Recently, I was invited to teach a personal finance/budgeting class for young professionals at a local university. At first, I refused. Budgeting is just boring math, and anyone could/should be able to do it relatively quickly. But then, as I talked to Christina, I thought it might be a good way to come to a healthier relationship with money. To talk about money in a different way. In the past few years, I have developed a somewhat unbalanced relationship with money.
Think Scrooge McDuck – checking several different apps on my phone about money, checking investment accounts on a daily basis, reading several financial blogs and books. It has become a consuming, and odd metric of success in life. At work, revenue and profitability are the metric of success across practice areas. The next measurable promotion is simply a higher salary with some additional benefits. Money means flexibility and freedom to be able to do whatever I want in the long-term, without even knowing what that something is. Savings means delaying gratification, but sometimes when gratification is delayed indefinitely, life become ascetic.
It wasn’t always this way, and I’m not sure how became this way. Money is this difficult balance; certainly disconnecting or being unaware of financial matters isn’t easy, particularly when the phenotype of success seems to be conspicuous consumption. I think about when Ellie gets older, and I try to explain why financial independence (particularly for women) is important. But money doesn’t matter to kids; what matters (as I recall) was popularity, being liked, having friends, accomplishing, being recognized. What mattered to me at a younger age was my ability to positively impact the community; to speak out against injustice; to be involved in the community. Wildly different goals. Was I naive then, or am I deceived now?
Oddly, one takeaway for myself from teaching the class was to continue searching for non-financial passions.What makes me happy and helps me grow? Do I get gratification from helping others, and how can I do that on a more regular basis? Strangely, I really enjoyed teaching the class, and anticipate teaching another class next semester around something other than money – Thai cooking.
Now that we have a child, how to raise her is on our minds. Obviously, it’s a deeply individual choice. On the one hand, it seems likely that Christina and I would parent exactly how our parents raised us. Do we really know a different way to parent? Is there a way to avoid our parent’s missteps without over-correcting? Part of the tension is just simply reconciling how different our upbringing is from the typical American suburban parenting style – live and let live, children will be successful no matter what, and even if they are not, it’s not your responsibility after 18 – mentality.
Our parents raised us in the Asian immigrant parent perspective (see Tiger Mom) – Asian parents who have arrived on the shores of America with almost nothing but the hopes and dreams of a better life for their children. They’ve left some of the most densely populated countries with 80 students per elementary class. To have made it to the US-based on the immigration laws, they must have studied diligently in some universally applicable skill set – math, engineering, science. At the same time, they’ve sacrificed all creature comforts, the wonderfully familiar foods, their extended family, their race, their language, all for that better life for them or their children. It’s the most extreme example of delayed gratification and self-sacrifice.
The sacrifice of getting here, learning the language, retrogressing in their careers, assimilating into an alien population was hard. Hard enough that their lives may not have been “better” here than back at home. I think about my own parents – their own Asian social networks in Texas are small. My parents would have had easier lives in Taiwan, had more friends, accelerated their careers more easily, and eaten their favorite foods. They would be able to see their siblings and parents every week, or at least once a month. Which means that staying in America is not really about them, but about their kids, leading them to find their success and happiness vicariously through their children.
That attention results in an intense parent led process for achievement and success. It’s a narrow perspective that defines success with a few well-paying professional jobs. High grades are praised, not intellectual curiosity. Children are not loved and treasured for the sake of being, but are rather products that are worked on for eighteen years, polished and then sent for finishing at some prestigious university. Children are not independent beings of self-exploration, but rather products and reflections of their parents. Keeping up with the Asian Jones’ meant comparing your kids SAT scores and GPAs.
The weird thing is I’ve talked with Asian peers about my age who are now lawyers or doctors who have gone to Ivy league schools, they say that they hated it when their parents put them through that, and they won’t do it to their own kids. Yes, they’re successful, but often at a cost of a close personal relationship with their parents. There’s a certain amount of mental damage that came with an Asian American immigrant upbringing that seems unnecessary – the piano lessons, the math classes, the unrealistic academic expectations without balance.
So I say all of this not to bash on Asian American parents, or to say that I’m ungrateful to my own parents. It’s a realization of why they did what they did. They had good intentions and did the best with what they knew. It’s also an internal reminder not to do the same. Not to follow the same path, because I should know differently. Sure, I don’t want my child to be a soft, spoiled third-generation Asian American immigrant without direction, but hopefully I am acknowledging the intrinsic hardwired defaults that need to change for my daughter’s sake.
Ellie has arrived! She came on Sept. 16th, 2013, which was more than a week late. Before her birth, Christina and I were furiously attempting to get ready in all possible ways. Signing up for Amazon Mom, buying diapers, setting up her room, getting a child seat. Accumulating much more stuff than we had ever had in the past. Of course, she hasn’t been sleeping in her new crib or in her newly painted baby room.
Initially I had hoped to write a bunch of letters to Ellie to coincide with important birthdays in her life. Sometimes I worry that having a child will make me forget the perspective of being a child, being a childless adult, to be irresponsible, curious and passionate. And there are parts of my parents that I can see beginning to percolate to the surface. The standard of being a good parent has changed from keeping the thing alive to giving it the best possible future. We begin to think primarily through the lens of how does this affect our child. Setting up a college fund, exploring issues like sending the child to public or private schools, caring about child abductions.
We worry about issues like Utah’s air quality and whether particulates will induce asthma or cause autism. To some extent there is a greater incentive to make sure that we are ready financially for the child, to make sure that Ellie is well taken care of. But we don’t want to coddle her – how do we expose her to adversity, hard work and even poverty. There are so many hopes, dreams and ambitions that we have for Ellie, but from most parents I speak with those plans go out the window. They describe the personalities as fairly fixed, and there’s often not much a parent can control. But then there are the Asian immigrant parents who drive their children hard to be successful, through force of will and determination. Cannot wait to make our child suffer through piano lessons, SAT classes, and Mandarin lessons.
Some interesting reflections/advice from friends – Being in the midst of new parenting, sometimes it is hard to see the forest from the trees. The exhaustion (primarily Christina’s) of incomplete sleep waking up every two-three hours is challenging. But those around us who are older and who have experienced parenthood have offered insights. One co-worker said: the days are long, but the years will be short. Another said: nobody will care about your child like you do. The statement: life with children is miserable, life without children is unfulfilled, resonated with me. Certainly, I knew from a young age that I wanted children, to have children and raise them to have better futures than my own. Christina had to be persuaded.
… a child! Our first child. I guess this means that Christina and I are truly in this marriage thing for the long haul. Like most new parents, we’re both nervously excited, but also cautiously wary of the changes that this will bring to our lives. Every parent that we speak to warns us “your life is going to change.” I remember when my Brother had his first, and he described having his first child as redirecting all his love, attention, and money towards something other than himself or his wife. We feel extremely fortunate to be expecting, and are crossing our fingers for a healthy well balanced child.
So many things will change – lack of sleep, cleaning up diapers, not being able to watch tv, sleeping in late, eating at our favorite restaurants. No longer will we be able to go do what we want when we want. To go eat where we would like on a whim will be a luxury. Nap schedules will now dictate our lives. The privileges of being dual income without kids will be no more.
As a practical matter, we have been feverishly searching for a larger place to live, preferably buying a home. Nothing has been quite perfect. Not quite modern enough or in an odd neighborhood. Co-workers who have kids say that we should be ok for the first year living in our current one bedroom, but I can only imagine finding a home and moving in will be so much more difficult with an infant.
Some reactions that I have received from colleagues: “no one cares about your child like you will.” What this more senior attorney meant was no one else will feel that our child is so unique and special as we will. The other response was that like getting married and working your first job, having children is a unique life altering process. Life with children can be hell at times, but life without children is unfulfilled.
Interestingly, both Christina and I have in the past few years have maxed out on our childless life, as if we are seeing diminishing returns on our happiness. She has traveled to five continents for work, and we have both visited every interesting tourist spot within 300 miles. There is only so many times that you can go to Las Vegas, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Zion, Bryce, and Denver. So to that end, I am looking forward to the next chapter and challenge.
This was the topic of a rather insightful NPR debate that I was just listening to. The transition from high school to college always seemed like a curious thing to me. K-12 education is seen as a mandatory public good universally positive for everyone. The very next year after you turn 18, you are let loose and told that you should go to college, but that it’s expensive and it may not be for everyone. Before the 1970s college was only attended by less than 10% of the college aged population, now that is closer to 40%. Is college being oversold both as a product and as an idea? With the rise of for profit colleges that peddle upward mobility with high priced diplomas and a student loan program that seems limitless, are too many students going to college to obtain an empty diploma? When the costs of college rising 10 times in nominal terms, and 300% since 1970s when inflation is accounted for, is the rate of return on a college investment still a solid bet?
Should a Bachelors degree continue to be the default indicator for capable intelligent worker? Are there more efficient ways to get the intellectual development gained in college? If college is simply a sorting process, where employers find the cream of the crop talent and students connect with their passions, is there a more efficient way to reach that end than college? These are not just individual questions (should I go to college) but larger societal ones. Too many students go on to college (myself included) because they don’t know what they want to do (should an 18 year old with little prior work experience know what they want to do?). Because students are being asked to pay a greater share of their education costs, they continue to drive the direction of their studies, often towards their immediate interests and without knowledge of the job market. College is no longer a place for slow paced self-exploration, but rather an individual investment of time, effort and money. Shouldn’t more people be asking whether it’s worthwhile?
So I’m 30 now (and have been for the last 10 months). A few of our friend’s have contemplated getting divorced, and some have actually taken the leap to greener pastures.
What’s interesting is that for years, Christina and I were simply dating… in a long 9-10 year period of dating before getting married. There was some feet-dragging on my part, but in many ways marriage just didn’t seem relevant or necessary to me or my generation. It was simply a fake formal declaration of what we already were – dedicated and committed to each other. Marriage was conversely flawed in that the life-long promise or commitment was illusory; with a 50% divorce rate should anyone take it seriously? When we were getting married, older people spoke of it as this wonderful thing. That they had been married for 20 years, 30 years, as if that was something to brag about. To me, it had sounded like a prison sentence.
Strangely, now that Christina and I have been married, we both somehow find reward and contentment out of it. It’s been about 20 months, perhaps we are still in a honeymoon period. There’s a strange symbiosis of happiness. I’m sure it’s temporary and will pass.
In the same way that there was a wave of friends who married around the same time, who began to have children, there is now a new wave predictably separating. We do have to reach the 50% divorce rate quota of course. What is interesting about the separation is that it is often unpredictable. Relationships are so personal, and couples generally only publicly reveal the positives of their relationships rather than the negative spats. It makes both Christina and I feel vulnerable and think that this could happen to anyone, including us.
Other friends have openly discussed whether or not marriage is a bygone relic, something that is no longer relevant in an age where everything changes every few years: where we work, where we live, who our friends are, what our personality and moods are. With all of those constant changes, does it make sense to make a lifelong decision about who you will be with at 20 and expect to stick with it for the next 50 years? In the meantime, what do you say to friends who are getting divorced?
This morning I was part of a human resource roundtable discussion (despite not being an HR person). The first topic for the day was the debt crisis (Kids, twenty years from now this will be a funny historical footnote on the time that our country almost declared bankruptcy). The discussion leader asked how will the new Congressional plan to resolve the debt crisis affect your company. No one knew because much of the framework hasn’t been revealed. In the ensuing discussion these topics came to the forefront: increasing healthcare costs for employers, rising expectations of high salaries by young professionals, cutting back on employer retirement contributions.
One major repeated theme from employers focused on the conflict between personal responsibility (i.e. how do I need to take care of my health to keep my company’s premiums low, how do I need to save for my own retirement and not rely on a Social Security or employer pensions, how do I need to understand the realistic return on a college/grad degree education) and the employer’s perceived obligation to take care of their employee. To what extent should the federal/state government or employers coddle employees?
Employees theoretically have choices and mobility to hop from one job to another seeking the highest instant gratification wage. Companies are less likely to hand hold employees and similarly pursue short-term mentality (termination when skill-sets are no longer needed, rather than retrain and repurpose). In an economy where careers have gone from 20 years to an average of three years, it no longer seems to make sense to require employers to shoulder the primary burden of providing broad benefits (healthcare, retirement) to employees. It doesn’t make sense for an employer to be responsible for the health or retirement of an employee that will only be around for 3-4 years.
Take retirement for example, my prior employer helped set aside a large percentage of our salary towards retirement (no choice from the employee) as a benefit. It was paternalistic (we don’t trust you to save on your own), but most if not all employees appreciated the gesture because we weren’t going to automatically set aside the amount voluntarily. It vested immediately and employees qualified for the benefit after two years with the company. That practice seems outdated and unusual in the private sector now.
With my generation, there is no employer pension to rely on and potentially no Social Security check. 401K contributions by employers are continually being cut. It’s all more or less on our shoulders to scrimp and save enough for our own individual retirement when we are older. That’s not only scary on an individual level, but on a national level (if I can only save X; I can only imagine that most folks are not saving that much, and we may end up seeing many older Americans homeless or without care).
Healthcare would be another example. My guess is that twenty or ten years ago professional employers provided full healthcare benefits not only to employees but their dependent family members. Due to rising costs, that burden has shifted to employees with less healthcare coverage and higher employee contributions.
With employees being told that they are now individually responsible for their retirement, healthcare, education, it’s no wonder that a younger generation of workers is seeking higher immediate compensation. I wonder if this is a longterm trend or if this is simply just a symptom of the current recession. What do you think?