Updated on 05.17.11

On Graduation Day

Trent Hamm

Today, I’m pretty busy with family events. My son is graduating from his preschool today. We take him to a private preschool that has a great blend of academics and constructive play time that we just love, but this is his final day there. In August, he’ll be moving on to kindergarten. Three of his four grandparents are traveling to go to his graduation, and afterwards we’re going to a dinner with the families of several of his classmates. (I’m writing this in the morning after he’s gone to get ready for his graduation ceremony (apparently, a song and a speech will be involved) but before the grandparents will arrive.)

This morning, I wanted to ask him about the things he’s learned so far in his life. He’s a fairly bright five year old, so I expected some interesting answers.

I asked him if he knew what Mom and Dad did all day when he was at preschool, and he told me that Dad writes stuff and Mom teaches.

I asked him why we did those things, and he told me that we like doing most of it and we make money doing some of the stuff we don’t like to do. That’s pretty much spot-on.

I asked him what we did with our money, and he said that we use it to pay for our house and to buy food and to buy books and to give him and his sister allowance.

I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He thought for a long time – fifteen seconds or so – and he said he wanted to be a painter.


I actually tried to make a video of this question and answer session, but he turned really shy and ran away from the camera, as he often does when he realizes the camera is on and filming him.

* * *

When my wife and I first had a child, shortly before I started The Simple Dollar, I thought that raising children mostly involved putting up with problems. You were the parents. You were the providers of discipline and basic instruction on how to behave. You changed diapers and wiped away tears. I viewed it as being almost like a car mechanic, where you did the basic things needed to get the car road worthy and then watched it scream away from you.

Instead, what I’m learning as I go along is that in a parent-child relationship, both people grow.

This site is called The Simple Dollar, right? I’m often seeking ways to break personal finance concepts down into very simple pieces that are easy to apply to life.

My children make that process easier.

I’ll be in the basement, typing away on my laptop, and my oldest child will pop in and ask me what I’m writing about. I realized not too long ago that if I can’t quickly explain it in a way that he understands, the post probably isn’t that good.

For example, if I’m talking about why it’s okay to put your retirement funds into stocks when you’re 25 but not when you’re 65, I’ll say something like, “If I gave you $5 and told you that you had to give it back to me tomorrow, you’d be careful with it, right? But if I gave you $5 and told you that you had to give me $10 back when you were thirty, you’d probably find something else to do with it, right? You’d try to buy something that might be worth more than $10 when you were thirty.” He understands it, and thus I know I’m on the right track for a post.

* * *

So why am I telling you about this? What does it really have to do with personal finance?

Here’s the real deal. Personal finance is simple. There are a lot of people that make this all far more complicated than it ever has to be. Why? They make money doing it. Financial advisors can make a mint if they make you believe that this is all really complicated.

The personal finance that 99% of us will ever deal with in our lifetimes is all really simple stuff. Spend less than you earn. Put the difference somewhere safe if you’re going to need it soon, or invest it if you’re not going to need it for a while. It all more or less boils down to that.

The simplicity of personal finance – and the real simplicity of so much going on in the world – is the most valuable thing I’ve learned as a parent. Most things really are simple when you start breaking them down into their key components. Even things that seem really complicated are actually quite simple when you break them down.

Don’t make money – or life – too complicated. If you’re getting lost in all of the terms, back off. There’s no rush. Learn what you need to know at your own pace.

When you translate some idea you’ve just learned down to the simplicity that a five year old can understand it, and it no longer seems scary. It seems easy, in fact.

The biggest challenge in personal finance is not something complicated. It’s overcoming our own poor choices that we make in the heat of the moment. That’s also the biggest challenge we face in our lives as a whole.

There’s a lesson to take home on graduation day.

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  1. Clifton says:

    Congrats to your son and to you guys for raising a kid so level-headed. I’m in my 20’s now and I can say that 90% of what I know about spending money I learned by the time I was 10. Needless to say, your kid will have a lot more financial intelligence than most when he gets to that age.

  2. Hunter says:

    Congratulations on your sons graduation.

    My son will begin kinder in the fall also. We decided not to put him through pre-school, like we did with his two older siblings. We simply could not afford the $800 per month fee.

    We substituted free programs offered by our local library system. He has been in reading programs there, this past year.

    It’s an unconventional route, but he is bright, has benefited from his older siblings academically, and is well socialized. I think we made the right decision.

  3. Mol says:

    Wow! Joes gotten so big! Congratulations to him :)

  4. Kelly says:

    Wahoo! Congrats on the preschool graduation! He is so cute :) Sounds like a very smart 5 year old. I teach kindergarten and some kids would NOT get the concepts he does!

  5. BirdDog says:

    He seems like such a joy to have in your life, Trent. Blessings.

  6. Mary says:

    Great post – words to live by.

  7. Borealis says:

    I hate to be a party-pooper, so I will ask it in the form of a question. There must be something I just don’t understand.

    What is the purpose of an elaborate event for “graduation” from preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, or junior high?

  8. Maureen says:

    I agree with you Borealis. A grade 8 teacher once told me that they make a fuss over junior high graduation because for some of the students it is the only graduation they will have. Sadly, a lot of students never graduate from highschool.

  9. Kai says:

    When you are those ages, it’s fun. When you’re 4 or 5 or 6, it’s a fun day to put on a show and feel like a big kid. About the same at 12. After junior high, it’s an excuse to dress up and celebrate a little. When junior high students are spending hundreds on dresses for it, it’s silly, but when the 5-year-olds sing some songs and wear a cape for a bit, I don’t see any real problem with it. I don’t think they get overly elaborate in most places.

  10. SLCCOM says:

    Ditto, Borealis and Maureen. It really takes away from the specialness of actually accomplishing something to be proud of. When you “graduate” when you are 5, and then 12, and “celebrate” all kinds of non-special, non-significant “events,” it really cuts into feeling genuinely proud of something you worked hard for.

    And when every child gets a “trophy” for participating, and valedictorians and salutatorians are banned from high school graduating classes because someone’s tender little feelings might be hurt, well, you have a recipe for a bunch of really insecure, self-entitled parasites on society who will never be able to function successfully in the work world.

  11. Mel says:

    I think I agree with Kai about the ‘graduation’ thing. It’s just a bit of fun. I can remember very clearly my last day of primary/elementary school (age 10). We did some kind of performance (I think – I’m a bit hazy on that part!), had a special assembly, a shared meal and generally time to celebrate the end of an era – and say goodbye to teachers, the school itself, and friends who would be going on to different schools.

    I feel like it’s just a nice way to mark the end of something – assuming it doesn’t become over-the-top and end up costing heaps for special clothes and things!

  12. kjc says:

    For example… I’ll say something like, “If I gave you $5 and told you that you had to give it back to me tomorrow, you’d be careful with it, right? But if I gave you $5 and told you that you had to give me $10 back when you were thirty, you’d probably find something else to do with it, right? You’d try to buy something that might be worth more than $10 when you were thirty.” He understands it, and thus I know I’m on the right track for a post.”

    Leading the witness.

    Cute little guy, though; enjoy!

  13. Stephanie says:

    I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate milestones with our children. My son will be “graduating” from Kindergarten next week and I am really looking forward to it. I don’t think of it as non-special or non-significant. I am amazed at the amount of things he has learned and how well he is reading. I don’t see how bringing everyone together to celebrate this milestone is going to result in self-entitled parasites.

  14. Allie says:

    A performance, an assembly, and a meal is one thing, Mel, but the point where it becomes a graduation “ceremony” is where I get uncomfortable. Seriously, I mean, preschool? Is completing preschool (read: becoming too old for preschool and old enough for kindergarten) really a thing that the child “accomplished”? I wasn’t aware your average preschool had any kind of stringent academic standards the kid had to meet to complete it.

    On a side note, can anyone recommend a good PF blog for people without children in their lives?

  15. Johanna says:

    @Allie: Are you also opposed to celebrating children’s birthdays? They also involve no more of an accomplishment than getting older.

    I’m inclined to agree with Kai and Mel. I do think the “every kid gets a trophy for being a special snowflake” trend can go way too far, but you can also go way too far in the opposite direction. Having a celebration, or even a ceremony, to mark the end of one period of a child’s life and the beginning of another seems perfectly appropriate to me.

    And if it makes you feel any better, chances are that as the kids grow up, they won’t remember their preschool graduation ceremony at all. I certainly don’t remember mine, although I’ve seen pictures of it, so I know I had one.

  16. Allie says:

    You can celebrate something without an accomplishment being involved, but a graduation is a specific kind of celebration specifically for celebrating achievement. I did say the assembly and group meal sounds fine to me. Turning it into a graduation ceremony is what bothers me.

  17. valleycat1 says:

    Allie #14 – other PF blogs – I’ve found some others I like by following some of Trent’s “blogs I read” links & then THEIR links (and so on). A lot of people seem to like Five Cent Nickel & A Gai Shan Life. What will sync with your preferences depends on where you are in your life & what age you are.

  18. Maggie says:

    I like to think of the pre-K graduation as a door to something new and wonderful, not the end of something. For my grandson, he was saying good-bye to lots of friends because they were all going to different schools and life ws changing. He got to wear a “square hat” (as he called it) and felt so proud. My daughter teaches at this preschool and they do learn a lot. I’d say that the skills he got in pre-K are equivalent to those my children got in Kindergarten. It is an important event for the kids but the hat, some cupcakes and mom & dad at school should suffice.

    Some of the expensive private schools in my area actually have cap and gown, processions in an auditorium and almost a full graduation service to celebrate this change. 4 yr olds don’t care – they just want the cupcakes! This type of celebration is for the parents. Just my opinion

  19. Adam P says:

    That is one darn cute kid!

  20. Andrew says:

    I was shocked recently to unearth a photo of me in cap and gown at my pre-school graduation (circa 1960). I had–perhaps mercifully–blocked it out.

    This is nothing new, and no harm done.

  21. Sarah says:

    “It really takes away from the specialness of actually accomplishing something to be proud of.”

    I really don’t feel this way at all. I graduated preschool (back in the 80s!) but I still felt just as proud as I would have otherwise when I got my MS a couple years ago. Really? The fact that my 4 year old nephew will wear a cap and gown doesn’t make me feel at all worried that my accomplishment wasn’t taken seriously. (Honestly, I don’t think i could have failed high school if I tried, provided i showed up every day, so I really didn’t think much of that ceremony/accomplishment either, aside from fun and marking the transition to a new phase in life.)

    I really liked this post Trent.

  22. Julie says:

    I am with all of the others who were somewhat opposed to multiple graduation ceremonies. It has gotten to the point where we are “over recognizing” our children for accomplishments that really are not much more than the next phase of growing up. I believe this can make for more self-oriented kids that start expecting recognition, gifts and acknowledgement on a regular basis instead of just doing their best for the sake of a job well done. All of my children understand that graduating from high school is the BARE MINIMUM considering they have been blessed with abundant resources, opportunities, and talents to go much further. (and they also realize not all kids are so fortunate) We are celebrating my son’s high school graduation this year with a small family party…but it is mainly to say goodbye as he is heading off to one of our military academies soon after he graduates. When he makes it through 4 years at a military academy, this will be a graduation worth celebrating!!!!

  23. Julie says:

    One more thought on graduation. What is really troubling is the number of high school graduation announcements we receive from kids that we barely know. Last year we received one from a girl that we had never met and were only very casually acquainted with her parents. For many kids a graduation ceremony isn’t much more than a chance to ask for gifts. This is a very common situation and it has happend to us several times each year since our children have gotten older. You can’t help but wonder why this is becomming so prevalent.

  24. tentaculistic says:

    I’m really impressed with your son’s grasp of concepts that many adults wpould have a hard time expressing, esp so succinctly. And impressed with you and Sarah for what are obviously a lot of small dialogues over the years about some pretty weighty stuff. I wish I had those kinds of conversations about work and finances as a kid or even young adult!

    And best wishes as he goes to the next stage. May he continue to love and seek out knowledge, and grow as a person.

  25. SLCCOM says:

    My mother used to say, they get their kids a car or a trip to Europe for high school graduation, a card for graduating from college, and if they go on to earn a graduate degree (as my brother and I both did) they say, “what, are they STILL in school?”

    Sarah, you support my statement when you say that you were just as proud of “graduating” from preschool as earning your Master’s degree. (Congratulations, by the way!) Did you really work as hard in preschool as you did for your Masters?

  26. Julie says:

    I find it hard to believe that anyone can remember graduating from pre-school and I find it more difficult to believe that they can recall how proud they felt.

  27. Larabara says:

    I think that graduations from things like preschool (and having elaborate birthday parties for 1 year olds) are more for the parents than the children. It lets the parents celebrate what they would consider a milestone in their children’s lives after investing lots of time, money, guidance, training, and love to get them to that milestone. Your son’s accomplishment is a reflection of you and your wife’s efforts to get him to that graduation, so enjoy it as a rightfully proud parent.

  28. Sarah says:

    Julie, SLCCOM, I actually said I felt just as proud of my masters “as I would have otherwise”, meaning I would have felt no more or less had I not graduated from preschool, or had there been no such thing as preschool graduations in general.

    My point was meant to be that my MS degree was an accomplishment of which preschool graduations of any kind had no bearing. It certainly did not diminish it in any way.

    As far as preschool goes, I don’t remember how proud I was, but I probably was just happy to be part of a show. I’m quite sure we sang, but that’s about as far as my memory goes!

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