Pay It Forward

Jonathan Clements

MINDFUL. INTENTIONAL. Purposeful. These are the buzzwords of our time—and they make me slightly queasy, with their whiff of self-centered, self-satisfied self-indulgence.

Yet it seems those are my goals.

On Monday, a moving van will arrive to take my worldly possessions to a house in Philadelphia that, I hope, will be my last. All this has made me ponder what I want from the years that remain. Three items top my wish list:

Do good work. My ambitions today are far more circumscribed than they were in my 20s. A few decades jousting with the world will do that to you. Still, I remain anxious to serve others as best I can—and HumbleDollar is my chosen vehicle.

Find some balance. A friend recently called me a workaholic. It’s a label I resist, because it’s my choice to log long hours at my laptop—and I do so because I love my work. Still, I readily concede my life is somewhat unbalanced, and I want to find a way to work less and spend more time exploring the world, whether it’s through books, encounters with others, on bicycle or via airplane.

Help my family. As longtime readers know, teaching my kids about money—and helping them financially—has been an enduring passion. In November, the list of family members I hope to help will grow by one, with the arrival of my first grandchild.

This is a key reason for my move to Philadelphia. My new home will be 10 blocks from my daughter and son-in-law. I want to help out as best I can with my grandson. (Yes, the sonogram says it’s a boy.)

For many, the world is a harsh place made yet harsher by the pandemic’s economic fallout. The government has an important role to play in taking the edge off that harshness. As someone who has benefited from an economic system that creates both winners and losers, I don’t begrudge the taxes I pay to support that government safety net.

Still, I don’t want my financial security to depend on a large, faceless bureaucracy—I can’t imagine many do—which is why I’m heavily focused on the safety net that family can offer. Got a spouse, parents, children and others who you consider close family? You are, I would argue, among each other’s greatest assets and liabilities.

How far would you go in helping other family members financially—and how much help would they provide you? This, I realize, is a topic where many folks have strong opinions. Some believe they shouldn’t provide too much financial assistance to their children or other family members, because they fear such help will dent ambition and create an unhealthy dependence. Similarly, others shy away from family loans, because they worry the money borrowed won’t get repaid and will leave all involved with bruised feelings.

Much, I suspect, should hinge on a clear-eyed assessment of your fellow family members’ money habits. My children, siblings and mother are all remarkably sensible about financial matters, and I wouldn’t hesitate to lend money to any of them. Indeed, I lent money to my daughter so she could buy her current home, and my mother has twice made me short-term loans to help with a house purchase.

Not inclined to make family loans, help your children fund Roth IRAs, subsize their 401(k) contributions or provide other direct financial support? Even so, I’d encourage you to ponder the concept captured by the title of this article: Pay it forward.

I won’t bequeath enough to my children for them to live in the lap of luxury, with no need to ever work again, and—even if I had that sort of wealth—I don’t think it would be desirable. But I’m endeavoring to give my kids something I consider even more valuable: a sense of financial security.

While I’m alive, they know I’d bail them out if financial misfortune befell them—and, upon my death, they should inherit enough to provide them with a healthy financial backstop. In other words, as harsh as the world can be, my kids should never suffer the full financial impact of that harshness.

I readily concede there’s an unfairness to this: Only those who enjoy some financial success have the opportunity to bequeath a sense of financial security to future generations. But I make no apologies. I’ve come to realize that financial happiness lies not in a bigger house or a faster car, but in knowing all will be okay, even if we’re hit with rough financial times. That’s my gift to my children. With the money they inherit from me, I hope they pay it forward to the generation that follows.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Seems So EasyMy Regrets and Playing Dumb

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