on American Idol.”  ‘Nuff said, don’t you think?