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The Case for Kids

Joe Kesler  |  February 5, 2021

I RECENTLY HIT the “pay now” button on what I believe will be the last of 20 years of college tuition bills. That’s right, we have five kids. All went to college. None took out student loans.

Was it worth it—not just paying the tuition bills, but the decision to have children in the first place? It’s a pressing question. A birth dearth is hitting the U.S. and other countries around the world, as many adults opt to go childless. Today, roughly half of all countries have fertility rates that are so low that the population is either stagnant or shrinking.

That brings me to today’s topic: the case for children. It’s a complex subject. I don’t want to suggest I know how others ought to decide. Everybody’s situation is unique and shouldn’t be judged by anyone else—and certainly not by me. Still, I think those of us with good stories about raising kids should share our experiences. We can balance out today’s narrative that children are more trouble than they’re worth.

I remember the subtle pressure in the 1980s and ‘90s from others, as our family kept growing. Folks expressed concerns about having so many children. I suppose that, if you treasure a quiet and peaceful life above all else, having kids may not be a good idea. Children are messy and bring chaos.

I remember answering the door, only to come face to face with our upset neighbor. He was a prominent doctor in the community and complained about my kids shooting at the deer in the backyard from our second story bedroom windows.

“Thank you, Dr. Smith, for letting me know. I’ll take care of it.”  Ugh.

But probably the greatest reason the U.S. no longer has a fertility rate necessary to maintain a stable population is related to financial concerns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child through age 17 is more than $230,000. That number sounds ridiculously high to me. Still, whatever the right number is, the cost is daunting when you’re just getting started.

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I went back and looked at our financial records and found that, when our first child was born, we had a paltry net worth of $12,000. On top of that, my salary was modest. Why did my wife and I believe we could support a family? I’m a conservative banker and my tribe doesn’t believe “faith” is a business plan. So why did we do it? There were five reasons—some of which were clear to us at the time and some of which only became clear later.

First, rather than just complain about our culture, we thought our best opportunity to change the world was by having children. Today, by God’s grace, we have two entrepreneurs, one banker, one IT guy and a social worker. In addition, thanks to marriage, we now have two health care workers and an oil man in the family. The world is better as a result of their service to others. We now know we changed the world for the better.

I’m a finance guy, so I can’t help but estimate the financial return on investment. All five kids have good jobs. What if I assume they average $100,000 a year in earnings over a 40-year career? What kind of impact could that have?

Assuming they give away 10% of their income, as we taught them, they’ll have contributed $2 million to charities over their careers. Social Security and Medicare contributions at current rates would be $3 million. State, local and federal taxes come in at an estimated $4 million. I’d call that a decent return on investment.

Second, having children matures us. If I’d never advanced in my career, we would have struggled to raise five children. But the financial challenge of having kids meant I approached my career with a new fervor. As we awaited the birth of our first son, I studied hard for the CPA exam. Next was an MBA program, which I completed while working. That led to some nice raises and promotions.

Third, by necessity, having children squeezed a lot of ugly selfishness out of me. I’m a selfish person by nature. But selfless service to family prepared me for selfless service at work and to charitable organizations.

Fourth, researchers say children don’t necessarily make people happier at first. But ultimately, the satisfaction of a purposeful life devoted to family trumps any temporary happiness we give up.

Finally, as we age, it can become harder to find true purpose, joy and passion. But having three grandchildren sure helps.

Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Check out Joe’s previous articles.

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R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Yup, the true ROI comes from grandchildren, we have 13 and they kept us busy. Several still do, but as they get older Ma and Pa slip a bit in their priorities. We had four children in five years, with one, two or three in college for ten consecutive years, they each had $2500 a year in loans, but later we helped them pay those.

I have to admit while raising a family, not once did we think about the cost. There was also no discussion about my wife working outside the home, it was never even a thought she would do so. Like you I was in college at night, for nine long years and there many times I didn’t see them awake for a few days.

I have no idea what it all cost, except the college and that was about $500,000, but that was over twenty years ago. My only regret which is a bit too strong word, is that none of the kids use their college degrees in their work. They are doing what the like and work nothing like I did in an office for fifty years.. One is a real estate broker, one with a masters in business and finance is a construction project manager and runs a side remodeling business because that’s what he likes, a third works full time at home designing systems, he has a masters in civil engineering and my daughter with a masters in education is a full time mom and great at it.

There is no way to figure it all out, but joy and happiness helps. It also helps to avoid dwelling on “ I regret not…” or “I wish we had.”

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

What a fantastic legacy you have Richard. I really think those of us with these positive family stories should tell them. You have a great one and I’m glad you shared a bit of it here. Thanks!

greglee
greglee
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

My wife is a proud professional who would never have agreed to marry me if it meant giving up her career to tend the household. Now that we’ve been married for 50+ years and retired, it’s also nice to have our household retirement income multiplied by two,

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago

Joe, great article. I’m happy for you and your family. Our two sons are great kids, very successful, married great, family-oriented girls, and have given us 3 wonderful grandsons. As proud as we are of all they have accomplished, a special joy and pride was seeing how great they are at fatherhood. Watching your children become parents is an amazing experience.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thanks Rick. I love your observation. I know fatherhood changed me and it has changed the two of my sons that have had children. There is a time to enjoy being a kid, but there is also a time to mature and take on responsibility and it’s so wonderful when you see it happening in your own kids. Appreciate you sharing a part of your story.

greglee
greglee
3 months ago

My wife and I found, when we got married, we were both of the opinion that children are more expense and trouble than they’re worth. Much more. So we agreed not to have any. We have never regretted it, and we made it to a comfortable and secure retirement without working ourselves to death.

SCao
SCao
3 months ago

Thank you for sharing your story. Being a parent is certainly a very personal decision. I personally feel very fortunate to have two young happy and healthy boys (9 and 6). My wife and I just bought our house a few monthes prior to the arrival of our first one, and we made through it financially by living within our mean with just one income for about eight years till she went back to work force a year ago. We still have a long way to go as parents, and seeing both boys grow up in front of our eyes has been the most amazing life experience, despite occational headace. Admire you are able to give all your kids the gift of student-loan free. We are also aiming for that, as we opened 529 accounts for each when they were just born. Please continue sharing your story and I believe strong family (and parents) are the foundation for a strong and thriving community, regardless in 2021 or 2121. Thank you.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  SCao

Thanks SCao. It sounds like you are well on your way to creating a wonderful family legacy. It’s encouraging to hear from folks like you making the sacrifices for your family. As my story, and others that have commented show, it’s well worth the sacrifices.

Anika Hedstrom
Anika Hedstrom
3 months ago

Joe, I appreciate your perspective from the other end. My husband and I put a lot of thought into the decision before eventually taking the plunge, which is why I became a mom at an “advanced maternal age.” So far, it’s been a lot of work, and a lot of sleepless nights, but also truly amazing and incredibly rewarding.

I’m thankful I took the time to travel the world, pursue additional education and some of my interests and passions prior to having children. Now, my life is them. As you stated, selfless service to family translates into selfless service elsewhere. I am a better person for it.

Plus, I love the fact that you live in Missoula. Go Griz!

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  Anika Hedstrom

Thanks Anika. Quite a few of those tuition checks went to University of Montana, so I appreciate the Griz greeting. Fight on! As they say. I appreciate your good perspective on kids. Thanks for sharing the path you took.

IAD
IAD
3 months ago

Fantastic Post! Thank you!

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  IAD

Thanks IAD! It was an easy one to write since it’s about what I care most about in life.

Guest
Guest
3 months ago

Mr. Kesler – What an excellent post. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us. My wife and I both worked while raising our boys. I had the added benefit of being self-employed with my office in my home. That meant I could drop my boys at school, pick them up, attend ALL their school sports/activities, etc which I did religiously. Being with them whenever I wanted because of my flexible work schedule was such good fortune. Now both boys are engineering majors at highly regarded colleges. I am over the moon thrilled we had children! Thanks for letting me go on a bit about them. How lucky are we who can feel great about how our kids have (so far) turned out.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  Guest

I love your story! The years of sacrifice sound like they were well worth it as you look back. As I said in the post, I think stories like yours are a good balance to the general narrative in much of our culture that kids aren’t worth the trouble. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Langston Holland
Langston Holland
3 months ago

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they will not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate. Psalm 127

Money is a joke compared to children.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago

Thanks for the comment Langston. There is definitely a correlation between religious beliefs and children. I didn’t research that for this post, but the Psalm you quote shows a dramatic difference in the attitude about children from the current cultural narrative.

DrLefty
DrLefty
3 months ago

My favorite point in this article was how being a parent can focus you to work harder and be less selfish. So in addition to being a great mom or dad, you’re a more mature, productive, and fulfilled person. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen with every person who produces a child, but for those who embrace the responsibilities of parenthood and take it seriously, it’s a great and hidden benefit to what can otherwise seem like a messy and expensive endeavor.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  DrLefty

Good comment DrLefty. One of the joys in my life has been in watching my two sons be transformed by having children. However, as you point out, not everyone rises to embrace the responsibilities of parenthood.

Catherine
Catherine
3 months ago

I have a quote from Pericles on my wall: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven in the lives of others.”
I’m not a religious person by many measures, but I have a strong interest in the words, tales, advice, and warnings that have been accumulated since humans started reciting and writing and drawing and scratching on stone and papers that have survived millennia. I find in the Old Testament book of Numbers more than a litany from Adam to Moses to David. I hope my kids do amazing things but maybe my generation and theirs are merely the path between one great to the next, far out of sight.
Milton Friedman said that parents violate self-interest expectations of neoclassical economic theory to advance their children, and we ought not to overly try to limit the ability of parents to advance their children’s interests as in the aggregate we all benefit from this additional production.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago
Reply to  Catherine

Catherine, I appreciate the more philosophical thoughts about children you offer here. I really like the Milton Friedman insight. I was not aware that he had addressed this topic. Thanks for the contribution to the conversation.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
3 months ago

When we began to consider kids, my wife and I actually interviewed our older friends who had raised kids. The input was pretty split, some saying it didn’t really work for them, some saying there were good and bad things but the bad things were enough to make them question their decision, almost nobody was purely positive. One of them had suffered the death of a child, another had adopted with poor results (which shouldn’t discourage people, my wife is an adoptee), most of the others had relatively ‘normative’ experiences. Wow. We had to think a bit. Fast Fwd:

We have one child who has special needs and is unlikely to ever attend college, despite being described by teachers as truly brilliant (as in finding his own solutions to calculus problems rather than using the methods taught in class. I actually can’t conceive of that.) It’s an easy guess that he struggles severely in other areas of life. He has worked at three retail location in 18 months, it’s difficult for him to keep a job. We have put a lot of work into making sure he has support services, and are trying to set him up so that he won’t be kicked to the streets when we pass. My other child has had depressive episodes, but is a National Merit Scholar at one of the top engineering schools in the nation. Parenthood has been more than challenging for us, it’s come close to ripping us apart as we both struggled to do everything we could for our kids, but could not always see eye to eye on how to accomplish that. There were many times when one of us would just be too overwhelmed with the effort, and the other had to carry the load for a day, or a week, or longer. That was on top of long hours at work and going to school at night. I imagine I lost ten years of my life expectancy to the experience.

I once calculated the opportunity cost of our kids. This may seem a bit cold, but I was curious. It came out to almost 100% of our net worth. Yet, for all that we’ve been through, there’s no way I’d make that trade.

I feel like we’re on the cusp of accomplishing something really amazing with our efforts. When all is said and done, they are beautiful people I’m proud to have parented. Kipling ended his best-known novel with this line about the Lama who had adopted Kim, and it affects me deeply:

He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won salvation for himself and his beloved.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
3 months ago

Roboticus Aquarius, you have a powerful and moving story. Thanks for sharing so deeply. Your perseverance and love are inspiring.

johny
johny
3 months ago

From every aspect of our human being – physical, hormonal, emotional, etc. – we seem to be organisms fine tuned to eat, excrete and procreate. All this other stuff like having careers and dreams are just fluff or side effects. Our maker created us to seek this thing called “purpose” and having children triggers this powerful instinct that drives us to seek food and defend to the death. When kids leave the nest, it leaves some people feeling empty and without purpose.

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