Updated on 06.08.11

Starting the Journey Right

Trent Hamm

Trent, circa 1980
Me, at approximately age two, in the kitchen of the house I grew up in

This past weekend, I was cleaning out a drawer in my office when I came across a stack of photos from my early childhood. My parents, my brothers, and my cousins were constants in these pictures, all looking stunningly young, all of them depicted in that slightly washed out style that thirty year old snapshots take on.

It was the little details, though, that really resonated with me. I’d see my mother in the background of one picture, standing near a large pot on the stove, and I could practically smell chicken and dumplings cooking. A picture of my father standing in rubber hip boots immediately calls to mind the sounds and the aromas of freshly-caught fish. A picture with a cousin or a sibling smiling would bring about the sound of their laughter in my ears.

We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my childhood was filled with things that were far greater than money.

A sense of security I always felt safe and secure at home. Sure, my parents argued once in a while, but there was never a moment when I doubted my own safety or security at home, and there was never a moment that I doubted that they both loved me. When I needed them, they were always there for me.

Compassion for others My family constantly gave of themselves to help others, particularly my parents. I can’t remember the number of times that people would unexpectedly show up for supper and my mother would find a way to get that person a full plate of food. There wasn’t a summer that went by where my father wasn’t giving away a large chunk of what our garden produced to our friends and family and other people who needed it.

A desire to learn My parents read constantly in front of me and encouraged me to do the same. They also constantly reinforced the value of learning new things and my father was always discussing the events of the day with me. I was raised to learn and to know things.

An entrepreneurial and self-sufficient bent My father ran several small side businesses, particularly small-scale commercial fishing and gardening to sell excess produce, as well as providing plenty of fish and vegetables for ourselves. He channeled a lot of his spare time into this and often recruited his children (and others) to help as well. I particularly enjoyed the gardening aspect of it and fondly remember taking charge of watering the gardens.

A strong sense of community and family There were seemingly always people at our house beyond our immediate family. Socializing and a sense of community were constants during my childhood.

All of these elements are things that shaped me deeply as a person, and they’re elements that I want to provide for my own children. What was missing, though?

Channels for learning Beyond reading, the channels for learning often felt narrow. Many of the things I wanted to learn about required some significant startup cost, such as learning a musical instrument. As I mentioned, there was not much money to be had when I was growing up. Even beyond this, my parents were often uncertain as to how to channel things beyond taking me to the library and giving me books as gifts.

Understanding of money Basic money lessons were something else that I missed out on in my childhood. From my perspective, it often felt as though there was barely enough money to get by, except that my parents would have occasional windfalls. During those windfalls, we’d splurge on things – that’s how I wound up with a Nintendo and quite a few games with it – but at other times, there was a sense of not having enough. Money felt chaotic to me and I had a sense that when you had money, you needed to spend it soon.

My youngest son, approximately eight months, delighting in an opportunity to play with a wristwatch

Today, I find myself in the shoes of the parent, with three children looking to me for guidance. How can I address the seven concerns I see above?

A sense of security We need to provide a stable home for our children, and the best way to do that is to constantly work on our marriage. If my relationship with my wife is strong, the foundation of our family is strong, too. Another key point in this equation is to spend time individually with each child, as well as collectively with them, so they have security in their relationship with their parents and feel limited jealousy toward their siblings.

Compassion for others Lead by example. Give to charity, and involve our children in that process. Respect people and care for them regardless of their religion, sexual preference, race, disability, or anything else. Luckily, we have opportunities in our life for our children to meet people of other religions, races, and lifestyles and see that they’re normal people who have ups and downs, joys and sorrows, talents and weaknesses, just like everyone else.

A desire to learn This one comes naturally, as my wife and I are both voracious readers and voracious debaters of the issues of the day. We are starting to strongly engage our two oldest children in these debates, and they’re both picking up reading as well.

An entrepreneurial and self-sufficient bent I run my own business. Almost all of the parents of my children’s friends are employed by others, but they have an example of entrepreneurship at home. We also try to do a lot of things ourselves in front of the children, like making soap and laundry detergent, growing our own food, repairing the toilet, and so on.

A strong sense of community and family This is perhaps our weakest area, and it’s the one we actively work on the most. We have a circle of friends that we interact with often and we know many more people in the community on a more casual basis. We participate in a number of community activities and we strive to use community resources as much as we can (by going to the park, participating in youth sports leagues, and so on).

Channels for learning We have a savings account set apart for this, so that we can channel whatever growing passions for learning our children have. On top of that, we try to create educational experiences all the time that allow them to dabble in different areas, from art to paleontology.

Understanding of money We have an allowance system in place. Beyond that, we’ve started to discuss the concept of bills and income to our oldest child on a conceptual basis. I write about personal finance, of course, so this is something that’s a pretty regular topic for us.

Here’s the thing to note, though. Most of the stuff I mention above doesn’t cost money. Instead, it takes time.

Time is the deepest cost of parenting. The ability to do all of these things, to make sure as many doors are open as possible for your child, takes a lot of time.

Many parents are willing to step up to the plate when it comes to money, but the investment children really need is time.

Simply put, children are far better off if you work a minimum wage job and can spend a few hours with them a day than if you work a high-paying job and are constantly absent from their lives. Sure, you might be able to buy them expensive toys and take them on great vacations, but that’s not when they need you. They don’t need your stuff and they don’t need a ton of you one day and an absence of you for a long period. They need you steadily as they grow, because these lessons don’t take root overnight.

Almost all of the things I named above require no money or very little money. Instead, they require some planning and some time investment.

If I learned one lesson from my childhood, it’s that good parenting is about time, not about money. I try to apply that every day of my own parenting journey.

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  1. Maureen says:

    If a parent is trying to support a family on a minimum wage job, they will likely have to work MORE hours to cover the basic needs of shelter, food and health care and will have fewer hours to spend with children.

    Having a high paying job does not necessarily equate with working longer hours. We have found the opposite to be true.

  2. Riki says:

    I don’t see how a parent must work a minimum wage job in order to provide the time necessary for their children. In fact, the stress of living on a minimum wage income would negate a lot of the benefits you want those children to have. Security? An entrepreneurial spirit? Time for learning? Maybe not a parent’s first priority when they’re worried about keeping the bills paid on a minimum wage income.

    And what about everything else you recommend? Saving for an emergency, saving for retirement, taking the time to make meals from scratch . . . most of these are exceptionally more difficult on a minimum wage income. Wouldn’t the inability to do these things have an negative impact on the children? How can you teach your kids about saving when you don’t have the flexibility to do it yourself?

    Here’s the thing — lots of parents earn a comfortable living, work at a successful career, AND make time to spend with their kids. Earning a healthy paycheque does not automatically mean the children are neglected and starving for attention. Who are these high-income earners you’re basing these biases on, Trent? Your perspective is incredibly skewed and a little bit strange.

  3. Stephan F- says:

    On a completely separate note, there is a combination of smells, cooking sauerkraut, sausage and peppermint, that always takes me back to Oma’s house.

  4. Riki says:

    Your point is a good one overall, Trent, and it’s obvious that you put a lot of time and caring into your role as a parent.

    But man . . . don’t you read these articles before posting them? Your good points are often lost in a forest of strange examples, bolded text, and obviously biased opinions that often lack accurate facts. Your meaning gets lost all the time and that’s something you need to think about.

  5. lurker carl says:

    “Simply put, children are far better off if you work a minimum wage job and can spend a few hours with them a day than if you work a high-paying job and are constantly absent from their lives.”

    Maybe not. Most people working low wage jobs work more hours just to make ends meet. Minimum wage existance can be even more demanding than high pressure executive. Security is zero if you’re evicted every six months because you can’t afford rent, utilities are unreliable because you can’t pay the bills, meals are nutritionally lacking because you can’t buy decent food. Children worry when basics are inconsistant and schedules constantly change.

    How about something with a salary in between those extremes?

  6. Tracy says:

    I have to disagree that most of those things don’t cost money. They may not take millions, but money is critical.

    A sense of security requires a stable home environment, and part of that means no worries about being evicted or having the home foreclosed on.

    An entrepreneurial and self-sufficient bent: Not to belabor the obvious, but if those entreprenerial efforts don’t result in income …

    Channels for learning: I mean, your say the problem with your family growing up was in part because they couldn’t afford some of the extras. And you mention you have a savings account specially set up for this now. How can that not involve money?

    Understanding of money: *cough*

    That’s fully 4 out of 7 and even the others are bolstered strongly by income.

    Also, I think you fundamentally don’t understand how little a minimum wage job brings in to support a family. Most parents having to work a minimum wage job aren’t just working ONE – they’re having to work two or even THREE in order to make ends meet. That advice is absolutely TERRIBLE.

    Also, I can’t help but boggle at how much you keep emphasizing in this post about how your parents taught you the importance of family and community and it’s one of your values and you want to pass it along to your children when I contrast it with your mean-spirited advice in yesterday’s mailbag about how it is too ‘risky’ for Jason to take in his cousin for a year. Ugh.

  7. Mister E says:

    I spent a lot of years working minimum wage jobs before finally cleaning up my act and getting into a reasonably well paying white-collar field. My wife followed a similar path.

    Based on my personal experience my time is MUCH freer now than it ever was at a minimum wage job. The worst part about (many) minimum wage jobs isn’t even the pay it’s how management owns you – it was absolutely routine to not know what hours you would be working until the day before, if you asked for one day off it was routine to be given only 2 shifts for the entire week or for several weeks following for daring to ask for that time which labels you as unreliable.

    That’s based on many different jobs over many years, not just one bad one. Perhaps there are good ones out there but advising that a minimum wage job will somehow free up your time is simply not true as a general rule.

  8. Nick says:


    I think you should do an experiment. For some amount of time, say two weeks, you and your wife should live on minimum wage.

    You can move the extra money to savings, but you have to budget as if you were both making minimum wage.

    It would be fascinating to see the changes you would have to inevitably make.

  9. Johanna says:

    I second Nick’s suggestion. Or, if that’s not practical (since presumably Trent’s fixed costs on housing, insurance, etc. would be out of reach for someone making minimum wage), at least draw up a budget for how you *would* spend your money on a minimum-wage salary. If you can’t do that, then put a cork in it about how great life is on minimum wage.

    From my own experience: For most of my childhood (and early adulthood), my father worked a job where he had ridiculously long hours. He was always gone for work by the time I even woke up to get ready for school, and there were many, many days when he wasn’t home for dinner because he had to go to meetings in the evening. I don’t feel like I was adversely affected by this at all, and certainly not as much as Trent implies that I would have been. My father was not “constantly absent” from my life – there were plenty of evenings and weekends when he *was* around, and he made an effort to make the most of those hours. I don’t think a child, particularly an older one, really needs both parents to be looking over her shoulder 24/7.

    And the money he earned by working all those hours? Was not blown on “expensive toys and great vacations.” Some of it was saved to help my brother and me with our educations, and much of it was saved for my parents’ own retirement. So not only are my brother and I both student-loan-free, but we will probably never have to support our parents financially as they advance in years. How’s that for security?

  10. Riki says:

    Maybe Trent should calculate how many hours per week he would have to work to maintain their current standard of living on a minimum wage income.

    So much for spending time with the kids.

  11. David says:

    What sounds do freshly-caught fish make?

  12. Amy says:

    Spoken like someone who has never tried to support children on a minimum wage job. I love this blog, but you are way off base here.

  13. Jon says:

    Just another attempt to justify his decision to not work and be a stay at home dad. Not every one who has a better job or nicer lifestyle than Trent is deep in debt or neglecting their kids like he implies. My wife and I make 185k combined and work 40 hours a week. We are there to drop/pick up our daughter from school every day. We have dinner together every night and still go on great vacations and have some expesive toys. No debt either. Just because trent couldn’t do it doesn’t mean many others can and do.

  14. Maureen says:

    David, I was wondering the same thing! LOL!

  15. kjc says:

    This is the sound a freshly caught fish makes:

  16. Frank says:

    #13 Jon – I’m right there with you.
    It seems like every example Trent uses is based off of some preconceived notion that people who look successful also pair that with back-breaking debt. Too bad he doesn’t read the comments to see how his silly examples, skewed point of view and fact checking issues are turning people off.

  17. con says:

    “Simply put, children are far better off if you work a minimum wage job and can spend a few hours with them a day than if you work a high-paying job and are constantly absent from their lives. ”

    So, Trent, do you or your wife work minimum wage jobs and spend a few hours with them or do you both have higher paying jobs and just throw them in childcare so you guys can make more money?

    Wait. Let me guess. You guys make above minimum wage and put them in childcare and still spend time with them. How in the world can you relate to the post you just put on here? I’m not getting it. Someone help me.

  18. Evangeline says:

    This post left me with the strange feeling that I was searching for a straight line in a bowl of spaghetti noodles. I couldn’t follow it very well and had to keep rereading every other line for clarity. His parents did right things, his parents did wrong things. Low paying jobs are better for the family, but save a lot for those channels of learning on virtually no pay at all. I truly enjoy this blog, but this post had me scratching my head.

  19. krantcents says:

    I was an executive and eventually an entrepreneur when our kids were growing up. I made them a priority and went to work early so I could always be there for the evening meal. Even when I worked on Saturdays, I would take them with me. They learned a great deal from that experience. Balancing your time with what is important for the children and yourself.

  20. Sandra says:

    Trent, I can tell you come from a secure, loving home by the values and opinions that you hold. However, please remember that not all adults were as fortunate as you. Yes, you say money was a struggle, but abuse at the hands of your parents was clearly absent. How we are raised influences how we do everything – including spend money. Please be empathic to those who did not receive a secure, healthy start in life. Several of your posts have advised individuals not to seek professional help for mental health issues – rather you have suggested a good friend. I see now that this is coming from your own sense of security that was fostered in early childhood. For those coming from abused homes, this is not sage advice.

  21. Claire says:

    Trent, I find you very judgemental and biased – My husband and I earn a lot of money (200K) and still manage to spend heaps of time with our children, who are happy, well balanced children, who are excelling at school.

    You may choose to stay at home writing a blog, but it is not the only way to bring up children.

    And, sometimes I wonder if you are not a little too obsessed with child rearing – a little too controlling. Will be interesting to see if you are so controlling of teenagers.

  22. Mister E says:

    I just can’t see how you could argue that a minimum wage job would benefit any child under any circumstance (unless the singular alternative was total unemployment).

    Even if you can draw a direct correlation between a higher paying job and less face time with your kids (which you can’t) I would argue that the benefits of that face time would be more than offset by the squalor that you would be living in.

  23. Matt says:

    Ahhh! Why do I keep coming back to read this blog!

  24. chuck says:

    Sandra, yes Trent seems to not understand what it is like coming from an abusive parent (how could he if he didn;t). it haunts you your whole life. but trent does seem like an excellent parent which should save his kids thousands of $$$ in therapy sessions that some of us are burdened with.

  25. Adam P says:

    There’s obviously a trade-off here between money and time with children. Hopefully there is a happy medium between working 16 hours a week at Mickey D’s and working 100 hours a week as an investment banker. Unless you’re in Trent’s world of straw man extremes.

  26. jackie.n says:

    “Simply put, children are far better off if you work a minimum wage job and can spend a few hours with them a day than if you work a high-paying job and are constantly absent from their lives.”

    SIMPLY PUT, this is the reality of some parents working a minimum wage job–a family of 3 children with a self employed father and a mother working 3-11 in a factory. i saw my mother for 30″ in the morning before getting on the school bus. period. in bed before she got home at midnight. her 3 children crying because we NEVER spent time with her. i was a latch key kid in 5th grade who was responsible for taking care of her younger brother and sister after school until my father got home. i got dinner on the table. my mom felt so torn, and then eventually switched to 11-7 shift a few years later. yeah! now we got to see her every day at home after school. my parents gave up spending their nights sleeping together for us. to this day 40 years later my mother can not sleep through the night. what a sacrifice.
    so sometimes that’s the reality and outcome of working minimum wage jobs. SIMPLY PUT, very short sighted on your part to ever think that would equal quality time with your children. would you give up nights sleeping with your wife to work in a warehouse if TSD failed? of course you would, because the welfare of your children is your top priority.

  27. Jon says:

    Is this even a PF blog anymore? It seems like we get more of these ” Look at me, I’m a perfect parent” posts than post on the PF issues that the blog is built on.

  28. Allie says:

    No one does false dichotomies better than Trent!

  29. Des says:

    @ jackie.n – That was my experience with working poor parents as well. My parents made a bit more than minimum wage, but not by much. As someone said above, those types of jobs don’t come with much flexibility. My father worked graveyard and slept all day and my mother worked swing so that they didn’t have to put us in day care. To this day, my mother still tears up when she talks about how many of our school events (games, plays, field trips, etc.) she missed because she had to work in the evenings to support us and keep us out of daycare.

    Cooking from scratch? Please. Cooking was whatever kids could prepare for themselves, and/or be afforded on their small income. That meant Ramen, blue box mac & cheese, and hamburger helper. I can’t remember ever having vegetables with a meal.

    In the end, I think I turned out pretty well. However, my parents didn’t. They were stressed out and never saw each other. They slept in separate rooms because of their differing work/sleep schedules. My mom was often inches away from a breakdown, and my dad ended up drinking heavily. They divorced shortly after I graduated high school, and considered it a success because they made it till then to split up.

    We learned nothing about successful adult relationships, managing money (’cause we didn’t have any), or how to prepare real food. However, we did have a parent home 24/7, took family camping vacations every year, and knew are parents loved us. Take that as you will, but I don’t see how a lower paying job could possibly *help* one’s children. I guess if you had to choose between 100 hour weeks every week and poverty, then *maybe* it would be better. But for the vast majority of parents, the tradeoff is not nearly so extreme.

  30. valleycat1 says:

    Comments 18 (thank you – straight line in a bunch of noodles, indeed!) through #28 – yes!

  31. jackie.n says:

    @des. apparently we have a lot in common. in our house it was blue mac & cheese, ham. helper, and Ragu sauce. i have become quite the wonderful cook making most meals from scratch, and i admit that i shudder when seeing those items in the grocery store.
    i would also like to supplement your post by saying that it is often the parent with the minimum wage job that carries the limited benefits aka health insurance. fortunately we all had straight teeth–braces would never have been considered. the pressure on the parent who knows she has to keep her job at all costs for her family is immense. seeing a dentist was an emergency situation. no yearly physicals, no dental checkups. my father’s work (carpenter)was dependent on the relative economy of the area. if the local business was threatened then construction was restricted. if you managed to feed your children and provide shelter consistently then it was a good thing, but by no means a stable and secure environment all the time.
    i have followed this blog before trent had children. it has been an interesting journey, but i do agree with some posters that the comment section has become the main draw. i’m not sure when the tone changed, possibly when he gave up his steady job and made TSD his primary source of income. a blog is one’s thoughts; the making it a career led to higher expectations from his followers. trent’s statement that i quoted in my earlier post hit a nerve with me. i felt that he was flippant in his assumption that working a minimum wage job meant that the tradeoff was more time home with the kiddies. i wanted to refute that notion with actual facts from my own experience.
    despite the advantages presented to trent’s children some of us still manage to make it and grow up to be excellent tax payers. there is price though, cleverly hidden at times but still in existence.

  32. leslie says:

    I have gotten to the point where I don’t even read the posts any more…just the comments. I suppose Trent doesn’t care because he gets his money either way (probably more because I check comments more often than just coming to read the post). However, for someone that talks CONSTANTLY about self improvement he shows very little evidence of actually trying to make any improvements in his work. Fortunately for Trent, the commenters here seem to care more about his blog than he does.

    This post is so far beyond wrong headed that I don’t even know what to say…

  33. deRuiter says:

    Minimum wage jobs are supposed to be starter jobs. You sign on at Mickey D’s or Walmart and learn to bathe before coming to work, to arrive and punch in on time, to do as you are told by your supervisor, to deal with customers and co workers, to understand the connection between hours invested and income, to learn responsibility in the work place. Then you concnetrate on learning a trade like carpentry, electronics, plumbing, electrician, skilled worker, whatever job suits you and pays better than minimum wage. If you like Mickey D’s or WalMart, you take some courses and apply for management positions. If you work a minimum wage all your life don’t have children because you are not too bright. Before you have children, 1. get some education, 2. marry someone stable with a job and no criminal, drug or alcoholic tendencies, 3. Save some money and get a stable life before you have children. I am so bored and annoyed with with women who have produced children without a husband (the children’s biological father) in the house and now expect me to pay for their welfare, their extras, and listen to them complain about being a single parent. If you can’t afford to feed ’em, don’t breed’em.

  34. Johanna says:

    “I am so bored and annoyed with with women who have produced children without a husband”

    Y’know what bores and annoys me? People who seem to think that single mothers somehow “produce” their children all by themselves.

  35. Kari says:

    ummm ~ I’m a single mother of one. I don’t expect you to pay for anything for me. I take care of our needs just fine on my own. Nor do I spend every waking minute with my daughter. I need to use a day care center so I can work. We’re both just fine, thank you very much. She knows I love her & she’s my first priority – THAT’S why I have to work. We spend ample amounts of time together, just takes a little bit of planning & prioritizing.

  36. ejw says:

    I think Trent is trying to maybe point out to those of us who didn’t take the high paying career path, where there is sometimes some guilt that we didn’t give our children those expensive extras, that there is worth in what we maybe gave up in salary to be around a lot (not that working minimum or lower paying jobs guarantees that in any way, or that working a higher paid job always takes you away from them time wise)but it is worded pretty clumsily or insensitively. And, my parents were on the wealthy side and my mother was around most of the time and I think she hated it and resented us kids, and I’m sure many other parents have felt this way as well- just assuming that being around is always beneficial is a not a sound judgement.

    However, I have to say, Trent’s parents sound like lovely, interesting people and Trent should give them the dignity of not airing their financial woes periodically. He tries to balance the financial negativity with stories of how great they were in all the other ways…but SIMPLY PUT, if I were his parents I’d be DEEPLY hurt that he chooses to keep pointing this out to his readers, many of whom, I’m sure know his parents personally. “I had a great childhood and my parents taught me many great things but I WAS POOR!!!! MY PARENTS COULDN’T MANAGE MONEY! BUT LOOK HOW GOOD I AM AT IT” As someone who has followed the more entrepreneurial/creative route which hasn’t had a huge monetary payout and a spouse who gets paid well above minimum wage, (really Trent, do you even know what minimum wage is these days?) but certainly not a high salary, we’ve provided very adequately for our children, but nowhere near what our friends have been able to do and I’m privately very sensitive about this and am often worried that the kids are too. We’ve made sacrifices to give our kids what we could, and I’m sure Trent’s parents did too. If in the future, my kids choose to write about this publicly or have this a focus of their memories, I’ll be very hurt.

  37. Rachel says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a couple of years now, and I am continually befuddled at how sensitive some readers are to Trent’s opinions. I understand vehement disagreement, but some comments are mean spirited.

    This blog is just his (at times misguided) OPINION on finance, life, child rearing etc. don’t take it so personally.

  38. Allie says:

    If it were just a personal blog for sharing his opinion, then that would be one thing – but this blog is a site where he purports to offer advice on living. It is totally acceptable to call someone out on their misguided opinions when they are trying to influence other people into sharing those opinions.

  39. marta says:

    Wow, this is indeed moronic.

    Trent, I also challenge you to do this little experiment of living on minimum wage. Forget about your wife’s health insurance, too, and about any income this blog produces — pretend it doesn’t exist. Go pick green beans or something. Try to make ends meet on *that*.

    This black-and-white view of the world is getting pretty old.

    I would also feel a tad bad if I were in your parents’ place, reading post after post talking about their bad financial moves and how you are doing oh-so-much-better than them…

    Do you even stop and *think* before you post stuff like this?

  40. Evita says:

    #13 Jon: Trent is not a stay-at-home dad. He just works from his home. His children are in day care when his wife is at work.

  41. Sandra says:

    @24 – Chuck. Totally agree. Being raised in a family without having to endure years of therapy is a gift. But, then how would I make a living? As a single mother therapist – I do quite well. And to the commenters that assume single mothering means living in poverty…not always. I am far from poor, however, every now and again, I am cash poor.

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