Teaching Kids to be Rich or Poor

My parents had a deep appreciation of “quality”, however you might define that.  The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a very good long explanation of quality if you’re interested.  The short version is that the can opener is a joy to use because it’s a tool that works so beautifully.  There is no struggle between you and the beans, just a perfectly geared twist.  The gear is not so low that it takes forever to complete the cycle.  It’s not too high that it’s hard to turn.  The cutting wheel is made of high quality metal that retains its edge years later. 

Anyways...my parents liked quality, and they made a lot of the stuff around our house to reach the target levels.  My dad did the carpentry and concrete work.  My mom made clothes and food.  The takeaway for me was that we liked nice stuff, but we didn’t buy it.  I lived a childhood rich in quality, bought with effort not cash. 

Fast forward to my urban financial warrior existence.  My parents modelled the process and taught the skills, so my early adult life included many tools both in the workshop and kitchen to attain quality levels I had become accustomed to.  I liked the struggle initially, but eventually it became less of a challenge to build a new walk-out deck.  The competition for energy with my dayjob made it feel more like a time-sink of labour.  As I became more cash rich, I bought back my weekend time so I wouldn’t have to spend it fixing and building stuff.  I still liked quality though….and whoa, quality is pricey when you buy it from someone else.   I started to slip into the habit of buying expensive stuff because I appreciated it, and I could easily afford it.  I told myself (probably accurately) that I had come by this appreciation honestly through the hard work of sweating out the making process myself.  I wasn’t a dilettante, but that might have been a fair conclusion if someone had just met me.   Unfortunately, my daughter hadn't seen enough of my past to understand how I got to the present state either. 

I would rave about beautiful things to my daughter.  I wanted her to understand the joys of quality, and to pursue and surround herself with it.  Often, she gets it.  She will also now rave about the beauty of a fine home-made pie.  It’s better than anything you could possibly buy, because there are no practical logistics to get a pie from a commercial oven to your kitchen counter before it’s soggy.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve been eating bad pie.  She appreciated the pie process because she had seen it in motion so many times.  She learned to make the pie herself.   So I had passed down the gift of understanding quality that money can’t buy within the limited scope of pie. 

But what about all other nice things around our house, the nice vacations, and the private school?  How did my daughter participate in, and understand the process of paying for all these things?  I started to realize I was burdening her with a taste for an expensive lifestyle, but nothing to provide it for herself.  This is a recipe for unhappiness you would give to your enemy.  In the latter half of high school, we opened up the books of our family finances to her.  We talked about lifestyle and costs.  We talked about choices, and compared our family’s lifestyle to others. 

I hope my daughter is able to make career choices with a mind towards funding a lifestyle, and remains flexible to change.   Smart people can probably figure out a way to become rich in a knowledge economy.  She wants to be a lawyer.  I encouraged that as a generalized skill that can be used in many ways.  I hope she’ll be financially free to choose to be a public defender if that’s what floats her boat in 10 years.  I don’t want her poring over financial contracts looking for tax arbitrage only because she needs to pay for a new roof on her 3000 square foot castle. 

I realized near the end of my finance journey that I was sending the wrong message: to be afraid of being anything but rich.  In the last year or so, I had sufficient savings, and I wasn’t sure what I actually needed the new money for.  Maybe a five-star vacation in 2040?  I was foregoing any near-term life satisfaction to get the money anyway.  That wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely a factor in quitting.  I do most of the grocery shopping in my house now.   I come back and say this is for dinner because it was half-price and we will “Enjoy Tonight!” like the sticker said.  I spend most of my time making stuff now: music, and other things.  Of course I’m privileged to have some savings, but time is no longer in short supply, and I’m living cheaply and happily.   My daughter, who just finished first year university, is now watching a dramatically different lifestyle and implied value statement.  If my daughter chooses to be a corporate lawyer anyway, that’s fine with me.  Pursuit of a top-decile income should be an informed choice, not a requirement because one has no idea how to live without it.

Leave a comment