Not long after I graduated from college, my dad and I went to lunch. I don’t know how the discussion turned to money, but it did. My dad and I didn’t talk about money a great deal, but it’s not because he was afraid of the discussion. Our money discussions in the past were productive and well-balanced, in retrospect. My father was, and still is, a person that wasn’t necessarily compelled to spend money on himself, but he never hesitated to provide the things he felt our family needed, no matter what it meant to him personally. During this particular lunch conversation, he mentioned that he and mom still had roughly 30 years to go on their mortgage. That didn’t sound right.
The 22 year old Pete the Planner was actually just a smart-ass named Peter Dunn. Not much has changed, except I didn’t know a tremendous amount about money back then. But I did know that it didn’t make sense for my dad to have a fresh 30 year mortgage. I asked why. I didn’t expect the particular answer I was provided. “We refinanced our house, to send you to college,” he said. What? You did what? My parents were doing fine financially, but he said that it made the most sense, given some circumstances, to take the equity out of our family home, and use it to pay for my college education.
The weird thing, looking back, is that I never really thought about how my parents paid for my college education, I just knew they had paid for it. It didn’t feel right to ask. I was thankful at the time, and I’m even more thankful now, given my newfound perspective on the financial world. But the moment he explained what he and my mom did specifically to pay for my education, my heart filled with more emotions than I could possibly inventory. He doesn’t know this, but that lunch and that story, meant more to me than just about anything else that had ever happen to me. My dad’s financial decisions told a story.
All of our financial decisions tell a story. This is especially true if you have children. Our children pick up the pieces of our financial lives when we fall, both figuratively or literally. Our children will learn our stories of the decisions we made in our lives. I’ve been thinking about this incessantly lately, for I can feel my kids getting older. My 2 year old son, Ted, called me “buddy” tonight. And my 5 year old daughter is 35. Someday, they will know my story, especially when it comes to their college education.
The question is, what story will they discover? If I don’t prepare for both their futures and mine, then maybe I’ll have some explainin’ to do. “”Sorry we didn’t put any money back for college, honey, we just freakin’ loved Applebee’s.” Because if the fruits of our labor are rotten, then some hard truths must be discussed. If I don’t save for my kids’ college education, and instead spend my money frivolously on casual dining, craft beer, and golf trips with my buddies, then I have written a terrible story. A story of which I never want to get out, especially to those that it affected the most.
We get the chance to write our story, every single day. Every decision in front of us, presents an opportunity to put abstract pen to abstract paper. Each guilty pleasure drips with more guilt, after the fact. Each realization from our loved ones stings of regret, when the facts are levied. I absolutely refuse to write a terrible story.
When money presents itself to you, think about what story it could tell. Are you getting a bonus this year? Consider making this the time you took your entire bonus and started a college fund. Do you take your lunch to work every day? That’s the chapter of your story in which you brown-bagged it for two years, in order to pay off some ill-conceived credit card debt.
Stories get told on your terms or theirs. You can crack the spine on your years of intentional living, or you can squeeze tight around the perpetual evidence of your apathy. If you aren’t proactive, and this affects your child someday, they will learn that story. The $65,000 of student loan debt that chokes them at the beginning of a yet fragile career, wants some answers.
We all admit that student loans are out of control, but how many of us take ownership of the role we all play in it? There are certainly people that can’t afford a college education, without the loans. I just believe this group to be smaller than its membership.
To be fair, maybe your story is strategically different. Maybe you want your children to personally earn every dollar that pays for their education, whether they earn this money as a 16 year old lifeguard or a 36 year old, mired in student loan debt. Okay. Really, that’s fine, if your story is legitimately something different. But if you made up the strategically different story once you realized you hadn’t done boo about saving for college, then the truth will always exist.
I know that you can’t measure every poor spending decision against larger, long-term financial goals, but…wait…why can’t you? Why can’t you point to the gym membership you don’t use as the plot twist? I mean, it is, isn’t it? Isolating lapses of personal responsibility in order to make yourself feel better isn’t a good look. Every decision you make now, has consequences. You should let this idea influence you. Take control of your story.
You have a bigger impact on both your children’s financial future and your own financial future, than you think. You aren’t just a character in a story. You are the author. But this is a different type of story. It can’t be written with words; it can only be written with actions.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.