When I first heard of Ron Lieber’s Book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, it was with a sense of misgiving. Fighting against the spoiling effects of upper middle class life has been something that has occupied my thinking for years and I was fairly certain many of the answers had arrived in his book, yet for me it would be too late.
The Opposite of Spoiled Review
I was both right and wrong. Lieber’s book does answer so many of the issues that surround bringing up grounded, thoughtful, respectful kids who have a perspective on their good fortune and compassion towards others. His was the book I wished I had a decade earlier, but it isn’t too late.
If your financial relationship with your child is entirely severed, hat tip and congratulations. But if you are still entwined with your offspring around the subject of money, either because they still live with you, you are paying their tuition, or offering them some financial back-up, then Lieber still has much wisdom to offer to you. His definition of “raising kids” includes checking accounts and cars, part-time jobs and college. The book probes deeply into the reasons why our teens do not work for money in the same way we did a generation ago (as recently as 1998, 45% of teens worked for money, according to the book, now that figure is 20%), and what we can and should do about these changes.
Lieber begins by making the case that teaching and talking to our kids about money needs to be a deliberate activity (no simply modeling good behavior here) because the topic is highly complex and intertwined with our values, our emotions, our own upbringing and so much else. But he acknowledges this is a very challenging task, “People are not dispassionate about money, and they’re certainly not calm and rational about their kids. This potent mix, then, often makes it incredibly hard for parents to talk openly and honestly with their children about this topic.” This was the moment I knew I was in good hands. Lieber would not simply offer up formulas about teaching my teens and young adults about saving, spending and giving (though actually he has some excellent guidelines) but would give context to the complexity of raising thinking, hard-working, un-entitled grateful adults.
When we think about money and our kids, we are prisoners of our own past in so many ways. First, we cannot help but recall our own experiences with going to college and becoming independent. Second, if we are living in a different socioeconomic class than the one in which we were raised, even as adults, this can leave us with the feelings of unsure footing, of raising a species “rich kids” (for lack of a better word) that are somehow foreign to us. Finally, if we grew up with very real constraints around money and those constraints are looser now, we may draw what for our kids feel like artificial lines. If we don’t need to worry about money they way our parents did, we may not want to make our kids worry.
The one further way that we are all prisoners of our past is that, as Lieber notes, our kids are entering a world we have never known. Between the displays of wealth our kids see on social media starting in middle school, to the near impossibility of working your way through college, to the need to manage one’s own health care and retirement savings straight out of college, the challenges are different.
The conversation around money needs to start early and it needs to be aimed squarely at the world our kids are entering, not the one in which we came of age. High school and college are essential years in this teaching process because major money decisions can start early as Lieber notes, “Figuring out how much to pay of a college education is one of the biggest financial decisions people make in their lifetime, and parents often leave the final call to a 17-year-old who has never purchased anything more expensive than a bicycle. There is only one word for this state of affairs: lunacy.”
The Opposite of Spoiled: Q&A with Author Ron Lieber
What follows is a wonderful conversation I was fortunate enough to have with Ron Lieber. Following that is a small list of books that Leiber recommends to college kids looking to learn more.
GF: Kids are spending a lot longer attached to their parents financially, even kids with full-time paying jobs in the first stages of building their careers. The housing market is more expensive and it seems many, many kids just out of college need, or want, some supplement from their parents. Having grown up in a generation that did not expect any help from our own parents, this can be tough to navigate. What guidance can you offer? When do we leave them on the family payroll and when do you cut them off?
RL: I don’t think there is a hard and fast line in the sand. Start with the question, what is the level of subsidy and to what purpose is it being put? I think there are some parents who really desperately want their kids to be comfortable and the parent’s definition of comfortable is that the kids at age 22 should be able to live the life to which they have become accustomed in their first 22 years, and to me that is completely bogus. You [the 22-year-old] are not entitled to live on the island of Manhattan or the west side of LA or downtown Chicago or San Francisco. You are not entitled to have a doorman. You are not entitled to order take-out every night. You are not entitled to to go out to lunch. You are not entitled to a gym membership. You are not entitled to anything.
I think it is good for young adults to yearn and to struggle. You can still take them on family vacations, they can still have the keys to your summer-house, if you are lucky enough to have one, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t have to live in Bay Ridge or Ridgewood or Riverdale in order to work in book publishing.
Parents can look to their closest, most honest friend, the one who doesn’t butter you up, and ask, “Do you think our financial support is dampening my child’s ambition?” All parents struggle to be objective about their kids, but your closest blunt friends can give you an honest assessment and advice.
The world is a different place. At the age of 22 or 24, our kids may not be able to live the way we lived at their age, and that is okay. There are a thousand different ways to be happy in this world. They will find their own way and it will be easier for them to find their own way if we are not, in effect, insisting that they reach for happiness in the same way we did by subsidizing their very existence.
GF: When our kids go to college many of them are thrown into a much broader socio-economic world than they have ever seen. Even if they have grown up in an urban environment, but particularly if they have grown up in a suburban environment, how do we prepare them for a world in which kids will have far more and far less?
RL: Here is what I would say, “You are going to meet so many different kids, it is part of the point of the exercise [going away to college]. You may have become used to diversity conversations at school feeling like an obligation. But what diversity, and particularly socio-economic diversity, for you in college can be is not just an obligation, to respect it and understand it, but an opportunity to learn about the way that other people live.”
The moral of that story often is that it turns out that nobody, whether they have a ton of money or not very much at all, nobody has a monopoly on a good time. To me, that is what I learned when I went to college. I went to Amherst, I was on financial aid, but was probably in the upper socioeconomic tier of kids who were on aid. I had friends with more and less. Not only did no one have a monopoly on a good time, no one had a monopoly on generosity. I visited a classmate with a beachfront property in Mexico and one who lived right by the airport in Hartford. The family in Hartford had four kids and lived in a tiny house but they would pick us up at school, take us home, feed us big pans of baked Ziti and then shuttle us all off to our flights. They were absolutely incredible people, we had so much fun there and I am still in touch with the parents 25 years later. There is as much love and joy and generosity in wealthy families as in families who have less than average.
GF: How important are paying summer jobs, as opposed to unpaid internships or volunteer work, for kids in the summers of high school and college?
RL: It is complicated. Many of us spend a lot of time in our professional or political life working to increase economic equality and speaking out in support of equal opportunity for everyone. But when our kids get offered these unpaid internships we want very much for them to be able to take them, so that they can get a leg up on everybody else. But the problem is that unpaid internships are the worst form of classism because it just allows the people who have the ability to work for free to get further ahead in the world. It is radically unfair.
Should you stand on principle and say my kid is not going to take one? I don’t know if you would go that far but I think every child should have to make money by the time they are in college. If they want to take an unpaid internship, perhaps they ought to have a job on the weekends too and be working seven days a week. If they are already on the dole during the school year, I just think it is good for them to know what it is to work hard for money maybe in a job they don’t like so much.
On one hand I am not sure that you want to forbid it in a way that might put them behind professionally in their chosen career but if they are just taking the unpaid internship without a particular focus or career goal yet, maybe they should just get a job to make money and see what that’s like. That will be its own form of developmental experience.
Suggested reading, for young adults, from Ron Lieber:
Zac Bissonnette’s How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents From Penguin Books, “Twenty-three-year-old Zac Bissonnette—the author of Debt-Free U—knows exactly what you’re going through. He demystifies the many traps young people fall victim to in their post-college years. He offers fresh insights on everything from job hunting to buying a car to saving for retirement that will give you a foundation for a secure, stable, and happy life.”
Beth Kobliner’s Get a Financial Life From Beth Kobliner “If you’re stressed out by money and have no idea what to do, this is your playbook: the latest edition of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life®You’ll learn how to: Get out—and stay out—of debt, Manage your 401(k) in a tanking market, take advantage of the latest tax rules and save a bundle, come up with a down payment and understand the new strategies for landing a mortgage.
Ramit Sethi’s I WIll Teach You To Be Rich. From Ramit Sethi. “You don’t have to be perfect to be rich. Or the smartest person in the room. Or a type-A personality. In fact, with Ramit Sethi’s six-week program to financial independence, you can start with any amount of money, do just 85% of what he suggests, and succeed brilliantly through good times and bad.”
Since 2008, Ron Lieber has been the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times, where he was the recipient of the 2011 Loeb award, business journalism’s highest honor, in the personal finance category. Previously he wrote for The Wall Street Journal’s Money & Investing section, Fortune and Fast Company magazines.
Previous books include New York Times bestseller, “Taking Time Off: Inspiring Stories of Students Who Enjoyed Successful Breaks from College and How You Can Plan Your Own,” (co-authored with Colin Hall) and “Upstart Start-Ups.”
Lieber graduated from Amherst College in 1993 and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his wife and nine year-old daughter.
“The Opposite of Spoiled,” published in February, 2015, was an instant New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.