Burning Desire For FIRE

Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er) in Australia from the female perspective.

How much financial help should we give our kids?

Kids.

A lot of us have them and in general, we tend to be reasonably fond of them. We take pains over what we name them, we feed and clothe them at regular intervals and we ensure that they come out of school being literate and (at least a little) numerate. We tell them Dad jokes, we pay for music lessons and we cuddle them when life gets hard.

In short – we look up after a few years and realise that we’ve actually made our most favourite humans. At least, that’s what’s happened in my case and I’m guessing I’m not alone.

A huge proportion of FIRE bloggers are young parents. They have babies or primary-aged kids, with a lot of bloggers’ children still being ‘a twinkle in their father’s eye’ as the old saying goes. I’ve gone through that stage and I’m now out at the other side with my boys aged in their twenties. We all made it through alive, but when the boys reached secondary school I had to make up my mind about how much I’d help the boys financially once they were older.

When children are small, as in pre-puberty, they cost as much or as little as their parents decide. The parents have full control. It’s a beautiful thing.

In my case, I said to the boys when they were in primary, (and secondary school, come to think of it), that they could have ONE after school activity each. Swimming lessons were non-negotiable – in Australia everyone needs to know how to swim so I took care of that when they were toddlers, before ‘after school’ activities were a thing. In other words, I staggered the outgoings. It wasn’t their fault that we were a one-income family and I didn’t want them to miss out completely on things that their friends were doing, but I wasn’t going to pour thousands of dollars into classes just to keep them busy. Our financial survival was at stake.

David was easy. When he was David3, he asked if he could learn how to play the piano. I couldn’t afford lessons at the time, but when he asked me 2 years later I took notice. For David, two requests two years apart is tantamount to nagging. He started learning piano when he was around 6 years old and is now in his last year of his Music degree.

Tom tried football, cricket and then decided on guitar. He writes songs now and plays for a football team on the weekends. Ryan started with piano, then after a year switched to guitar and continued with it right up to year 12. Evan follows the beat of his own drum and didn’t end up taking any formal classes. He decided to teach himself musical instruments, write scripts and make videos and is currently doing an Acting degree.

Limiting their after-school activities hasn’t seemed to hurt them at all.

Keeping the costs to a reasonable level when they were at school meant that when opportunities for things like travel came up, I was able to take them to places like Bali, Thailand and Singapore – or send them to places on school excursions like Central Australia, Tasmania and the USA. I’ll never forget the elation in Tom16’s voice when I picked up my phone to hear him say, “Mum… I’m on the top of Ayres Rock!!”

(Nowadays everyone calls it Uluru and we don’t climb it anymore as it’s a sacred site, but things were different a decade ago.)

But what was the tough decision I was talking about?

It was about whether or not to help the boys pay for University.

As my boys were heading into secondary school and going through the ranks, I started to think. Tertiary fees aren’t as expensive as in America, but they’re still pretty exxy, especially for the more creative-type courses I could see most of my boys ending up in.

My dilemma was a simple one. I only have one wage coming in and I have no-one to provide for my old age except for me. Do I help them pay for Uni or not? There’s a finite amount of money that will be coming in. Where would it be best deployed?

When I was wrestling with this decision the older kids were in high school, with the younger two hot on their heels. I’d paid off the house a year or so before, back in 2013, and I was staring down the barrel of what looked like it might be an indigent old age. I’d neglected my retirement savings to pour all of my money into paying off the house, which was a deliberate move. Mathematically, it wasn’t the best thing to do, but I valued our security over my retirement. Once the house was paid for and our security was assured, Old Lady Frogdancer suddenly became a lot more real to me…

So I had to think: Which would be the best long-term prospect for the boys?

  1. For me to pay for their degrees, but then later down the track, just when they’ve presumably got young families to provide for, to possibly have to ask them for financial help?
  2. Or for them to pay for their own education, while I save like crazy so as not to be a burden on them?

When you lay it out like this, there’s really only one way I could go. My situation, with no one else able to prepare for my retirement other than me, meant that the money could only go so far.

So, the financial help I decided to give my kids is as follows:

  • I raised you and supported you all the way through secondary school. My job here is done.
  • I want you to go on to further education, so if you’re a student, you can live with me for free and pay no board. However, you’re responsible for paying for any books and other materials. You’re an adult now.
  • If you live with me and you aren’t a student – you pay board. Even though I love you more than vegemite on toast, I’m not cut out in the shape of a doormat.
  • If you choose to move out, then you’re on your own. You’re definitely an adult!
  • The ‘Bank of Mum’ is there if you need to buy a car/fix a car/ pay some tuition not available with HELP loans from the government. It’s interest-free BUT MUST BE PAID BACK PROMPTLY. Any defaults – the Bank of Mum is closed to you forevermore.

I’m hoping that these rules allow enough of a cushion to fall back on, without weakening them and keeping them as ‘kidults’ indefinitely. Currently, I have the middle two sons living at home with me as students. Tom 27 has been out of home and fully independent for around 3 years now and works full-time as an accountant, while Evan22 is studying at a country campus.

I’d love it if the boys could come out of Uni with no debt dragging behind them. That was the way university worked when I was young, when courses were fully paid for by the government. But sadly, life in the real world isn’t like this any more. In order to do the best for us all, I have to take the long-term view.

My worst fear is to be a financial burden on my boys when I’m old. By putting a priority on my retirement, rather than their university courses, I hope that I’ll be giving them the gift of never having to worry about their mother’s financial stability.

I think that’s probably one of the greatest gifts I can give them. I already gave them LIFE. This will be the next best thing…

6 Comments

  1. You’ve done it just right. And just is key – spice it or oil it too much and the foods no good.

  2. I am doing the same. My daughter started Uni this week, she works part time and pays her own expenses, lives at home for free while she studies. But it wasn’t so much of a choice, I am still paying my mortgage and don’t have the money free to pay her fees, so this is the best way I can help.

  3. For your situation, I think that was the absolutely correct decision. Between four kids and needing to look out for your future, in their shoes, I would absolutely be so grateful you chose as you did. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I hope one day they understand the magnitude of the gifts you’ve given them!

    We keep going back and forth on how our version of this will look because tuitions are outrageous here. I don’t want to cripple JB’s growth by paying for everything, nor do I want to cripple zir by forcing zir to pay for huge fees. I did pour a fair amount of money into a 529 account meant solely for zir education in the first few years but I have stopped since because I think that if we are going to assist beyond the amounts we have invested, I’d rather do that out of our cash flow which I’ll focus on building through our brokerage investments now.

    Going off our own experiences, I went to a state school that I could afford only because I worked more than full time, nearly to a stupor, to pay for it and all our living expenses. PiC went to a much more expensive state school and his parents were able to pay for his and his siblings’ undergraduate AND graduate educations. We come from wildly different backgrounds but mine is very much an outlier – no one I knew or graduated from high school with had to support more than themselves, definitely no one had to support their families while going to college.

    I don’t feel like JB needs to carry the burdens that I did to build character, that’s overkill. I do feel strongly that ze needs to have some skin in the game because it’s so easy to take that extended education for granted.

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