Money lesson 2: The world doesn’t owe you anything

To my brilliant and adorable children:

I started writing this as the littlest of you was sleeping in the Boppy seat next to me. He’s had a good morning. He woke up in his nursery that is a perfect 68 degrees. Having a winter baby has made me marvel at how humanity survived for its history. There must have been some good fires and warm furs in those caves on January days in the past! I fed him and played with him before indulging myself in finishing The Waves (Mommy is on a Virginia Woolf kick right now). Eventually, your father and I, who are married to each other and gainfully employed, woke the rest of you up so we could all sit around the kitchen table having breakfast together. The three oldest of you went off to schools where your highly qualified teachers all dote on you.

While I was taking you guys to Ruby’s Diner for dinner last night (your favorite), one of you was complaining about something. I think you’d been fighting over who got into our new, perfectly functioning, paid-for-with-cash minivan first. I shouted back from the driver’s seat that it didn’t matter, and you should be happy because you were so lucky to be going to that restaurant you call “the train diner.” But you weren’t just lucky at that moment because of our destination. You have been bathed in luck since birth in ways you haven’t even contemplated, and won’t for years.

Which brings me to the point of this essay, which is money lesson 2 during money lesson week on the blog. The world has already given you a lot: affluence, safety, health, the jackpot win of being born in modern times in the United States. It does not owe you much else. I hope for many wonderful things to come to you, but you are best off approaching life assuming you will need to figure out a way to make those wonderful things happen. This is what it means to be “the opposite of spoiled” (per the title of Ron Lieber’s book).

The first aspect of this: your father and I don’t owe you anything later in life. We enjoy giving you opportunities now, and we intend to make sure you’re well-educated. In all likelihood, we will continue to splurge on things we enjoy even when you are grown up, such as family trips and spoiling our grandchildren. But you should not assume. Over time these assumptions destroy relationships.

The world doesn’t owe you a bump-free career either. If you wind up going to good colleges, many of the people you graduate with will have been so groomed through life that they cannot imagine that the real world doesn’t work like that. It’s quite possible to move backwards. There’s a lot of luck involved too. I hope you have all kinds of career luck! But you should also plan to work hard. And you should plan to be entrepreneurial. Success comes to those who look around, find problems, and figure out solutions. No company is going to guarantee you a paycheck forever. Always be thinking about what you’ll do to earn the next one.

Finally, this advice applies to your personal relationships and finances too. Maybe you marry a high-earning spouse. Maybe you have amazing children like you all. Maybe you’ll think you should stay home to take care of them. That’s great as a choice, but remember, the world doesn’t owe you anything. You should maintain your own earning capacity, so you have the ability to give your kids the life you want them to have, even if everything else goes wrong (see the saga of The Wealthy Single Mommy for more on this).

To be sure, we can think of counter-arguments to my “the world doesn’t owe you anything” line. Yes, yes, we should expect various public services. We should expect courteous treatment in our private lives too. Generalized decency is fine to expect. I mean beyond that. The good thing about having low expectations in many specific situations is that then you go through life thrilled when things go right. I wish you happiness, and that’s a good way to achieve it.

Love, Mom

In other news: To be fair, the whining was not the only thing that happened on the trip to Ruby’s Diner. Apropos of nothing, my 5-year-old announced “Mommy, do you know what the lowest number is?” Me: What is it? Him: “Minus infinity.” While whether this is true is a somewhat nuanced point, I appreciated the thought process.

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