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Dad Next Door: The Price of Money

A little encouragement from across the fence


A while back, I was giving a talk to a group of parents when one of them asked a question about fancy, exclusive preschools. He complained about the exorbitant tuition, and wondered if it was really worth it. I made a sarcastic remark about getting a head start on those Harvard applications, which got a chuckle from the crowd. But then a woman’s hand shot up near the back of the room.

“What if I do want my son to go to Harvard?” she asked. “What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I give him the best opportunities I can?”  

There was a lot of emotion in her voice, and it made me switch gears. I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts.

“I’m going to ask you something,” I said, “and I promise I’m not trying to be a jerk. I really want to know.” 

She nodded.

“Tell me, why do you want him to go to Harvard?”

“To get a good education. The best he can get.”

“And why do you want that?” I made sure to keep my voice as kind and un-jerk-like as possible.

“So he’ll be successful. So he’ll have options in life.”

“And why do you want that?”  

“So he’ll be happy.”

“Yes. Of course. You want what we all want. But what if I told you that studies have looked at that, and people who went to the most prestigious, competitive schools ended up no happier than the ones who went elsewhere? They made more money, on average, but it didn’t change how happy they were. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get into Harvard. You just have to know what it can and can’t do for you — and what it might cost you on the way.”

I’ve been in that basic discussion many times, from both sides. Not just about preschools, or even kids, but about life in general. It turns out that people are not very good at predicting what will and won’t make them happy. Or to be more accurate, we usually don’t even ask the question. Somewhere along the way, our pursuit of happiness drifts off course, and we find ourselves on a well-worn path toward something else entirely. More often than not, that something else is money.

Parenting involves a lot of trade-offs. We all feel the squeeze of less time, less energy, and less money than we wish we had. We have to make some hard choices about what to prioritize, and what to let go. Do we work late or get home in time to have dinner with the kids and help with homework? Do we save up for that big vacation on some island paradise, or take off a couple of extra days closer to home? Do we buy the big house with the really big yard, or the little one with the little mortgage? So often, it comes down to a choice between money and time. Which should we choose?

Happiness, especially in children, isn’t easy to measure. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. They’ve asked the kids themselves, questioned their parents, and surveyed their teachers. They’ve measured depression, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and high school dropout rates. And across all these measurements, the things that benefit kids the most are the same. Closeness to their parents. Dinners with their families. Connection to their communities. A sense of agency and control in their lives. These are all things we can help give to our kids, but they have a price. That price is our time.

There’s one more factor that seems to have the biggest impact of all: happy kids tend to have happy parents. I’m sure some of that is genetic, and some is probably kids influencing adults. But I’m willing to bet that those little beings who hang on our every word and mood, and who have been picking up our signals since the day they were born, are at least as influenced by our happiness as we are by theirs.  

One study of more than 4,000 adults, from every walk of life, measured which they valued more: money or time. The majority (64 percent) were more focused on money. But those who placed more value on time were statistically much happier and more satisfied with life. It wasn’t even close.

Sometimes we get the wrong answer because we’re asking the wrong questions. Does a super-cool eco-tourism vacation to Costa Rica enhance a child’s life? No doubt. Does a prestigious, private elementary school offer resources that public schools can’t? Of course. But these things cost money, and money isn’t free. Money costs time. And evidence suggests that our happiness, and our children’s happiness, may depend on how much we are willing to spend of one to get the other.

Everyone says that time is money. What they don’t tell you is the rate of exchange.

Jeff Lee spends his time and saves his pennies in Seattle.

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