The Case for Kids

Joe Kesler

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.

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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