A few days ago, I had lunch with a person in the local community whose opinion I respect quite a bit. He has two adult children, only one of which attended college straight out of high school, and both of which run their own business.
What I wanted to know from him was how exactly he raised his children to be such independent, self-motivated, entrepreneurial people. What he told me really surprised me, and it made me think a bit about whether I should be contributing to my children’s 529 plans or doing something different for their future.
When the children were young (under 12), he paid an allowance for household chores. There was a minimum that had to be done to even qualify for the system each week – so they had to do a certain number of tasks just as a baseline. Beyond that, though, they could earn money by doing more chores: dishes, lawn care, and so on.
Meanwhile, he was investing in a mutual fund for each of the children. Each week, he put a small amount into their fund, intending to use it later to help them out.
On each child’s twelfth birthday, he sat down with them and helped them develop a business of their own that they could manage. One of them chose lawn care and snow removal, while the other one chose math tutoring because he was exceptional at math (and had already completed all of the math courses offered in the school district). He provided them both an equal amount of “seed money” out of their fund to get things started – one of them used it to buy a used lawnmower and a snow shovel, while the other bought a printer cartridge and paper to make flyers. He then guided them on their business, acting basically as a free business consultant to them. The only requirement that he placed on the business is that half of the money either had to be reinvested in the business or invested in something else – they could spend the other half.
In both cases, the businesses thrived. The math tutoring child wound up with significantly more in his fund than his brother, but the lawn care/snow removal brother wound up with a lot of equipment. Both learned quite a lot about how to operate a business.
On their eighteenth birthday, they were gifted their funds. After that, the parents provided no more financial support. The person with the lawn care business took that money, bought a lot of ads and some new equipment, and expanded the business. The son with the tutoring business finished his senior year, then went to school to get degrees in both business and civil engineering on a nearly full scholarship, then worked at an engineering firm for six years while that fund still grew, then used it to put out his own shingle. He now runs an engineering firm.
To me, there is a lot of appeal in this plan. It relies heavily in constant fostering of self-reliance and entrepreneurship in your children, but it also gives them the opportunity to choose education if they so wish.
This doesn’t change my desire to save money for my child’s future, it just makes me reconsider putting the money into a 529. That money has tax benefits if used for education, but an extra tax penalty on earnings (10% more than long term capital gains) if used for non-educational purposes. If you assume they’re going to go to college, a 529 is the right way to go, but if they wind up starting their own business right out of high school – which an entrepreneur might – a 529 is a hindrance as compared to a normal fund.
For now, I’ll stick with the 529, but the lessons learned from this man’s story will stick with me for a long time.