Children as Financial Paradox

Karen writes in:

I have a question I think it would be interesting for you to attempt to tackle. You approach so many decisions with a methodical and disciplined calculus that often leads you to great time and money savers…Can you address what I’ll call ” the children paradox” and maybe provide some insight that I am not seeing.

Children paradox: “Children cost lots of time and money, so maybe on an individual basis we have incentive not to have them. But in the aggregate, we need them (to sustain the species, economy, etc.)”

On a personal basis, I see having children as a money and time drain. At the very least, it will be an alteration in lifestyle. I question the return on investment in going down to one income (for at least some period, up to five years), incurring the cost of child care, inconveniences to lifestyle, increased living expenses, and paying for college. Where is the upside? I don’t see what my incentive is for having children. How is this in my personal best interest?

I have thought about it in terms of national duty, as in perhaps an educated person of means has a duty to help support the country’s population and pass those “striver” genes on to the next generation. I have even thought about it in vainer terms, as in some kind of personal legacy. I have even considered the need for a much older and senile future self to have someone (my offspring) check me into retirement home. I just can’t get on board with my wife, whom I believe just wants to have a child out of evolutionary instinct. She wants the experience of pregnancy and motherhood. I wouldn’t want to deny her anything, but having children seems such a weighty thing to do in order to “have the experience”. It is a huge commitment.

I know you have children that are clearly a priority for you…but how do you reconcile that investment/opportunity cost with others (being able to travel, own your home sooner, etc.)?

I think there are a mix of answers to the questions you’re asking.

For one, I think some number of parents simply fall into parenting. Being a parent isn’t really something they hold as a deep personal value, but when the child arrives, they feel a natural obligation to do the best that they can to care for that child. It’s a big responsibility and one that comes with quite a lot of emotional reward along the way, so it’s not surprising that when some people become parents, they try to do a good job. (Of course, as we all know, there are a good number of parents out there doing a poor job, too.)

Simply put, as long as there are males and females around in sufficient quantities, there will be children around in sufficient quantities. It’s just a natural outcome.

I think what you’re asking, though, is why would people choose to and plan to become parents? Obviously, parenthood is something Sarah and I thought a lot about and made a conscious choice to take on in our lives.

In many ways, it simply comes down to what’s personally important to you. For some, the process of being a parent is an important life goal. I believe that part of what I was put on this earth to do is to raise three productive and capable people who will have a positive impact on the world. The privilege to be a steward to these children as they grow into adults is a privilege I’m very proud to have and that I enjoy very deeply.

Other people have other things that are personally important to them. Some want to see the world. Others want to start a business empire. Still others work to make the lives of others better. Yet others seek to accumulate personal wealth. There are a lot of personal goals that others have that I frankly don’t understand (much as you seem to feel about parenting), but I see such goals as a positive (assuming the passions aren’t destructive to people who don’t choose to be involved in them).

I don’t think it’s a bad thing for some people to not want to be parents and to have other things that are important to them. The key thing is that you’ve found something in your life that is important to you, whatever that may be, and that you’re investing your resources into it because it fulfills you. Without that, life would be a pretty empty place, I would think.

Most of us spend our lives working for those things that are important to us, whether it’s parenting or something else entirely. It’s the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. It’s the motivation to push ourselves a little bit more.

Is choosing to be a parent an economically challenging choice? Of course it is. However, most of the things I listed above are economically challenging choices. If we hadn’t had children, for example, Sarah and I probably would have traveled a great deal more than we have, which would have eaten a lot of the money we “saved” by not having children. Instead of having our oldest son, for example, I might have memories of visiting the Temple Mount (a place Sarah and I have always wanted to visit).

Simply put, people invest their resources (time, money, energy, skills, and so on) into the things that are personally important to them. For me, one thing that’s very important is my children, so I invest my resources into caring for them. For others, children might be of little or no importance, so they choose to invest their resources elsewhere.

The purpose of The Simple Dollar is to look at ways to be more efficient in investing your resources, particularly in areas that are less important to you. For example, no one wants to have a high energy bill, so energy savings is something that all of us can use to reduce the resources we invest in our energy needs and thus raise the resources available for the other things in our lives.

Whenever I see someone doing something they obviously love, I usually think to myself that it’s a pretty awesome thing (I was actually just thinking this the other day when I watched a skilled person making sidewalk art). Most of the time, when you see a parent, you’re seeing someone doing something they love (even if it might be frustrating in the short term, which parenting can often be). Use it as inspiration. If they’re doing something they love, even when it’s challenging, why can’t I?

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