MONEY First-Time Dad

The One Book All New Parents Really Need to Read

Luke and The Giving Tree

Fifty years from its first publication date, The Giving Tree remains a relevant allegory for modern parenting, says first-time dad and MONEY reporter Taylor Tepper.

I try to read one book a day to my son, Luke—which works slightly better in theory than practice.

Luke’s a restless infant, who is as eager to sit still in my lap for 10 minutes as he is to fall asleep. So I spend as much time reading as I do extending the pages beyond his grasp. Often he simply bores of the exercise, and I’m left talking out loud to no one in particular.

One of my favorite stories to read on these occasions is The Giving Tree.

The tiny book—which turned 50 this year—is perhaps the most important book in my life. I’ve loved it ever since I was a boy.

I recently discovered, though, that my adoration of Shel Silverstein’s classic is not universally shared.

What the Book Is About

For those unfamiliar, The Giving Tree is the story of a relationship between a tree and a boy the tree loves. At first, the boy and the tree engage in what everyone would consider to be a healthy relationship. He plays on her limbs, eats her apples, and sleeps in her shade—all of which makes the tree happy.

Nothing stays perfect forever, though, and as “time went by,” their encounters changed. The boy started to grow up and wanted new things.

Rather than playing in her branches, he wanted money and a house and a boat to escape his life. The tree gives up her apples and branches and trunk for the boy’s sake, rendering herself nothing but a stump.

Through it all, the tree is forever happy when the boy returns for his next request and willing to give anything she has. In the end, the boy uses her stump to sit on “and the tree was happy.”

Why It’s So Hated

When I told friends of my affection for the book, they were incredulous: How could I find meaning in a story where one character repeatedly and unrepentantly takes and takes from the other? Was I some kind of martyr?

My friends were not alone in their hatred for the book. In doing a bit of research for this column, I found that many academics and authors, liberals and conservatives alike, find its supposed commentary on parenting distasteful, amoral and depressing.

Dr. Lisa Rowe Fraustino of Eastern Connecticut State University is among the haters. In an essay titled “The Rights and Wrongs of Anthropomorphism in Picture Books,” she writes:

“Representing the symbolic mother as a literal tree may be what makes so many readers blind to the conceptual metaphor staring us in the face: GIVING TREE IS WOMAN. Even if it’s true that patriarchal culture has traditionally cut woman down and used her up, assigning her to the role of mother with her only happiness being with her son, is that an underlying moral we want to keep imparting to young children? Is it ethical?”

A post in The American Conservative says:

“Human love simply doesn’t leave its subjects ‘spent’ in this way; there is death, to be sure, but that’s not a consequence of love in the way that the tree’s destruction follows upon the boy’s exploitation of it.”

An entry in the New York Times’s Motherlode blog writes,

“Parenting should not strip and denude, but rather jointly fulfill. The parasitic part is supposed to end with pregnancy. After that the point is to teach a child to make his own way in the world.”

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel.com, wrote,

“Of course, maybe we’re just projecting, but to those who would say that Silverstein’s book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I’d say, learn better parenting skills.

Others claim that the book teaches kids to become narcissists—that the world is built for their taking, that they’ll never have to grow up.

Shel himself simplified the book to its essence, but warned readers from thinking the book has a happy ending.

“It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes,” he’s quoted as having said.

In any case, apparently you’re a naive sentimentalist if you enjoy the thing.

Why It Should be Loved

Like most times in life, I think I’m right and those that disagree with me are wrong. Those critics that see a dark tale are misunderstanding something fundamental to the nature of parenting.

The infantilization of “emerging adults” is a hot topic these days, as more Millennials decide to return home after college due to a difficult job market, historic levels of student loans and soaring housing prices.

MONEY recently published a long feature on the stress parents face supporting their kids into their mid-20’s and on: Nearly three quarters of parents aged 40 to 59 said they’d helped support an adult son or daughter in the prior year. Half said they provided their child’s primary means of support.

No parent wants to be a stump.

But with all due respect to the critics who say this is a book about kids taking advantage, I think they are missing the point. At the same time, those who say The Giving Tree exemplifies unconditional love undersell its depth.

When Luke was first born, my wife and I were scared. We weren’t scared because we were now charged with caring for a human life (an alien experience to both of us), nor were we terrified that our lives would change forever (though they have.)

The scary thing was that we, of our own will, introduced something into the world that we loved so much. And that newborn would soon be an infant, then a boy, then a teenager and on and on.

Just as we’ve struggled to find ourselves, to carve out our own little piece of happiness in our nearly 30 years, so he would too.

When you consider the weight of that decision, when you realize that you’ve suddenly foisted the world’s beauty and ugliness onto this tiny thing, that he’ll have to reconcile it just as you did, you become scared. (And then he has a dirty diaper, and you move on.)

To me, the Tree does not represent mom or dad, so much as it symbolizes an aspect of parenthood. Parents are obviously more than stumps for their children: We have lives, hopes, dreams, disappointments completely separate and apart from the goings-on of our progeny.

But when it comes to them, when they must grow up and face the world head on as adults, we want to be there to give them apples and branches and anything else we have to make their struggle a little easier.

“The Giving Tree” is beautiful because it lets kids know they’re never alone. I think that’s why I loved it so much as a child.

And that’s why I think all new parents should read the book. It will help you put the task before you in perspective.

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:

 

MONEY Kids and Money

4 Costly Money Mistakes You’re Making With Your Kids

parents cheering softball players
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images

Help your kids become financially literate.

When you’re a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day money issues: Which brand of milk is a better value? Is Old Navy having a school uniform sale? How much lunch money is left in the kids’ accounts? But parenting is ultimately about the long view, with the goal of raising capable, self-sufficient adults. Dealing with daily details, we sometimes neglect important money issues that can have a huge impact on our kids — and on our finances — as they prepare for college and adult life.

The mistake: Not talking enough about money

Too many parents don’t talk about money with their kids at all. Others skirt topics they don’t know much about, like investing and debt. Parents are the main source of money information for children, but 74% of parents are reluctant to discuss family finances with their kids, according to the 2014 T. Rowe Price Parents, Kids, and Money Survey. That’s too bad, because ignorance about money can set your kids up to make bad decisions — and eventually pass those bad habits on to your grandkids.

The solution: Make financial literacy a family value

In her book, Do I Look Like an ATM?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible African American Children, Sabrina Lamb details “the business of your family household.” Lamb, founder and CEO of WorldofMoney.org, says all families should work together on five financial topics: learning, earning, saving, investing, and donating time or funds to causes you value. She recommends a daily diet of business news, occasional meetings between the kids, your banker, and other financial advisors, and support of your older kids’ entrepreneurial goals.

The mistake: Believing in the “Scholarship Fairy”

A lot of parents pin their hopes on pixie dust when it comes to funding their kids’ college educations. Eight in 10 parents think their kids will get scholarships. In the real world, less than one in 10 U.S. students receive private-sector scholarship money — an average of $2,000 apiece, according to FinAid.org.

Even more unrealistic is the myth that great grades and high test scores will lead to a full scholarship. The truth, per scholarship portal ScholarshipExperts.com, is there are many more 4.0-GPA students than there are full-tuition awards, and only one-third of one percent (0.3%) of all U.S. college students earn a full-ride scholarship each year. The time to learn this hard truth is now, not when college acceptance letters start arriving.

The solution: Save something now (or accept that you can’t)

There’s a considerable body of literature out there on the merits of 529s, trusts, and other college savings options. Don’t let the details distract you from the real issue, which is that if you want to help finance your child’s higher education, you must save regularly, starting now.

If there’s no money to save, be honest with your kids about it. You can start educating them about ways to finance college through loans and cut costs with community college transfer credit and placement tests. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect your kids to take responsibility for their own higher learning as long as you prepare them properly to face that reality.

The mistake: “Investing” in extracurricular activities

Everyone’s heard about overscheduled kids with too many after-school activities. Not as much is said about the huge dent extracurriculars can put in your budget — hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for lessons, league fees, uniforms, and more. If you’re sacrificing because you think these activities will pay off when your child gets an athletic scholarship, remember that the Scholarship Fairy is rarely seen. The odds of any particular student getting even a small athletic scholarship at a Division 1 school aren’t significantly better than the odds of a student getting a full-ride academic scholarship.

The solution: Treat extracurricular activities as extras

If your child loves soccer, piano, or hip-hop and you have the time and money to spare, that’s ideal. But if it’s a choice between paying for extras and saving for college, save for college. Find cheaper after-school options for now, and don’t apologize for making that decision.

The mistake: Not teaching your kids to negotiate

There’s a big distinction between a child who’s been taught how to speak up when appropriate and one who’s been trained to be passive in the face of authority. The kids who know how to negotiate tend to earn more money as adults, even when they’re doing the same jobs as those who keep quiet. Salary.com found last year that workers who negotiated a raise every three years earned a million more dollars over the course of their careers than workers who simply accepted whatever they were offered.

The solution: Teach your kids how to deal

Show your kids the ins and outs of deal making through trading games, doing some haggling at garage sales, and expecting them to keep their word. You can find specific age-appropriate suggestions here.

By talking about money and business a little each day, being realistic about college planning, and giving your kids the skills to advocate for themselves, you’ll give them long-term advantages when it comes to understanding and earning money. That’s a valuable legacy to pass from one generation to the next.

MONEY

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

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:

MONEY Savings

How Blended Families Can Overcome Their Savings Obstacles

THE BRADY BUNCH
Unlike TV's "The Brady Bunch," real-life blended families often face big financial challenges. Courtesy Everett Collection

Remarrying brings special savings hurdles and leaves blended families further behind, new research shows.

The nuclear family went out of fashion 40 years ago, and what has replaced it is a far cry from TV’s blissfully blended Brady Bunch. Modern families include more same-sex, single-parent and multi-generational make-ups—and, new research shows, these households have special savings obstacles.

Today, just 19% of U.S. households are married heterosexual couples with young children vs. 40% in 1970, according to Census Bureau data. The rise of non-traditional families is reshaping household economics and, it seems, deepening the nation’s savings crisis.

Blended families, where parents have remarried with young children, are the biggest segment of the new-look household. About 75% of divorced people remarry. In roughly 43% of all marriages it is the second time around for at least one member of the couple, and 65% of remarriages involve children from a previous marriage. In such families, the average level of savings is $158,600, vs. $264,300 for traditional families, according to a new Love Family Money study from Allianz.

Only 46% of blended families believe they are on track towards their financial goals vs. 60% of traditional households. Some 55% of blended families live paycheck to paycheck vs. 41% of traditional families; and 30% of blended families say they are not saving any money vs. 20% of traditional families.

Behind this struggle, in many cases, is the financial stress of a broken household, Allianz found. Parents in blended families are more likely to say that they or their partner brought financial baggage to the marriage, and a third cite insufficient monetary support from their ex as a major problem keeping them from saving. They often find it difficult to merge their financial resources and plans, which means they tend to wind up with multiple, and frequently competing, goals within the household.

Some 35% say they and their partner have different financial priorities that are difficult to navigate. They are almost twice as likely to feel less aligned as a family than those in a traditional household. Yet there is some good news. Perhaps because they have a hard time planning as a unit, blended families are more likely to talk about money and take steps to teach their children to budget and save, Allianz found.

How can blended families overcome their struggles? With the rise of non-traditional households more financial firms are weighing in. It’s not enough to talk to the kids about money. Couples need to talk to each other and develop mutual goals and a plan for getting there. Agree on a fair distribution of responsibility. To get on the right path to your financial goals, start is by finding ways to trim your major expenses, then make a budget that leaves room for saving. If you can’t free up much cash to put away now, start small and increase that amount with future raises. It’s also important to take a careful look at wills and legacy planning, since you want to protect your family financially as long as possible.

More on marriage and money:

Retirement makeover: 4 kids, 2 jobs and no time to plan

7 ways to stop fighting about money and grow richer, together

Common money problems; uncommonly smart solutions

MONEY halloween

Here’s How to Turn Trick-or-Treat Candy Into Cold Hard Cash

dentures on top of candy
Aleksandar Mijatovic—Alamy

Hey kids, you know your parents aren't going to let you eat all of the candy hauled in on Halloween trick-or-treating rounds. So why not swap some of it for cash money?

The cash payoff isn’t the only reason kids might want to trade in candy soon after Halloween is over. Doing so also supports the troops overseas.

To participate in the annual program, called the Halloween Candy Buy Back, families should start by finding a participating nearby dentist’s office, via a search tool at the link or at the program’s Facebook page. There are thousands of participants around the country–in New Jersey, Ohio, California, and beyond. Chances are, there’s a poster up at your dentist’s office asking locals to join in its Candy Buy Back campaign.

While the particulars of each participating office may differ slightly, they generally all welcome unopened candy donations in the days right after Halloween, and they pay $1 per pound of candy dropped off, with a $5 maximum payout. Some also give treats or goodie bags for kids—toys, stickers, toothbrushes, sometimes pizza or local baked goods—as well as the chance to win iPods, gift cards, and other prizes. It softens the blow inherent in handing over the sweet and chocolatey fruits of one’s labor spent trick-or-treating.

The program was originally envisioned as a means to get massive quantities of Halloween candy “off the streets” and out of the bellies of America’s children, and the campaign truly caught fire when it partnered with Operation Gratitude, an organization that sends care packages to military veterans, new recruits, and most especially troops who are deployed overseas. Some 130+ million tons of candy has been collected over the years, and with the help of Halloween Candy Buy Back participants, Operation Gratitude was able to ship its one millionth care package last December.

As for the more mercenary kids out there—those who are trading candy in for cash at least as much as they are motivated to support the troops—they’re probably trying to figure out what candies weigh the most to maximize their payout.

MONEY Out of the Red

How I Paid Off $158,169 in Debt

G. McDowell Photography

Think there's no way to get out from under your obligations? This first in a series of profiles of people getting "Out of the Red" proves that it's possible.

Rachel Gause just wanted to give her three kids more than she had growing up. So, though she was receiving a secure income along with child support, she found herself living beyond her means every month—eventually racking up six figures in debt. With a whole lot of determination and almost a decade’s worth of belt-tightening, she’s climbed most of the way out. This is her story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.

Rachel Gause
Jacksonville, N.C.
Occupation: Master Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Initial debt: $179,625
Amount left: $21,456
When she started paying it down: 2006
When she hopes to be debt-free: November 2015

How I got into trouble

“I was just trying to keep up with everybody else. I’m a single parent to three kids, ages 10, 14, and 16. I was always spending extra on Christmas and on birthdays. Also, growing up, I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes at the start of every school year. But I wanted to make sure my kids always did.

Looking back, I wish I would have known not to rely on credit cards. I wish I would have known that it’s okay to keep your car for four or more years, as long as you maintain it.

I started going into debt when my first daughter was born, 16 years ago. I remember I had to get a furniture loan. By 2006, I had $55,848 in credit card debt and $76,711 in car loans. Then there were the personal loans. I had a consolidation loan that I used to pay off my credit cards. Altogether, it came out to $179,625.”

My “uh-oh” moment

“I wasn’t aware of how much debt I was in. The turning point for me was when I hit the 10-year point in the Marines, and I saw other people around me retiring. I wanted to sit down and see where I was at. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to retire in debt. I didn’t want to be that person.

At the time, I had a Toyota Sequoia, and I couldn’t make payments on it. I knew I was in way over my head.

Even though I had three kids, we didn’t need that big truck. It was going to put my family at a financial challenge. So I spoke to a lady at my church, and I said, ‘I have this truck, and I’m going to trade it in for something smaller.’ And she said, ‘I always wanted a Toyota Sequoia.’ I sold it to her and got into a Corolla instead.

I realized buying that truck was a bad choice, and I knew I needed to develop better habits from there. That was my first step forward.

How I’m getting out from under

Now I put roughly $2,100 a month toward my debt.

For the rest of my income, I use the envelope system. Before I get paid, I do my budget. Then I have 13 envelopes—one for groceries, one for clothes and shoes, one for charity, one for dining out, one for gas, and so on. I go to the bank, take the money out, and divide it between the envelopes.

I don’t spend anything that doesn’t come out of those envelopes. Debit cards are nice, but swiping is less emotional. Cash makes me more aware of what I’m spending my money on. If I run out of money for something that month, I don’t buy it. But I’ve never run out of money for something important—now I’m more aware of how much I’m spending.

That’s because I also got a small composition book from Dollar General to track my spending. Every time I spend money, I write it in that book. Then I compare that to what I’m supposed to be spending, according to my budget.

I also do a quarterly audit on myself to make sure I’m not spending too much more on my cable or cell phone bills.

But it’s not all deprivation. We have a chart that we color in every time we reach a milestone, and we treat ourselves to something nice. For example, recently I went on a trip with my high school classmates to Atlanta—funded totally in cash.

My kids have been understanding about our debt-free journey. They know that mommy has made some bad financial decisions in the past. Now I teach them about needs and wants.

The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.”

If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

What I’ve learned that could help someone else

My advice would be to sit down, see where you’re at—first, you have to know how much debt you’re in—and then create a spending plan. (Some people are scared of the word “budget.”) You have to tell your money where to go, or it’s going to tell you where to go.

The numbers may scare you in the beginning. It takes two or three months before you can get the budget right.

And you have to be consistent. If you don’t put 100% into it, it’s not going to work. You can’t be half, ‘I’m trying to get out of debt,’ and half, ‘I still want to spend money.’ You have to sacrifice.

My hopes for the future

Once I become debt-free, I plan to build up my emergency fund and then start actively investing and saving for retirement.

Then I hope to get my kids off to a better start.

My daughter will go to college soon. We’ve talked about student loans.

The main reason I joined the military was to obtain my college degree for free. I earned my degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year. But while I was there, I saw so many kids taking courses for a second and third time because they were failing and they weren’t going to class.

So I told my daughter, you’ll pay for that first year, and we’ll see how you manage. Then I’ll assist you with your second, third and fourth years. But first, I need to make sure you’re dedicated.

After I retire from the military, I want to become a certified financial counselor so I can help people break the vicious cycle of being in debt and dying in debt. My passion is to put together financial classes for non-profit organizations like women’s shelters, churches, and organizations for military service members. There aren’t that many in this area, and I see a real need. I see so many people struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve already started counseling some people who ask for help.

Every now and then, I get a message on Facebook from someone I helped that says, ‘I just paid off another credit card’ or ‘I paid off my car.’ That’s my motivation now. I don’t want to stop – the need is out there.

Are you climbing out of debt? Share your story of getting Out of the Red.

Check out Money 101 for more resources:

MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

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:

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why Work-Life Balance Is Just As Impossible for Dads

141014_FF_TEPPERBLOG
This mug is what I'm missing out on when I'm working late.

We're struggling with the same issues working moms face, says MONEY reporter and first-time dad Taylor Tepper.

Sometimes I feel like a bad dad.

Doubts over my parental savvy often correlate with how long I’m at the office. When I call to tell Mrs. Tepper that I’ll be here until 7:30 p.m. working on a magazine feature—and won’t be home to put our son Luke to bed—the soft disappointment in her voice stays with me like a faint ember.

The same guilty feelings apply to my job, too.

I’m 28 and now is the time to work long hours, take on more responsibility and show my bosses just how willing I am to immolate myself for the greater good. Every time I leave the building at 5:30 p.m., a part of me thinks I’m sacrificing future promotions, raises and glory.

What it means to be an American father, and the responsibilities therein, have changed radically in the last few decades. In 1975, 45% of families consisted of a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mom; today 31% do. And now, men are taking on more chores and spending more time with their children than their dads spent with them.

But this blending of gender roles has done much to confuse the male mind. We want to spend more time with the kids and earn accolades on the job; we want to attend the soccer game and become senior management; we want to be Bill Cosby and Steve Jobs.

Many of us feel—just as working moms do—that we’re succeeding at neither.

The Research Backs Me Up on This

According Boston College’s Center for Work & Family, 86% of dads agreed or strongly agreed that “my children are the number one priority in my life.”

That’s well and good.

At the same time, though, more than three in four fathers wished to advance to a position with greater responsibilities and three in five demonstrated a strong desire to reach senior management.

Half of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance the responsibilities of work and family, according to Pew.

And on the whole, we don’t feel like we’re living up to the dad role either. Almost eight in 10 dads want to spend more time with their children on an average workday, and one in two say they spend too little time with their kids. (Only 23% of mothers feel that way.) From first-hand experience, there is nothing quite as enervating as coming home from work to an already-sleeping son.

In Boston College’s research, you also see dads grappling with perceptions of what they want and the reality of how things are.

While today’s fathers also recognize that parenting is a two-person job—65% say they believe that partners should take care of a child evenly—only one in three say that they actually split the work in half. Women typically spend more than three times as many hours per week solely looking after the child than men.

Even on weekends, men fail to live up to their ideal. On Saturdays and Sundays, moms spend 1.2 more hours on housework and childcare than dads do. When it comes to time spent on leisure activities, dads out-loaf moms by an hour.

While Mrs. Tepper and I have something of a modern marriage—split chores, female breadwinner—she almost certainly watches Luke more on the weekends, especially when sports are on.

In spite of my few hours more on the couch, however, I’d still argue that achieving and maintaining true work-life balance is impossible. You can’t achieve these competing goals—working at the top of my game, being the best dad and husband ever, and getting in a few NBA games to recharge my own engine—within a finite number of hours in the day.

So, What Is a Modern Dad to Do?

I put that question to Sara Sutton Fell, the CEO of FlexJobs.com, a job search site focusing on companies that allow for flexible schedules and telecommuting. Her advice: to think of work-life balance as more of a journey than a destination.

“As a working parent with two young sons, I believe that work-life balance is often mistaken as an end-point that we reach eventually,” she says. “In my experience, it’s more of a balancing act—shifting your weight back and forth between your various responsibilities.”

Some days you’re going have to work long hours at the office to close out a project or meet a deadline, in other words; and some days you’re going to work from home to take your kid to the doctor.

Try to find an employer that will embrace that flexibility, Fell says.

This makes sense.

But we’ve also got to try to overcome our own guilt. That means accepting our limitations as parents and workers and people, and setting realistic expectations for ourselves.

It’s difficult to remember, but today’s dads spend more time with their kids than their fathers spent with them by a factor of three. Today’s fathers are by and large more engaged in their kids’ lives than previous generations. So we’re definitely doing better, if not up to the standards we’d hold for ourselves.

When I’m stuck in the office until dark, maintaining that perspective is difficult. But I try to remember that the next morning I’ll be there when Luke wakes up, and with any luck, arrive home in time to help his mom put him to sleep.

And if not, there’s always tomorrow.

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:

MONEY Kids and Money

You Can Teach a Two-Year-Old How to Save

child's hand with ticket stubs
Frederick Bass—Getty Images/fStop

Worried about your children's retirement? With the help of a few carnival tickets, says one financial adviser, you can get them started early on saving.

A new type of retirement worry has recently surfaced among my clients. These investors are concerned not just about their own retirement, but about their children’s and even grandchildren’s retirement as well.

Much of our children’s education is spent preparing them for their careers. But in elementary school through college, there is little discussion about what life is like after your career is over. Little or no time is spent educating children about the importance of saving — much less saving for their golden years.

When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, parents want to know two things: One, at what age should they start teaching their children about saving? And two, what tactics or strategies should they use to help their children understand the importance of saving?

While parenting advice can be a very sensitive subject, discussing these questions has always worked out well for my clients and me. I keep the conversation focused around concerns they have brought up. In a world where student debt is inevitable and other bills such as car loans and mortgage payments add up quickly, parents are concerned for their child’s financial future. We now live in a debt-ridden, instant-gratification society, so how can our children live their lives while still saving for the future?

Here is what I tell my clients:

You can start teaching children the value of saving as early as two years old. At this age, most children don’t necessarily grasp the concept of money, so instead I recommend the use of “tickets” or something similar — maybe a carnival raffle ticket. As a child completes chores or extra tasks, he or she receives a ticket as a reward. The child saves these tickets and can later cash them in at the “family store.” This is where parents can really get creative: The family store consists of prepurchased items like toys or treats, and each item is assigned a ticket value. The child must exchange his or her hard-earned tickets to make a purchase.

I’ve seen first hand, and been told by others, that the tickets end up burning a hole in children’s pockets. They want immediate gratification, so they cash their tickets in for smaller, less expensive prizes. This is where parents can begin to really educate kids. Through positive reinforcement, they can encourage their children to save their tickets in order to purchase the prize they are really hoping for.

Eventually, saving becomes part of the routine. As children receive tickets, they stash them away for the future with the intentions of buying the doll, bike, video game or whatever their favorite prize may be.

As the child gets older, parents can transition to actual money using quarters or dollars. Now the lesson has become real. Parents can also implement a saving rule, encouraging the child that 50% of the earnings must go straight to the piggy bank. By age five, most children can grasp the concept of money and can begin going to an actual toy store to pick out their prizes. By starting out with tickets, parents are able to educate children about the power of saving at a younger age. By switching over to real money, children can then begin to learn the importance of saving cash for day-to-day items while still setting aside some money for later.

While this tactic may seem like it’s just fun and games, I have received feedback from several clients and family friends that it does in fact instill fiscal responsibility at a young age. Most importantly, I have seen it work first hand. My wife and I used this system with our five-year-old daughter. She was like most children in the beginning and wanted to spend, spend, and spend. Now, it is rare that she even looks at her savings in her piggy bank. She has graduated to real money and seems to really value its worth. She identifies what she wants to buy and sets a goal to set enough money aside for it. Before purchasing, she often spends time pondering if she actually wants to spend her hard earned money, or if she wants to continue saving it. In less than a year, she developed a true grasp on what it means to save and why it is important.

By implementing this strategy, financial milestones like buying their first car, paying for college, or purchasing their first home could potentially be a lot easier for both your clients and their their children. And the kids will learn the value of saving for their retirement, too.

———–

Sean P. Lee, founder and president of SPL Financial, specializes in financial planning and assisting individuals with creating retirement income plans. Lee has helped Salt Lake City residents for the past decade with financial strategies involving investments, taxes, life insurance, estate planning, and more. Lee is an investment advisor representative with Global Financial Private Capital and is also a licensed life and health insurance professional.

MONEY Estate Planning

The Hardest Part of Making a Will: Telling Your Kids What’s in It

Kids taking cookies from plate
Gene Chutka—Getty Images

An awkward part of estate planning is telling your kids how much — or how little — they'll get. Here's how a financial planner can help.

For clients, one of the most stressful aspects of estate planning — already an emotionally difficult process — is the prospect of telling heirs what they plan to do with their assets. Because conversations about legacy plans can be terribly difficult, clients may avoid them at all costs — and the costs can indeed be substantial.

Financial planners, however, can help clients overcome the challenges of having these important conversations. Here are a few suggestions for how to do it:

  1. Encourage clients to communicate their values about money in a larger context. Often, clients’ estate plans reflect lifelong values such as a commitment to charitable giving or a wish to provide first for their families. If children are familiar with their parents’ values, chances are they will have a good idea of what to expect from their estates.
  1. Help clients evaluate their children’s money skills. Just because kids grew up in the same family doesn’t mean they will have the same knowledge and attitudes about money. Especially if children will inherit significant amounts, conversations about estate planning can become part of larger conversations designed to help teach them how to manage and become comfortable with their legacies.
  1. If a client’s estate plan does not treat children “equally,” for whatever reasons, it’s best to share that information well in advance and to communicate it privately to each child. There are many reasons why treating children differently in an estate plan can be the fairest thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wise to let them learn the specifics when a will is read. If parents and individual children can discuss these provisions and the reasons for them ahead of time, there is less likelihood of conflict between siblings after the parents are gone.
  1. Encourage clients not to allow children to assume they are inheriting more than is the case. Not telling them may avoid conflict now, but it will sow seeds for deeper conflict and resentment after your client’s death.
  1. Help clients prepare children for large or unexpected inheritances. I’ve worked with heirs who were stunned to receive legacies much larger than their parents’ lifestyles had led them to expect. If clients have a substantial net worth that’s under the radar — perhaps in the form of land or business ownership — their children may be totally unprepared for what they will inherit. Planners can suggest ways to help the heirs learn more about both the financial and the emotional aspects of managing inherited wealth. They may also encourage parents to consider options, such as giving more to the children during their lifetime, that might reduce the impact of a sudden inheritance.
  1. Acknowledge clients’ fears, even indirectly. Although it is seldom expressed, perhaps the strongest reason for not discussing estate plans with family members is fear. Parents may be afraid that children will be angry or disappointed, will build too much on their expectations for an inheritance, or will be resentful of other heirs.

Talking to family members about estate planning and legacies can be difficult and even painful. Those discussions, however, will almost certainly be less painful in the long run than the stories children may make up after parents are gone about why they made the choices they did.

Financial planners can play an important role, not by taking on the task of telling heirs what parents want them to know, but by facilitating the family conversations. In especially difficult circumstances, the help of a financial therapist can be invaluable. Supporting clients as they discuss their wishes with family members can be an important estate planning service that enhances the legacy parents want to pass on to their children.

———————

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

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