This past November, I began a home school unit with my six-year-old daughter, Saoirse, on money. We opened our investigation by reading stories on the history of money. To paraphrase, early people originally made the things they needed. Then they began trading for the things they needed or wanted that they couldn’t make. The barter system worked out fine, as long as each party in the exchange had something that the other wanted. When that was no longer the case, money entered the marketplace as a tool to facilitate exchange. Eventually, in an effort to devise something that was relatively portable and of somewhat universal value, the Sumerians came up with the first silver coins.
From Ancient Sumerians to Modern Sustainability
Saoirse and I traveled around our home and farm and explored the different things we do to earn money, and the different things we spend it on. When it came to the spending, I explained the basic process that my husband Bob and I adhere to. When we are in a store and see something we think we want or need, the first, most important question we must ask ourselves is, “Is this something we can make or grow ourselves?” To illustrate, we talked about the grocery store. “Would we buy meat in a grocery store?”
“No,” she answered.
“Because we grow it ourselves.” I smiled at the aptitude of my brilliant scholar.
Confident she was understanding, I continued my lesson. “If we decide that this is something we can’t make ourselves, then we must next ask three questions. One: Is it good for the planet? Two: Is it good for my community? Three: Is it important to me?” In an effort to keep things as simple as possible, I told her that typically, if you can answer “yes” to at least two out of the three questions, then you proceed to the final question: Can I afford it?
Three Jars of Money: Charity, Spending and….College Debt?
The next step in our lesson was working for an allowance. Since she is six years old, we selected six jobs, for which she would be paid six dollars at the end of the week. On pay day, I proudly presented her with three jars.
“What are these for?”
“This is how we’re going to divide up your money. The first jar is for charity.” (Giving money to causes we cared about had been an earlier lesson.) I helped her spell out the word, and she carefully decorated the jar. Then we counted out ten percent of her allowance and tossed it in. “The second jar is your spending money. What you put in here can be used on anything you like.” Smiling, crayon in hand, she carefully wrote out “SAOIRSE’S SPENDING MONEY.” We counted out $2.70, and she plunked it into the jar. “And the last jar is the most important jar. It’s for your savings.” She wrote out the word, and as she was about to toss in the remaining money, I added, “that’s money you can use to go to college someday.”
Saoirse’s hand stopped. She didn’t drop a single coin in. Instead, she furrowed her brow and stared at me head-on. “But I don’t want to go to college.”
This? From my own child? Everyone in my family has gone to college. My father, brother, and I all have PhD.s. My father worked for over thirty years as a college professor. From the day we started our family, Bob and I have dutifully kept savings accounts for our children, where we’ve squirreled away ten to fifteen percent of our income. Each girl receives about $2800 per year.
But despite my outward endorsements of a college education, I believe my daughter was honing in on my own insecurities. According to a simple online college savings calculator, if Saoirse attends a four-year public school in-state, the cost will be $158,447. At my family’s current rate of savings, she might be able to purchase one-third of a college degree. To date, I’ve yet to identify a socially responsible, prudent investment vehicle that would enable our money to keep up with the annual increases in college education.
Still, we are better off than most families. Bob and I paid his college debt off before we were married. I lived at home for my first two years of college, and my parents were able to pay for the remaining two years at a state school while I held a job to cover my incidental expenses. I worked as a research assistant in exchange for my graduate education. The added bonus is that we attended school a number of years ago. College tuition for two kids attending at the same time was about 20 percent of my parents’ income. If Bob and I stay on our current trajectory, one year of college for our two children will be almost 200 percent of our family earnings. And we are faring better than many other families. With no college debt of our own, we are an unusual family. Many new parents are saddled with their own school loans while simultaneously facing the expenses of their children’s future degrees.
A New Way of Learning for a New Economy
The above debt figure may seem reasonable to some folks. For many people in this country, assuming debt for an education is an acceptable practice, as is working at jobs that may provide more income to meet these expenses. However, that doesn’t resonate well in our family. To the extent possible, we resist debt, because we feel it forces families into situations that compromise their values.
As Radical Homemakers, Bob and I choose to live our lives by the four tenets of ecological sustainability, social justice, and family and community well-being. Excessive debt or expenses can require parents to spend too many hours away from their children, friends and extended family; to work jobs that may condone the extraction and abuses of our earth’s resources and people; and it can tear families and communities apart as people become nomadic employees, traversing the nation and world seeking higher pay and overlooking the things in life that bring them the most joy.
We could tell our children that they are responsible for their future college expenses. However, while it seems natural to us that a young person may need to borrow some money in order to start her life, stepping out of college with over $100,000 in debt could potentially force our daughters to pursue work that would be an anathema to the values we have tried very hard to uphold as a family. Parents like us must choose between living according to our values and dreams, and having adequate funds for our children to go away to college. Ultimately, Bob and I decided that allowing our kids to witness their parents and grandparents joyously living their beliefs was a far more powerful education for our daughters than any college tuition.
Yet compulsively, even though I know we won’t be able to afford it, I tuck money away for Saoirse’s schooling. I guess I keep thinking that there will be some kind of divine intervention that will enable us to come up with the funds. As she holds the money over that third jar, I realize that Saoirse is looking at it differently.
“You don’t want to go to college?” I ask her to explain her thinking.
“No. I learn at home.”
I consider her remark carefully, and try to put it in the context of what we’ve been studying together. I reflect on our historical lessons. Early people only engaged in exchanges for things that they could not produce for themselves. And then I remember the first, most important question I put before Saoirse when considering spending money: Is this something I can grow or make myself? Saoirse felt that education was something we could produce ourselves.
As Saoirse hesitates over that third jar, in her innocent questioning, she is identifying a great sickness in our culture. We don’t trust ourselves to be our own teachers. We hesitate to regard a person as intelligent or capable without confirmation of a degree. The upshot of this is that bricks and mortar institutions (which, incidentally, must increasingly seek corporate funding and appeal to corporate interests in order to meet their expenses) are regarded as the sole proprietors of new knowledge and new ideas. When advancements happen outside the institutions, they are looked at as extraordinary marvels, unique exceptions to the rule.
Is it really critical that my daughter goes to college? Maybe not. I am thankful for my own schooling, but in truth, I am a product of a culture that believes education comes from experts. As a result, it has also taken me thirty years to learn to trust myself to be my own teacher. That may not be the case for Saoirse. As the parent, my job is to help her develop her intellect and confidence such that she can pursue her education wherever she chooses—in the classroom, with personal mentors, on a farm, at the local library, or through myriad life experiences. Rather than worrying about paying for college, it is more important that I focus on helping my daughter to become her own teacher. And hopefully, by nurturing an ability to self-teach, our family will participate in a cultural shift, where Americans come to realize that we can take responsibility for our own learning. It need not be something that is spoon-fed to us. And maybe someday, as a nation, we will acknowledge that intelligent, capable people can walk many different paths, and there is not one single route to credentials and wisdom.
Saoirse’s hand is still poised over that jar. Finally I say, “Well, maybe you will want to go to college someday. Maybe you’ll want it for something different. Maybe you’ll use it to start a business, or to do something else that’s really important to you. I guess that’s not something we have to decide today.”
“So what am I saving for?”
“Your future. Whatever you may choose.”
Satisfied, she plunks the money in the jar.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet, and The Farmer and the Grill. She and her husband Bob Hooper home-school their children and work on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. All of her books are available through these sites.