Strings Attached

Jonathan Clements

IT MIGHT SEEM RISKY to write about the gifts my kids will receive later today. Won’t that ruin the surprise? Probably not. My children and stepchildren aren’t, I suspect, regular HumbleDollar readers.

My wife and I tag-teamed on gifts this year. Her job was to find one or two items for each kid that we could wrap and throw under the tree. This works well, because she likes shopping—and I loathe it. How strong is my distaste? If I have to purchase something, I almost always order it online: groceries, toilet paper, pizza, you name it. If I never had to shop again, let alone go to an actual store, I’d be a happy man. In fact, when asked what I want for Christmas, I draw a total blank. While I’m a huge fan of travel and restaurant meals, I can’t think of a single material possession I’m hankering after.

(Actually, that isn’t entirely true. I would love to have Edouard Manet’s stunning portrait of Berthe Morisot hanging above the fireplace. But I realize that’s probably not in the cards.)

If Lucinda’s job was to find gifts we could wrap, what was my role? That would be writing checks. For years, I’ve given my children money at Christmas and on their birthdays, and now I do the same for my stepchildren and even my new son-in-law. The amount depends on how flush I’m feeling. Sometimes, it’s just $250. Last Christmas, it was $1,000 each. This year, it’s down to $500. Hey, don’t blame me: If you’d bought more copies of my latest book,  I could have been more generous.

To be clear, I never simply give money. As my kids have learned over the years,  it’s always money with a purpose. What purpose? It depends.

My daughter wants to get a master’s degree so, in my Christmas card, I’m suggesting she add my check to her graduate school savings. My son-in-law has a mountain of student loans from law school, and I know it weighs on him. I’ve asked that he add the $500 to his next loan payment, so he gets the debt paid off a tad quicker.

My younger stepdaughter’s $500 is going into her “house” fund. I set up the account for her last year. To be sure, the idea of owning a home is a bit remote for a 14-year-old, but I can usually elicit a smile when I show her the current account balance. My goal is to build up the fund to $20,000. That’s what I did for my son and daughter.

I also have a house account for my older stepdaughter. But her $500 is coming to her as Australian dollars. In February, she’s headed to Brisbane for her junior semester abroad. It should be a fabulous experience, and I don’t want it marred by money worries. The fact is, $500 to her is worth so much more than $500 to me, and I suspect it will bring her greater happiness.

Finally, my son’s $500 is for his retirement. He’s getting a PhD, but he had some earned income in 2018, so he qualifies for a Roth IRA. He hopes ultimately to be an academic—and I’m confident he’ll succeed—but he’ll be over 30 by the time he gets a paid position. That means he will be late to the retirement savings game. I don’t want him to be too far behind.

In other words, in handing out money, I’m trying to tell the next generation what I value financially. Is all this a little manipulative? You’d better believe it. But my intentions are good—and, let’s face it, they are getting $500.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Seven IdeasJust in CaseNo Kidding and Taking Us for Fools. Jonathan’s latest book: From Here to Financial Happiness.

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