Are You the Ant or the Grasshopper? And Which Are You Raising?

A fable from Aesop that has seen a lot of play over the centuries is the Ant and the Grasshopper. The story extols the industrious ant who spends the summer working and storing food, and also points out the improvidence of the grasshopper who fiddles and sings all summer long, ends up starving through the winter and knocking on the ant’s door for a hand-out.

Chances are, (if you are American) you’re a grasshopper. The U.S. personal savings rate is the lowest among developed nations. Why is that? And what’s it got to do with Lion’s Whiskers?

Here’s some information that may require some intellectual courage to process. 85% of Americans expect their kids to go to college, but 47% of American parents can’t afford that education for their kids. Many families do save for college (although not enough); many parents raid their retirement savings to pay for college (considered a bad idea indeed); and a great many expect to take financial aid and student loans when the time comes. Yet according to the College Savings Foundation, the cost of borrowing money for college v. the cost of saving for college is 7:1. Let me put that in another way. Let’s say you spend $10 per week now on saving for college. If you wait and borrow the money instead, it will cost you $70 per week to pay off. That’s a pretty impressive difference. $10 per week now or $10 per day later?

We know from psychology research that our cognitive biases (e.g. the tendency to discount information that contradicts our wishes or shows our previous decision-making to have been flawed) really mess up our ability to make decisions, especially decisions having to do with the long-range future. And when it comes to parenting, many of us live in “putting out the fire” mode instead of “fire prevention” mode. It’s hard to make long-term plans when you need to know how to get a colicky baby to sleep tonight, or you need to make decisions about which parental control software to install on the computer today so the kids don’t start downloading crazy stuff on Saturday night while the baby-sitter is busy texting friends. But the parenting industry thrives because of the “putting out the fire” mentality that so many parents live with. Fear is used as a marketing crowbar to pry money from our hands to throw on the fire. And yet the fact is, much of the time there really is no fire; we’re just conditioned to believe without question all the messages that tell us there is. If we don’t do this, buy that, register here NOW we’ll thwart our children’s hopes and dreams, damage their self-esteem, poison them, put them in mortal danger, expose them to creepy people and also maybe make them fat and stupid. Spending money to quiet those fears gives us a false sense of security, and allows us to to go back to the fun stuff, like spending the summer fiddling and singing. (Grasshopper).

Instead of being reactive to the fear messages, we can be proactive about real challenges that lie ahead. (Winter). We can walk out of the store (or the on-line mall) with our credit cards unswiped. Instead we can save those dollars for the long-term so that our children don’t leave college buried in loans. If we really want the best for our kids, it seems to me, we’d do better foregoing the latest, newest everything now, and give them the gift of education without crushing debt. (Ant).

For many people, spending money can be related to a lack of emotional courage, if buying something is motivated by boredom, escapism or loneliness; spending money may be related to a lack of social courage, if buying something is motivated by a desire to be trendy or ahead of the wave; spending money may be related to a lack of spiritual courage, if buying something is motivated by feelings of purposelessness and the need to fill a spiritual hole; it may be motivated by a lack of moral courage, if buying something is inspired by feelings of entitlement or egocentricity; it may be motivated by a lack of physical courage, if it is inspired by a false belief that buying something will make one look better, live longer, or lose belly fat fast.

According to statistics available on the National Financial Educators Council website, teens and young adults report feeling woefully unprepared to manage money – the mysteries of checkbook balancing, credit card interest rates, debt payments and budgeting are scary, confusing and intimidating. But children as young as five can start learning about money – if someone will teach them. It may be more convenient to go to the bank when the kids are at school, but for the most part they aren’t learning anything about money at school. They must learn it from us. They must see us actively making financial decisions and setting financial goals; they must see us basing our spending, our savings, and our charitable giving on those goals instead of on impulsiveness. Yes, itchy as it sounds, we must model being ants for them.

It’s way more fun to be the grasshopper. And it’s okay to be the grasshopper some of the time, but we must have the courage to be ants as well. Whether our children grow up as grasshoppers or ants may mean the difference between them moving back home after college or going out into the world as courageous and independent young people who know how to get through the winter.

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