MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Make Saving for College Less Impossible

Luke Tepper

Use a tool that not that many people know about.

Four-fifths of adulthood is negotiating competing interests. The other fifth is whisky gingers.

One example: paying for college. As a pair of 29-year-olds with graduate degrees who left university at the peak of the higher education bubble, only to descend into the depths of a great recession, my wife and I have a combined student loan bill between five and seven figures. We also have a 16-month-old whom we will drop off at college orientation day in 17 short—or, if we don’t start getting more sleep, long—years.

The word that comes to mind to describe the feeling of tackling historic education debt while saving for your son’s college tuition while planning for retirement, not to mention the rest of life’s expenses, is not euphoria. And Mrs. Tepper wants to double the number of our dependents in the not-too-distant future.

Fortunately, since misery loves company, my family isn’t the only one fretting about the future. In fact paying for college is the biggest worry for those with children under 18, per a Gallup survey.

At times it seems that even the most conscientious and prudent families can only hold their finances together with mud and spit. But there is one valuable arrow in my quiver, only most people aren’t aware of its existence.

Two-thirds of Americans don’t know what a 529 plan is or does, per a recent Edward Jones survey. Even among those earning six figures, 42% couldn’t pick the college savings tool out of a lineup. Perhaps that’s why more than four out of five people surveyed say they cannot afford the cost of college.

Financing any portion of your child’s education is difficult enough. But it’s even harder without this vital tool.

A 529 plan is basically an IRA for college savings, as MONEY explains here. You put money into the account, named after the section in the tax code that created them, and select how your contribution is to be invested. The choices generally revolve around how aggressive (think stocks) you want to be and how old your child is. The money grows tax-deferred and isn’t subjected to Uncle Sam’s treatment when you withdraw it to pay for education expenses. Some states also allow tax deductions on contributions (you can find a list here). Most plans are sponsored by states, but you don’t have to invest in the state you live in.

What should you look for in a plan? I posed that question to Jeremy Thiessen, a senior director with TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing. He boiled it down to three considerations:

Taxes

“Tax benefits are one of the best reasons to choose your home state’s 529 plan, so review that plan first,” he says. Fortunately for me, New York offers a $10,000 deduction on contributions for joint filers, $5,000 for single.

If your state doesn’t offer tax breaks, and even if it does, you’ll also want to take into account the two other key considerations, costs and investment options.

Costs

Investing through a 529 comes with fees: fees for advisers, program management, and the investment themselves. Just as with mutual funds, higher costs lower your returns. In general, you want to look for low-cost plans that invest in index funds. You can find a tool here to compare plans costs and tax savings. My 529 option, for instance, charges $16 per $10,000 invested, which is pretty good.

Investment Options

“You want to make sure that your 529 plan offers investment choices that suit your timeline and risk tolerance,” Thiessen says. By the time Luke goes off to college, the total cost will be close to $160,000 for a four-year in-state school. If I want to pay for a third of that, I’ll need about $53,000, which I won’t be able to amass from savings alone.

By starting early a 529 plan early on, you give yourself the chance to take more risk while your kid is still young. My plan works like a target-date fund. For the first five years or so, I’ll own only stocks. As Luke ages, the portfolio adds more bonds to smooth out ups and downs. This tool at Savingforcollege.com helps you put into perspective how much you’ll need to save and which plan offers the best path to get you there.

There are other do’s and don’ts to keep in mind. Financial planners will tell you to save for retirement before you start putting money away for your kid’s college, since you can borrow for one and not the other. But starting a college fund early, even if you just contribute a month’s worth of coffee expenses, will go a long way. You don’t need to foot the entire bill; it’s nice if your tyke has some skin in the game.

As I teeter on the precipice of 30, I’m easily distracted by the daily errands and deadlines that are right in front of my nose. But by picking a low-cost college savings plan and contributing to it regularly, I’m slowly completing one of the most important jobs I’ll ever do: helping my son earn a degree.

MONEY First-Time Dad

The 3 Things All Millennial Parents Should Be Saving For

Luke Tepper

MONEY writer and first-time dad Taylor Tepper asks some financial pros for help prioritizing his competing financial goals.

No one aspect of parenting is in itself particularly difficult.

What makes it the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, however, is that one discrete task continuously leads into another and another, until you’re ground down and raw. Bedtime follows a bath, which follows dinnertime, which follows a walk, which follows a trip to the playground, which follows…which follows…which follows…

It’s exhaustion by a thousand baby steps.

Family budgeting presents a similar Sisyphean sequence. I know I should have a healthy emergency fund and contribute up to the match in my 401(k) and save for Luke’s college education. But in which order? And how am I supposed to do those things while also paying for child care, Brooklyn rent and the occasional whisky ginger?

Each financial responsibility can be fixed easily enough. In aggregate, though, it’s nearly impossible to see the forest through the trees.

One of the small advantages of reporting on personal finance, however, is that financial planners will take my calls and answer these questions for me for free. So I took advantage. What I learned may help you, too.

First: Start On Emergency Savings

“Emergency savings is about avoiding an immediate cash flow problem,” says Leesburg, Va.-based financial advisor Bonnie Sewell. “It’s the number one thing you should focus on.”

Here’s why, she explains: Without a sufficient rainy-day fund, your family is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life (see: layoffs and car repairs and illnesses).

Now for the scariest part. Depending on your obligations and savings, and from whom you solicit advice, you should have anywhere from three to 12 months worth of expenses sitting in a bank account.

That’s madness. Between child care, rent, transportation and food, we spend at least $4,500 a month, or more than $50,000 a year. I can’t envision a world where I have $50,000 in cash, much less putting it to no use in a near-zero-rate savings account.

Pensacola, Fla. financial planner Matt Becker helped quell my panic.

He recommends tackling emergency savings in two steps: First, get about a month’s worth of expenses stowed away and then turn my attention to other priorities (see below). After I’ve found firm footing with those, I can try to build up my fund.

Next Step: Get a Start on Retirement

The next thing for me to consider is retirement.

Every expert I spoke with noted the costs of procrastinating on this one are significant. That’s because, by putting money aside for use at a later date, I’m giving up the power of compounding returns. To end up with $1 million in my 401(k) by 65, I’ll need to save almost $15,000 starting at age 30. If I wait to begin until I’m 40, I’ll need to put away around $23,500 more a year.

Of course, retirement accounts are illiquid by nature. They’re designed to reward people who wait to tap them until they’re nearing the end of their career.

Since I could also use liquid funds for things like a down payment on that house Mrs. Tepper hopes we’ll one day buy and savings for the college degree we hope Luke will one day get, Sewell says I should contribute up to my employer match and deploy the rest as follows…

Third: Set a Course for College

After I’m set up on retirement, Luke’s college savings comes into focus.

Everyone tells me to fund a 529, which allows me to invest tax-free so long as the money is used for higher education. I can also get a break on my state taxes. (Check out this article to see if you get a break on yours.)

As Melville, NY financial planner James J. Burns points out, every little bit I contribute for Luke’s college will go a long way.

For example, let’s assume that I contribute $200 a month and enjoy an average annual return of 8%. After 16 years, I’ll have amassed more than $73,000.

“That’s pretty darn good,” says Burns, who estimates that will go along way toward paying for two years of in-state tuition by the time Luke goes off to school.

Of course there’s a reason the 529 comes after retirement. “You can borrow money for college,” says Burns. “You can’t borrow money for retirement.”

Last: Grow Some Liquid Savings

Burns also recommends going over my budget annually, seeing if I can’t find more to save. If I do, I can divide that money between my emergency fund, retirement, Luke’s 529 and a taxable account through a portfolio of broadly diversified, low-cost funds for the house and our other goals.

Now that I’ve heard from the experts, I’m willing to take a more holistic approach as they suggested—patiently building up our anemic rainy day fund, contributing as much to our retirement accounts as we can afford, and making incremental additions to Luke’s college account. Whenever we earn a raise or unburden a significant cost like child care, we’ll judiciously target those extra dollars into the different buckets that will fund our lives.

But we’ll also set aside money for vacations and a few fancy dinners, even if that money could be leveraged elsewhere. The universe may be infinite, but our lives are short, and I intend to relish the occasional whisky ginger without pangs of guilt.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

What Dads Can Do to Really Help Moms This Mother’s Day

Luke Tepper
The author's wife and son.

Hint: It doesn't involve flowers.

A recent survey found that more than three-quarters of adults would choose to celebrate Mother’s Day over Father’s Day if both parent appreciation holidays fell on the same day. I agree with the 78%, largely for the same reasons the participants in the survey enumerated. My wife spends countless off-work hours contemplating and anticipating our 14-month-old’s needs—Which foods can he consume? Which music classes should he attend? What is his room’s ideal temperature?—while my role is closer to that of Babe the Blue Ox.

On Mother’s Day people generally show their appreciation in the form of presents and attention. (The word “flowers” is searched more often in middle May than around Valentine’s Day.) Children prepare breakfast and write sweet cards, and the day usually ends with a picnic or a dinner in mom’s honor. For the past few weeks, multinational corporations have been utilizing all the screens that occupy my life to persuade me to buy their products. Last year I bought my wife a massage. This year I’m considering a scarf.

But there’s something a touch cynical, or at least incongruous, about Mother’s Day. Dads praise moms for the multitude of roles (breadwinner, caretaker, chef) they take on to help the family function, even as the guys don’t quite pull their own weight the rest of the year. So in addition to deciding between a rose-gold watch and white-gold earrings, dads should consider adapting their behavior in the following ways.

Pull your weight

Fathers today certainly contribute more to household responsibilities than their fathers did. In 1965, fathers spent 42 hours a week on the job and less than three hours on child care. Today’s dads look after the kids seven hours a week, and average 37 hours of paid work, per Pew Research Center. Moms tend to the kids for 14 hours a week, while averaging 21 hours on paid work.

When it comes to housework, dads put in about 10 hours a week compared with 18 for moms. Working mothers spend more time during the week on parental responsibilities that their husbands, and fathers even do less child care and housework on the weekends than moms. Dads still find the time to engage in more leisure activity. Eschewing a round of golf for babysitting duties should not be a headline-making event.

Support working moms

Only 12% of American workers have access to paid family leave, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By way of comparison, 26% of Americans believe in the existence of witches. Many pixels and column inches have highlighted just how much better other nations treat new families. (You can find a nice graphic here.)

Of course someone has to pay for this country’s insanely expensive child care. The average bill depends on where you live, with married couples in Colorado, for instance, allocating about 15% of their income to day care. Massachusetts parents fork over more than $16,500 a year. That’s around $2,500 less than in-state tuition and fees at UMass Amherst.

As child care costs have skyrocketed, women are leaving the workforce. In 1999, 23% of moms did not work outside the home. By 2012, that percentage had risen to 29%. And the average number of hours worked by mothers declined slightly between 1995 and 2011. The female labor force participation rate has dropped by about 3.5 percentage points over the past 15 years, now well below other advanced nations.

Meanwhile 60% of Americans believe that children are better off with a parent at home, per Pew. Mothers, and fathers for that matter, should stay at home if that’s what they feel is best for their family. But the idea that one choice is better than another strikes me as anachronistic. I for one am proud that Luke will grow up with a working mom.

I don’t mean to suggest that dads should spend mom’s Sunday engaged in a wonky debate about gender equality. But I do think that dads would do well to appreciate the disadvantages endemic to our society, and in the division of household chores. Its benefits may be longer lasting than flowers.

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MONEY

Why Millennials Are in for a Worse Midlife Crisis than their Parents

senior man in motorcycle gear
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

Marriage, it turns out, lessens the dip in happiness that happens in one's late 40s. But most Gen Y-ers have steered clear of the altar.

I’m a happily married 28-year-old with a beautiful wife and son. My life is good.

But if research is correct, I will grow increasingly more dissatisfied with my life over the next 20 years. Which is terrifying.

The midlife crisis is very real.

Studies show that people are pretty happy when they’re young and when they’re older—thank youthful exuberance and not having to work, respectively. But between 46 and 55, folks endure peak ennui.

That happiness ebbs as one ages is not particularly surprising. Careers plateau, dreams are deferred and bills increase in quantity and frequency.

This U-shaped happiness curve has been the focus of a lot of research recently and many nations (from Britain to Bhutan) have shown interest in augmenting citizens well-being with the intent that gross happiness is just as important to the economy as the gross domestic product.

One recent study on the topic—published in the National Bureau of Economic Research—has me feeling just a little bit less sad about my upcoming depression. It found that married folks like myself will experience a less dramatic midlife crisis than their non-married peers.

Authors Shawn Grover and John Helliwell used data from two U.K. surveys and found that while life-satisfaction levels declined for those who married and those who didn’t, the middle-age drop was much less severe for the betrothed, even when controlling for premarital happiness.

Having a dedicated partner, it seems, eases the burden of watching your youth pass slowly through your fingers. Tying the knot can soften the blow, in the other words.

Moreover, people who consider their partner a friend enjoy the most happiness.

“We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a casual relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend,” the authors wrote.

These findings could leave many of my peers in an emotional nadir: According to data from the Pew Research Center, millennials just aren’t terribly interested in the institution of marriage. Only 26% of people aged 18 to 32 were married in 2013—10 points lower than Gen X when they were of a similar age in 1997, and 22 points below boomers’ marriage patterns in 1960.

My generation still has a few years before they hit the bottom of the U curve. And perhaps an improving economy will make the prospect of marriage more attractive to those in my cohort. Here’s hoping.

I didn’t plan to marry when I did—like most of my generation the thought really didn’t occur to me. But my longtime girlfriend and I walked down the aisle after we found out she was pregnant. And from my current pre-midlife-crisis vantage point, I can see why marrying someone I love and with whom I share a common worldview will make the process of aging slightly less pale and ugly.

Life’s hard, but it turns out that it’s nice to have someone you love to complain about it with.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

Here’s How to Save on Summer Camp and Child Care

Luke Tepper

Money writer and first-time dad Taylor Tepper learns some strategies to keep more money in your wallet without compromising quality care

My son Luke is 14-months-old, so our summer child care plan follows our fall, spring and winter’s—that is to say, we’ll be sticking with our nanny share. Mrs. Tepper and I aren’t particularly thrilled to see so much of our income siphoned away for this purpose, but at least we don’t have to figure out an entirely new care arrangement from June through August.

Parents of school-aged children aren’t so lucky.

With spring barely in the air, this is the time of year that many working moms and dads are hustling for stopgap measures. “Summer care is this mishmash, patchwork quilt,” says Care.com’s Katie Herrick Bugbee. “It can be incredibly stressful for parents.”

And expensive. Babysitters earned a nationwide average of $13.44 an hour last year, according to a recent report from Care.com, up more than 11% in 2013. At that rate, assuming you get coverage for 40 hours a week—because of course you’ll leave at 5 p.m. each day—for 14 weeks, you’re dropping $7,500 easy. Day camps average $304 per week, according to the American Camp Association, but can hit as high as $1000—and that’s not including the sitter you’ll need to pick up and mind your kid until you return from work. Sleep-away offerings can set you back even more.

Year-long schooling suddenly seems more reasonable.

In empathy for my more veteran compatriots in parenting, I asked Bugbee to offer some suggestions to help navigating this challenge.

Think of Camp as Dessert

While summer camp is still a few years away for Luke, I did some preliminary research to get a sense of the market. A cooking camp in Manhattan ran $430 for the week, a Brooklyn music camp would set me back $630 a week, while a nature camp on the New York/ New Jersey border cost about $1,000 a week. All three would let him out at 4pm or earlier—the relatively affordable cooking option ended at noon—which meant that we’d have to arrange for after-camp child care, too.

There are a few strategies you can enlist to make camp a bit cheaper, says Bugbee.

If you have the flexibility to leave work early one day a week to participate, you’ll save a lot by not hiring someone to collect your child. But also get to know the parents of your kid’s camp-mates. “If you can’t do a 3 p.m. pickup everyday, you’ll need to find carpool arrangements,” she says.

Another option recommended by Bugbee is to scour silent auctions offered by your kid’s school and other schools in the neighborhood for camp discounts. Bugbee herself has bid on a couple weeks of camp.

Hire the Best Babysitter for Your Buck

If camp is out of your budget, or only doable for a week or two, you’ll need to look for a full-time summer nanny. And the time to start your search is nigh.

“This is the time of year when we start to see huge increases in summer care positions,” says Bugbee, who estimates that there are 30 times more openings in April than March.

Which means that it’s a sitter’s market. Based on the national average hourly wage, expect to shell out $110 a day, or $550 a week.

Just because sitters or nannies are in demand, though, doesn’t mean you have to accept bottom of the barrel. Look to friends and other families in your communities for referrals, but don’t stop there. “Run a background check, go through a lengthy interview process and check references rather than just relying on referrals,” says Bugbee. Only 36% of families run a background check, per Care.com.

Especially if you can’t afford camp too, you’ll want to look for a nanny that will be active with your kids. You could get at this by asking a prospective candidate for five activities to make a day more fun, or what he or she would do with your children on a rainy day. “Empower this person to come up with a plan,” says Bugbee.

Also, don’t hesitate to add on additional responsibilities—like light children’s laundry and cooking a few healthful meals a week—that will help ease your burden and stretch your dollar.

Create Your Own Camp-Lite

You can also hook up your nanny with other caregivers in the neighborhood to create a kind of nanny-camp collective.

Bugbee, for instance, lived in a community with lots of nannies. So she created a Google Drive spreadsheet, and each nanny signed up for a day to host the other kids.

On Monday, the neighborhood kids could gather at one house for a sprinkler party, while Tuesdays would entail a trip to the zoo. “Whoever wanted to show up, this is what they were doing,” says Bugbee. “It was special. The kids felt like they always had friends around, there was always something going on, and no one was sitting in the living room watching television.”

Plus it didn’t involve any extra money.

Of course, your caregiver needs to be on board with such a proactive schedule. Look to college RAs home for the summer, applicants with camp counselor experience and teachers looking for supplemental income.

Get Help from Uncle Sam

You can make up for some of your costs with a few simple tax steps. If your kids are under 13, sign up for a dependent-care flexible spending account at work. You can use pretax dollars to pay up to $5,000 of child-care bills—equivalent to a little more than eight weeks of sitting in our example. You’ll save around $1,400 in the 28% bracket.

If your employer doesn’t offer an FSA, you claim the child-care tax credit for up to $3,000 in expenses for one kid, $6,000 for two. A married couple filing jointly with adjusted gross income over $43,000 can write-off 20% up to these amounts.

I’m sure that when the time comes in a few years that Mrs. Tepper and I will need to figure out what to do with Luke for the summer, we’ll attack the issue with the same vigilance we do with every other facet of his life. With Bugbee’s advice in mind, we’ll look early for a camp or two, extensively interview prospective part-time nannies and help coordinate playtime with other kids on the blocks.

Just another parenting stress to look forward to.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why This Millennial Is Kissing the City Goodbye

Luke Tepper
This time next year, Luke will hopefully be playing on grass.

MONEY writer and first-time dad Taylor Tepper announces his retirement from urban living.

Renters in New York City have a uniquely dysfunctional relationship with real estate: The more time we spend living in some of the most desirable housing in the world, the less happy we become. Or maybe that’s just me.

My wife and I pay $2,100 a month for what seems like two square feet and minimal natural light in a converted hospital in a cool Brooklyn neighborhood. There’s an artisanal pizza shop, hole-in-the-wall cafe, and kid-friendly beer garden right around the block. I’m a 15-minute walk from a major metropolitan museum, botanical gardens, and the best park in all of New York. When it’s warm I bike, toss the frisbee, and drink whisky on rooftops. The beach is only 30 minutes away.

Unfortunately, warmth doesn’t last forever, and when it gets cold outside—say, from Thanksgiving to Easter—I spend more time indoors. Which means I’m trapped with a 21-pound baby monster who smashes, grabs, and pounds anything he can get his hands on, from cellphones to lamps. As a result, I’m slowly devolving into madness. Spending hours upon hours inside with two other people, only one of whom yields to reason, punctuated by intermittent excursions into tundra-like conditions, makes it seem as if the walls are slowly inching in on themselves.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the city, I went to school in New York, I’ve lived here for almost the entirety of my adult life. But after 13 months as a father and 19 months as a husband, I’m ready to escape to the land of malls and carpool lanes, single-unit houses and trees, the land of my birth: suburbia.

That said, it’s one thing to want move, it’s another to actually do it. Here’s a window into my thought process—and that of other millennials facing the same decision.

We’d Still Be Renters

Years of high rent and monthly student loan bills, combined with the cost of childcare, made it next to impossible for us to save up for a down payment. So we’re looking to rent wherever we go, which should mean more money left over for us. According to NerdWallet.com’s cost of living calculator, we could reduce our housing costs by about 25% if we moved to northern New Jersey or Long Island.

Even if we had enough funds stashed in our joint bank account, there are a couple of reasons why a home purchase would be a poor move. For one, conventional wisdom states that your target property should be no more than two and a half times your gross income. The odds that we’d find a New York-area home in the $300,000 range that’d we’d actually want to live in are low.

OK, let’s say that we had the savings and lived in a less expensive city. Should we jump into the market then? Not necessarily, says Pensacola, Fla.-based financial planner Matt Becker.

“Don’t rush to buy a house just because you want to go the suburbs,” Becker says. “That can lead to a quick financial decision as opposed to a good one.” Since transaction costs are so high, we’d need to stay in the home for a number of years to for buying to make financial sense. And who knows if we’ll want to live in a particular town for that long? My wife and I are still early on in our careers, we could end up lots of places.

Even Though Now Is a Good Time to Buy

If your bank account is fatter than ours and you’re ready plant some roots, buying might make sense. In fact, if you can get a mortgage, now is a great time to buy, since 30-year mortgage rates are absurdly low. Mortgage behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced late last year that they would allow down payments of as low as 3% on some mortgages. (These moves were directed at people who haven’t owned a home for three years, or are in the market for their first house.)

Once you’ve made the decision to move, you need to think about where you’d like to spend the next seven to 10 years. While we need more space, I don’t want to give up some of the best aspects of the city—good restaurants, a sense of community, hipster/independent movie theaters—in the trade. In that regard I’m like a lot of young buyers, says Greensboro, N.C.-based Realtor Sandra O’Connor. “There’s real movement among millennials who are looking for places to live with walkable areas,” she says. “They don’t want to always be in their car.”

If you’re still undecided about whether renting or buying is the better choice for you, check out Trulia’s rent or buy tool. Those who fall in the rent camp should understand that finding rental units outside of cities can be a lengthy process, per O’Connor and Becker.

All Suburbs Are Not Created Equal

So I want to move, but where should I go? I put the question to Alison Bernstein, president of the Suburban Jungle Realty Group, a firm that specializes in helping its clients find the best New York City suburb for them. Bernstein says that city dwellers eager to jump need to “understand that a house is a house, but the dynamic of a town is very difficult to grasp.”

To that end, Bernstein laid out a number of questions that anyone thinking about relocating needs to consider:

How many working moms are in town? What type of industries are there? What’s the breakdown of private versus public school? Even if the schools are highly ranked, there are towns where there is a lot of momentum to send kids to private schools and this does change the personality of the town quite a bit. What do you do over the summer? Does the entire town empty out? Does everyone hang out at the pool? Who is moving to the town? How will that change the school system and the vibe over the next 10 years?

Bernstein has also noticed a few trends with today’s younger buyers. “They are happiest with a smaller piece of property, a more modest home, and being in a more cosmopolitan suburb. Also they are not plowing every last penny into their house. They are still budgeting for travel.”

The Costs of Commuting

Right now I pay $112 a month (soon to be $116) for a 30-day subway pass to get to the office. We are only a 20-minute drive from my wife’s work, which means we shell out a very reasonable $50 a month on gas. When we move to the suburbs we will pay more. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we end up relocating to Pelham, New York, just north of the city. My monthly bill rises to $222, while my wife’s morning drive will consume almost twice as much gasoline, meaning our monthly outlay will jump by about $160.

But that’s just the money. The time we spend going from home to work and back will grow as well. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, my in-transit time will increase by 10 minutes each way, while Mrs. Tepper will spend an additional 20 minutes or so in traffic. Combined we’ll endure about an hour more per day on our commute, which sends shivers down my spine.

There are a few positives about the longer commute, though. For one, car insurance is generally cheaper outside of the city. According to CarInsurance.com, the average rate in my neighborhood is a little less than two times that of Pelham’s. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect to cut our car insurance costs in half, this savings would take a bit of the sting out of much higher commuting costs.

Aside from lower insurance rates, we could also dedicate a portion of our new abode as a work space. As Mrs. Tepper and I advance in our careers, we hope to have more leeway in terms of a flexible work arrangement. While our commute might be longer, we’ll most likely have to do it less often. And each saved car ride is more money in our pockets.

The Tradeoffs

Getting older involves a series of decisions that have the net effect of limiting one’s personal freedom. I became a journalist, which means I couldn’t be a doctor (leaving aside the question of whether or not I had skill to do it in the first place). Marrying one woman, and being keen on staying married, means I can’t marry a different one. A life in one town is a life not lived in another.

Which is all to say that I’ll miss living in Brooklyn. Despite the hipster clichés, I really do enjoy artisanal, delicious, overpriced hamburgers and 17 different IPA varieties at my bars. I like walking everywhere, even if we have a car, and a touch of self-righteousness about your home is good for the soul.

But I think of my sojourn in New York’s best borough as I think of college: I wish I could stay forever, but it’s time to move on.

Financial planner Matt Becker understands my dilemma. He recently moved from Boston to suburb-rich Pensacola and is still adjusting to his new life. He walks less and drives more. While his young family has more space to play and grow, that also means he has more house to furnish and air condition, which means more costs. I imagine we’ll encounter something similar.

The combination, though, of high rent and minimal space has lost its luster. Even if we end up breaking even in our move, or only saving a little bit, our dollars will go further. We can have a backyard for our son and our dog and us. We’ll have a laundry machine on the premises, so we don’t have to lug 20 pounds of clothes a couple of blocks through the snow. We’ll have a full-size dishwasher.

I proudly proclaim without regret what might have depressed my younger self: these amenities are more appealing than staying in Brooklyn.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Avoid Spoiling Your Child

Luke Tepper
One-year-old Luke, having his cake and eating it too

First-time dad Taylor Tepper learns how not to be the kind of parent he fears becoming.

Our son, Luke, recently celebrated his first birthday. Family and friends generously gave the tyke rubber soccer balls, race cars, pegs, hammers, marbles, and chic winter gear. Luke now has more toggle coats than I do.

Luke’s things, like a rebel army, have begun to outnumber my own. He now has nearly a dozen bins filled with plastic and wooden products crafted by large companies and bought by suckers like me. His clothes occupy a spacious three-drawer dresser, while mine are packed tightly in a small closet. He has twice as many pairs of socks as I do. This all feels silly. Give Luke the option to play with an empty milk carton or a fluffy stuffed animal, and he’ll be shaking the carton between his hands like a boy possessed before you can blink. The box carries more value than the toy inside.

As I cleaned up after Luke’s party, I started thinking about the nature of toddlers and their stuff, and I’ve been mulling over a few issues ever since. The first has to do with spoiling. I know that you can’t really spoil a baby—infants’ needs must be met. But am I developing habits of indulgence now that will ossify over time and lead me to spoil Luke when he’s older? Am I setting myself up to be a bad parent? The second issue has to do with the presents themselves, the catalyst of my spoiling concern: there must be a better use for all that money.

The truth about spoiling

On the first question, the experts are clear. “You’re not going to spoil a baby,” says Tovah P. Klein, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “They need to be comforted and cared for.”

That Mrs. Tepper and I do. We also warm Luke’s baby wipes, pull him around in a red wagon for hours on end, and turn on “Sesame Street” whenever he’s systematically broken us down. My fear is that our good-natured, responsive parenting will morph into something more unseemly as he ages. It’s not a big leap to image a world where I’m cooking a second dinner because 2-year-old Luke is dissatisfied with the first. I shudder when scenes like that unfold in my mind’s eye.

The key thing for me to recognize, says Klein, is that I don’t need to protect my son from unhappiness.

“If you think, my role is to make him happy all the time, or to entertain him, the child doesn’t learn how to handle hard times, like when he’s angry or frustrated or sad,” Klein says. “Your goal as parents is, how do you help him deal with anger when limits are imposed.”

That’s an intuitive point, but one slightly difficult to reconcile with experience. Luke is our first child, so everything is new to us. Call it the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting. So in the next five to 12 months, as he develops a sense of self and forms his own ideas of what he wants, it will be challenging to hold a firm line. How do I know this tantrum isn’t just a test of limits but a true expression of real pain? Will I have the stomach to stay the course?

“He’ll be happy if you love him and let him know you’re there,” Klein told me. “Put up some reasonable limits and help him through those frustrating moments. That is what counters spoiling.”

Children, especially really young ones, crave structure. It’s the lack of it that results in insecurity. So if he doesn’t want to eat what I’ve cooked for dinner, fine. But I’m not frying up another meal.

Getting presents—and other stuff—under control

Limits are certainly in order for all of his toys. Between Christmas and his birthday and well-meaning friends doting on the little guy, we have enough Elmos and plastic cell phones and wooden school buses to open up our own boutique. This overflow of generosity leads to a short-term concern as well as a longer-term one.

In the here and now, the problem is sheer volume. “Children need less material goods,” says Klein. “More stuff tends to overstimulate them.” We already try to highlight only a few options for him to play with, but we’ll resolve to be even more selective going forward. We’ll offer him one bin to tear apart rather than two.

Later on, though, I worry about relying on toys (and ice cream and other objects that cost money) as a means of reinforcement. I don’t want to get into the habit of giving him things all the time so that he’ll do X or Y. Plus, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it.

“Not every reward has to be a material reward,” says psychologist and parenting expert Lawrence Balter. “Sometimes rewards can be privileges as they get older.”

I was discussing the issue of presents at Luke’s party with a friend from college, and she asked me if we had starting saving for his college fund. (We started a 529, but it’s tragically underfunded.) Instead of toys, she asked, why don’t you ask people to donate to the fund instead?

Which is what we’re going to do from now on. Rather than stuff our bins full of perfectly fine but ultimately useless things, we’ll ask friends and family to chip in to help pay for his insanely expensive education. While that might make the act of gift-giving a little less fun for them, it will help us afford an essential good that will dramatically improve his life.

Plus, it’s one less spaceship for me to trip on in the middle of the night.

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The One Benefit All Millennials Should Consider Before Accepting a Job

Father and son sharing a meal.

Whether or not kids are on your radar right now, you'd be wise to understand any potential employer's family leave policy, says first-time dad Taylor Tepper.

Just a few weeks after our son was born, my wife was already dreading the prospect of returning to work.

A teacher, Mrs. Tepper received around two months of paid leave from her employer. Her original plan had been to extend that leave for another four weeks unpaid, then return to the classroom for the last couple of months of the school year. But that was before Luke came along.

When he arrived, she couldn’t bear leaving him so soon. Thankfully, her school allowed her to stay a home those extra few months and held her position for the following year. Mrs. Tepper could then nurture our son without fearing for her job.

Most families don’t have this choice.

When Mrs. Tepper accepted her position, neither she nor I considered how much time she would be given if she became pregnant. We weren’t planning on starting a family (best laid plans), and so were more concerned with wages. While we were fortunate to land in companies that support families—I happened to receive two weeks of paid paternity leave—we could have just as easily ended up working for ones that didn’t.

Just 12% of businesses offer paid maternity or paternity leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Another study found that the average maternity leave among U.S. companies that offer it is less than one month and pays the worker 31% of her original salary, as MONEY’s Kara Brandeisky recently noted. Comparatively, mothers in France are guaranteed 16 weeks of fully paid leave.

Millennials may not be overly concerned with President Obama’s recent announcement that he will extend six weeks of paid parental leave to federal workers, but they should be. Let me tell you why…

Why You Should Care

It’s understandable if those who graduated into the Great Recession with a ton of debt care more about salary than anything else, especially considering that this generation has generally been postponing bourgeois life events like marriage and procreation. But with the top end of Gen Y approaching 35 this year, more will likely start building families soon. And if you stay at your job a few years in this crucial span of settling-down time, who knows? You could be making babies.

Heck, some of them—ahem, Luke—arrive unexpectedly.

As Mrs. Tepper and I realized, the option of paid parental leave takes on a lot more importance when you are responsible for the care of an infant.

Without paid leave, you end up with two not-so-great options after giving birth. One: Squirrel up all your vacation time to use and then go back to work when your kid is a mere three or four weeks old. Or two: Add on unpaid time (most Americans, moms and dads alike, are guaranteed 12 weeks through the Family Medical Leave Act) and find other means (savings? credit cards? spouse’s income and living lean?) to replace the income lost that you need to pay the bills.

While taking unpaid time has some big financial implications for you, going back to work too soon has serious drawbacks too. “That initial time to bond with your child, you don’t get that back,” says St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, who recently expanded paid leave to city employees. Plus, he notes, “In those first few weeks, you are so sleep deprived. How do you function at work? Do your job normally? Give it your attention and not make mistakes? That’s asking a lot of new parents.”

Paid leave helps families avoid this kind of tough decision. It also has other benefits, illuminated here by the Center for American Progress. For instance, one study by two Cornell University professors demonstrates that paid maternity leave is an important factor in keeping women in the labor market “since it reduces the likelihood that women will quit their jobs in order to take time off from from work.”

Working parents also tend to be happier, more productive, and more loyal at companies that have paid leave policies. Also, paid leave is also associated with better health results for both mothers and newborns—reducing depressive symptoms in moms, increasing the odds that children are immunized, and making it more likely that moms are better able to breastfeed their child for an extended period of time.

What You Should Do

Figuring out a company’s leave policy isn’t always easy. Ask the hiring manager and you risk looking like you’re one foot out the door before you’re one foot in.

Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader at HR association WorldatWork, says it’s not wrong to pose the question, “but wait until at least the second interview.”

Other options if you’re not comfortable with the straightforward route: Go to the careers section of the company’s website to see if its leave policy is detailed there, suggests Sara Sutton Fell, chief executive of FlexJobs. Check out the company’s review on sites like Glassdoor.com (but keep in mind that what people post there is not necessarily gospel). Better yet, try to find someone in your network on LinkedIn who already works at the company and can do some detective work for you.

As for what’s a generous leave policy, obviously the more paid time you can spend with your kid, the better. But the range varies.

“Because paid leave isn’t required by law in the U.S., any amount offered by an employer is generally a good thing because the bar is so low,” says Fell. “In general the most common range for paid maternity or paternity leave that I’ve heard is anywhere from one week to 16.” Sanicola says six to eight weeks is likely.

Google, the search behemoth with a market capitalization of $350 billion, offers expecting moms a European-like 22 weeks of paid leave; that’s pretty sweet.

Dads are lucky to get any paid time leave at all.

As much as Mrs. Tepper and I like our jobs, chances are we won’t be in them forever. And Luke likely won’t be an only child forever.

That means when it comes time to take on a new challenge, how our new bosses treat expecting and new parents will carry as much weight as the biweekly paycheck. While it might be hard for young childless professionals to appreciate that mindset, they’d be well advised to do so.

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Read This Before Taking a Road Trip With a Baby

Luke Tepper

A few holiday travel tips from the battle-tested Taylor Tepper, MONEY’s first-time dad.

Many new parents are about to hit the road for the holidays, on drives and flights, short and long, with infant children in tow. Which means you’ll be moving at high speeds with a ticking time bomb.

If this thought terrifies you, good. The prospect of trying to reconcile your desire to relax on a rare vacation with soothing an inconsolable 20-pound tyrant should terrify you. It terrified me the last time we tried it, on Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day, Mrs. Tepper and I drove with our son Luke up to Rhode Island to visit friends for the holiday. Willfully trapping oneself in a 3,000-pound metal cage with an infant captured us at our most masochistic.

Still, we survived. Sorta. And if you’re hitting the road this Christmas, you can too. By giving yourself ample time before departure to ready the ship and dividing up chores and other domestic responsibilities between you and your spouse, a true vacation can be attained.

The key is communication. So I’m sharing my travel diary below. May my successes fortify your spirit and my failures illuminate. Godspeed and happy holidays.

4:33 am: Luke wakes up screaming. Rising before sunrise is, sadly, nothing new for Luke. But the screaming is. Foreshadowing. Anyway, he eventually falls back asleep, and so do we. But it’s that kind of half-sleep where consciousness exists just below the surface.

5:58 am: Luke wakes up again—this time hungry instead of angry—and Mrs. Tepper feeds him briefly, while I fumble around assembling his bottle. Our bottles, by the way, have five pieces and require measuring one scoop per two ounces of water, which is much more complicated than it sounds when it’s 6 o’clock in the morning and you can’t remember how to use your hands.

6:34 am: After feeding, Luke plays for a half-hour. I read him Shel Silverstein’s poem “Point of View,” a kind of vegetarian morality play, which pinged my own guilty conscience for all of the meat I was going to scarf down in nine hours. So it goes.

6:40 am: Mom has just reawakened and exits the bedroom to find her son’s hands gouging the eyes of her prostrate husband. She walks to the bathroom and brushes her teeth.

6:53 am: Chloe, our ancient dachshund and now somewhat marginalized pet, needs to be let outside. Chloe won’t be joining us for Thanksgiving. Luke, meanwhile, walks into the bathroom, fixes himself between my wife’s feet and rages at the baby-proofed cabinet with pounding fists and fierce yawps.

6:55 am: While I’m outside with Cujo, Mrs. Tepper turns on the water for a shower. Before she can hop in, Luke belly-flops over the side of the tub. He’s now in love with water. Panic shoots through Mrs. Tepper’s limbs.

6:58 am: Chloe leads me into the apartment, where we see my relieved wife holding my damp, nonplussed son aloft.

7:10 am: Mom packs up Luke’s things for our two-night, three-day stay. I laid them out for her an hour earlier. Brownie points for me. His wardrobe included three onesies, three pairs of pants, three full-body pajamas, a couple of shirts, a sweater, hoodie, bear suit, jacket, hats, gloves, and three pairs of socks. Meanwhile Luke sits besides me, very interested in my glass of water. He eventually puts the rim of the glass to his mouth and spills the water down the front of his shirt.

7:15 am: Mom rushes over and extricates Luke from his soaked outfit. In doing so, she also removes his wet diaper. By the time she lifts Luke to the changing table, he pees on the floor and howls maniacally at his achievement.

7:26 am: Dry, diapered, and clothed, Luke crawls around the apartment, eventually sidling up to Chloe, who barks at her new master because he tried to swat her flappy ear. She also gets nervous around suitcases. Sanity starts to wear thin at the Teppers’.

7:34 am: Mrs. Tepper packs up Chloe’s food, puppy pads, organic calming medicine (she has separation anxiety), down jacket, and leash and I drop it, along with the dog, at the home of a friend who miraculously loves the dog as much as my wife does.

7:42 am: I’m now outside pulling old coffee cups and pizza boxes out of our car. At some point, we’ll be the type of adults who keep a spotless vehicle, but that day isn’t today.

7:51 am: I am outside again, but this time with the first wave of bags. (It will take me three trips.) Nestled in among our large suitcase and Luke’s stroller are three hampers’ worth of dirty laundry. If nothing else, we’re getting our damn laundry done this weekend.

7:58 am: While I’m acting out Tetris in our car’s trunk, my wife cleans the kitchen. Luke meanwhile grabs the railings on the baby gate, swinging it wildly, as if he’s a freedom-starved prisoner of war.

8:00 am: Luke attempts another sip of water, but Mom captures the cup from his hand midpour. She gives him a Baby Mum Mum—a rice biscuit—instead.

8:04 am: I schlep the last bit of luggage (mostly shoes and electronic equipment) outside, while my wife crawls on hands and knees in search of Luke’s Elmo toy cell phone. Luke watches the domestic choreography with glee.

8:10 am: With Luke in arms, we give the house one last look around. Little do we know we’ll be back the next day.

8:20 am: We fasten Luke into his car seat. He immediately squirms.

8:30 am: Mrs. Tepper runs into a neighborhood organic grocery store to pick up a food pouch, and then jets into Starbucks for coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

8:50 am: Mom returns to the car to sounds of Luke crying and me praying behind the wheel.

8:55 am: Only 55 minutes behind schedule we are finally on the road, and there’s no traffic.We give thanks.

8:59 am: Mom gives Luke a fresh bottle.

9:08 am: Thanks to the car’s heating system and his bottle, Luke enters a trance and falls asleep a mere three hours after he woke up. Mom fights the urge to clean a spot of milk from his chin, lest the baby open his eyes.

9:10 am: Parents happy.

Epilogue: We arrived in Rhode Island in record time and had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. All marveled at Luke’s development. Trouble, though, ensued at 1 am Friday morning, when Luke awoke screaming in his crib. Over the next 9 hours, Mrs. Tepper and I slept a combined 300 minutes as the little guy tossed and turned and yelled and fought against sleep’s embrace. I eventually took him for a drive at four in the morning in hopes of calming him down. We decided to return home the next night, so he’d hopefully sleep in the car for the ride back to Brooklyn. All went according to plan until our car ran out of coolant in Westbrook, Conn., and would have cooked the engine if not for the generous help of a standup Mobil employee. Thanks and praise unto him. After that 45-minute pit stop, we were back on our way and returned home an hour before midnight.

Which is all to say that new parents may want to mentally ready themselves for Murphy’s Law. By preparing for the worst, you can be delightfully surprised when your car doesn’t billow smoke hundreds of miles from home or you don’t return to work on Monday desperately more exhausted than before.

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Why You Should Spend $0 on Baby’s First Christmas

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...And why my wife and I will ignore this advice.

The act of parenting often requires accepting the absurd.

For instance, my son Luke hates lying on his back. He squirms and rotates and flops around like a fish on dry land whenever he’s forced into prostration. All of which puts me in the ridiculous position of begging/bribing my child to remain still while I clean his rear-end.

Mrs. Tepper and I have found ourselves willing to sacrifice anything to make our guy happy. Sometimes that sacrifice is our integrity: To mollify instances of restlessness or crankiness when we’re out, for example, we find ourselves surprisingly okay with giving him whatever he wants (including—gasp!—our smartphones) so long as the show of good faith shuts him up.

Sometimes the sacrifice is also financial—like ordering no less than three outfits and one homeopathic amber bead anklet from Amazon in hopes of improving his sleep. For the record, nothing will make you feel sillier faster than lassoing your child’s leg with a homeopathic anklet.

The end of December presents my wife and I with another seemingly absurd proposition: Should we buy our 10-and-a-half-month old son a Christmas present?

I Say: Call Off Santa

When you reflect on the question, you soon realize that your answer reveals quite a bit about your sense of value and, perhaps, your morality. This is a deep philosophical, maybe ontological, quandary that new parents who give presents on Christmas cannot avoid.

Knowing that parenting dilemmas are often most easily solved by asking those more veteran than ourselves, I tapped blogger Elissha Park, founder of the blog The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything, for her thoughts.

“I didn’t get anything for my son his first Christmas,” she told me. “We had tons of stuff for him from the grandparents, and we were as usual, financially strapped.”

She added that she wouldn’t recommend we get Luke anything major.

Music to my ears! We too are financially strapped, and meanwhile our son has grandparents who have already told us they plan to buy shelves and shelves worth of new clothes and toys for the little guy.

Parks made another point that rang true. Her son wouldn’t have known who the presents were from anyway, and he certainly “had no idea about Santa.”

He’d probably enjoy simply opening the boxes more anyway.

Also, it occurred to me that any funds we save from not buying presents could go toward paying our nanny’s Christmas bonus—or even, gasp, to us having a rare date night. Happy parents equal a happy kid, and it wasn’t like ours would be deprived with the grandparents were already in spoiling mode.

My Wife Says: Cue the Elves!

Going giftless sounds great to me, except the part where I’d have to convince my wife.

Mrs. Tepper derives great joy from buying Luke things—whether that’s a toggled sweater vest she knows he can’t yet say no to or a big loud plastic red firetruck.

It doesn’t matter to her that Luke won’t know who these are from. She’ll know.

And to be fair to Mrs. Tepper, there’s ample research to support the belief that spending money improves the spenders happiness, even more so than if that same person spent the money on him or herself.

Take this one experiment by Harvard researchers from 2008: They went up to random people in the morning in public places and gave them either $5 or $20 and told them they could either spend the money on themselves or on others by day’s end. The researchers took the participants’ baseline happiness levels, and then in the evening registered the change in happiness for each of the four groups.

Their findings reinforced the spirit of Christmas: Those asked to spend their windfall on others were happier at the end of the day than those who bought for themselves.

And I do so like when Mrs. Tepper is happy…

We Say: Open the Flue Partway

So, what does this mean for Luke?

I think my wife and I will strike something of a happy medium.

To satisfy Mrs. Tepper’s gift-giving instinct, we’ve decided to start saving up for him to get a Kindle Fire Kids Edition ($149).

Still, even I would be really forlorn if Luke didn’t have anything to open from us on Christmas. We’re a family now, and families give each other gifts.

But I’m thinking the boxes we’ll give him will be filled with…tissue paper. The crinkling noise when he pulls it out of the box will give Luke undeniable pleasure.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

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