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Which Family Financial Sacrifices Are Worth It?

Dad holding baby

What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden’s famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” considers the sacrifices a father makes for his son. If you are a parent, it’s likely that situations have arisen where you had to make critical choices about spending money on your child. What types of “sacrificial spending” tend to yield the greatest benefit (or most effectively prevent catastrophes) for families?

Encouraging a Special Gift

Most parents fork over money for sports, dance, robotics, music or other lessons for their kids. The hope from these lessons is not only that your child will enjoy them, but that they might also lead to some form of greatness. Most of our kids will benefit from their extra-curriculars, topping out perhaps with a college sports or music scholarship. If paying for lessons doesn’t ruin your budget, go ahead and buy them. If lessons are too expensive, steel yourself to say no and stick to it.

What if your child really does have a special gift for a particular activity, but the cost of the training will be tough financially? Should you commit the funds? That’s a personal decision only you can make. Like a Las Vegas gambling loss, the ramifications can be unpleasant financially as well as psychologically if the child’s gift doesn’t pan out. When you are standing with aching feet at your second job while your daughter struggles through gymnastics practice 800 miles away, you might wonder if it’s worth it. If she turns out to be an Olympic gold medalist, the answer is obviously yes, but you want to also be able to say “yes” even if it’s a bronze ... or no medal at all.

One way to feel more confident about your decision is to look for outside financial help. If others are willing to “back your horse,” it’s likely your hunch about your child’s gift is right.

Shared Family Passions

If you’re lucky enough to have a family that is unified in its passions, investing in them can bring an extremely positive return. In some families, everyone is crazy about traveling or skiing or video games or Disney. Is it a good idea to earmark what others would likely consider an unreasonable amount to your family hobby? Does it ever make sense to chuck it all and move to Costa Rica so you can surf every day? In some cases, it certainly can. Life is short, and few people are really passionate about anything. As long as you can manage to have a place to live, enough to eat, and medical attention if you need it, you and your family will live a fuller life than most of us because you indulge in the thing that makes you happiest all the time.

The main problem you can run into in this commitment is if one member of the family gets to a point where they are either not interested in the activity anymore or can’t physically do it. If that happens, the harmony everyone felt can be sorely tried, and the financial limitations of having set life up to maximize a particular passion can become a burden and a disappointment. However, if you’ve got the interest and ability to get yourselves to that Costa Rican beach for a life of surfing, I wouldn’t let worrying about what might happen stop you.

Being Available for Teens

Most families today require two wage earners to make it financially. The breakneck pace of life for two out-of-the-home workers with a couple of kids makes my head spin. If you have a nanny, cook, and personal assistant it’s not too bad, but for the 99% of the rest of us who don’t, it’s overwhelming. Many parents wonder if one of the pair should forgo the overtime and stress of climbing the corporate ladder in favor of more time at home.

This decision, while it will probably cost you in income, may end up saving you money in legal, addiction, medical, and other costs because you are around more to spot and hopefully prevent problems.

I think the teenage years and beyond are surprisingly more important for a parent to be available than the elementary school years. The guidance a seven-year-old needs is pretty routine and easy to agree on by all who care for him or her. It gets trickier when the same child is 13 or 16. Being physically present more often means you are likely to be there when your teenager wants to talk and being more aware of what is going on with him or her.

If you can swing it career-wise and financially, it can be a long-term money-saver if one parent works part-time during the middle school/early high school years. This crucial time sets your child up for the kind of resilience and mental health that will help him or her be happy and safe — and save you heartache and money.

Caring for a Child With a Disability

When a child has a disability, the financial ramifications can be substantial. Even with the best of health insurance policies and residence in the most charitable of states, the cost of making life better for your special needs child can stress family finances. In this case, as hard as it may be, you need to evaluate the difference between what is needed to make things better and what is wanted and only use precious financial resources to satisfy needs.

It’s important to seek governmental and charitable assistance with the same dogged perseverance you use to advocate for your disabled child. A solution might be to ask a friend or family member to take over the application process for you. Tell that person what you are trying to do, provide all Tell that person what you are trying to do, provide all the pertinent data and passwords, and let him or her do it.

In the End - Family Financial Sacrifices

Family financial decisions are complicated and never easy, even in the best of circumstances. Which family financial sacrifices are worth it? The beauty of family is that you can fail many times in your attempts but you get to keep trying and trying — and eventually, you will get it right. And often the kids will surprise you by falling in line and helping more than you ever dreamed they would. And, I don’t blame parents for kids who fall off the rails — each of us is autonomous in making our own life choices, including our children. However, many families can ward off trouble that will cost them later by increased parental presence in the home.

It’s important to do the best you can to earmark money for the growth of other family members. It’s hard enough on other children in the family to have to wait for Mom's or Dad’s attention when a sibling, through no fault of his or her own, inherently requires the bulk of the time. If there’s a way you can eke out money for music lessons or volleyball or whatever other passion the other children have, try to do so. If that’s impossible, consider appealing to family or even close friends for help with the cost of those activities. It will go a long way to helping maintain family stability and reducing the possibility that the other siblings will run into expensive problems as they get older.

Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor, and financial literacy educator has written numerous articles and several books. She functions as a strong advocate and guiding light for her clients as they move through murky and unfamiliar financial and career worlds.

Updated 6-11-24

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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