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Family Economics 101 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Rick Epstein   

After work, I dropped in to see a high-powered accountant. I paid him lavishly for a half-hour of his time, hoping he’d tell me how to make bushels of money magically appear when my three daughters are ready for college.

It was a bad 30 minutes.

We’ve got four years to save up, and then we’ll have to borrow more money than we can ever repay.

I came home feeling doomed and panicky to find my two younger daughters, ages 11 and 7, sitting at the kitchen table cutting out paper dolls along with Jessica, a 12-year-old neighbor. My wife was at work and our teenager was at a party.

“Jessica has been babysitting us since noon,” said Sally, “So you’d better pay her – and not any $7 an hour; everybody’s paying at least 8.” I looked at my officious but unhelpful daughter. At age 11, Sally was emotionally mature enough to hold down a job and to live in her own apartment. But to babysit Wendy? We’d tried, and their mutual ill will made it unworkable. They much preferred having a paid playmate and referee.

Wordlessly, I handed some money to Jessica, experiencing a feeling of not-being-met-halfway that was so powerful it almost knocked me down.
“And we’ll need Jessica all day Friday, too,” Sally said.

I remained silent. It took all my strength to close my wallet – it seemed to be the size of a lawn-chair – and go upstairs to lie on my bed with my shoes on and stare at the ceiling.

That evening I said to Sally, “Let’s go for a walk.” (I had a flash of Hansel & Gretel, but fought it off.)

Away from the house and its distractions, I said, “Sally, you’ve read all those Laura Ingalls Wilder books – ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘Little House in the Big Swamp’ and so on?”
“Sure,” she said, holding my hand companionably.

“Remember how when the family was cold, young Laura would help gather wood, and how when the family was hungry, she would help gather persimmons or whatever, and when Pa was going to kill a hog, he’d get Laura to hold it down?”

“Well,” said Sally, “I’m not sure she did exactly that, but I know they made her do a lot of work.”

“I guess if necessary her parents would have ‘made’ her do all that,” I said. “But her whole family was a team. Making a living was a struggle and kids couldn’t just sit there smoking corn-silk and waiting for TV to be invented; they had to help, too.”

“Is making a living a struggle now?” Sally asked.

“Haven’t you noticed that when I come home at night my eye-lids are twitching, my clothes are half torn off, and blood is seeping from a thousand wounds?” I asked.  

“No,” she said, “You always look fine.”

“That’s because I’m just being brave about it, so as not to alarm you,” I said.

“So why do you want to alarm me now?” she asked.

“Because I want you to realize that we are all in this together. When you see me sitting at the kitchen table plucking fretfully at our unpaid bills, you can’t say, ‘Poor old Dad’s in trouble.’ That’s like being in a canoe and saying, ‘Gee Dad, looks like YOUR end of the boat is sinking.’”

“Dad,” she said, her patience exhausted, “What are you talking about?”

I can be cryptic, but I can also say exactly what I mean. “Sally, you are old enough to babysit Wendy on Friday, and I don’t want to pay somebody else’s kid 60 bucks to do it!  We haven’t needed you to gather acorns in your apron, but now you are in a position to help out, and I want you to do it.”

“OK, Dad,” she said cautiously. “I'll see what I can do.” That was several months ago, and the neighbor girl has been off my payroll ever since.

For years I’d been trying to emulate my father’s reassuring style. He always had money in his wallet and money in the bank. If we wanted some, we just had to make the objects of our desire sound educational. Then the vault would open like Aladdin’s cave and we could dash in and fill our pockets with rubies and sapphires. When it came time for college, Dad handed each of us a free ticket to the best school that we could sneak into. Except for our personal baseball-card and movie-ticket finances, we grew up completely without worry about money.
I had wanted to give this gift of a carefree childhood to my own kids. But I’m finding that, on my salary, I can’t afford it. What I CAN afford are lessons in thrift and responsibility, and Sally has already gotten one. Maybe my next move will be to let her into my treasure cave, and see if she survives the disappointment.

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By Rick Epstein

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