A Seat at the Table


There are several subjects that folks tend to shy away from in casual conversation:  religion, sex, politics, and money. Is it any wonder, then, they’re so intertwined in today’s culture? Maybe we should talk more about them with the intention of keeping them in healthy and proper perspectives?   A few of these topics may pop up in future posts, but I’ll not disclose which ones in hopes of keeping you reading. And while I’m not an expert on any of them, I have enough experience with each to be dangerous.  Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?  Money conversations, I can tell you, with four kids and a wife are held with great frequency in my home and don’t always end with hugs and high fives.

We’re all human. And given that condition, emotion always has a seat at the table.

Emotion:  1) A strong feeling. 2) What comes between family members when discussing couches, cars, carpets, Christmas, and colleges. The 5 C’s of Discord, I call them. I don’t, really. That just came to me.

We have a 17 year-old high school junior, Nick, who’s bound and determined to find the most expensive college in America. At least that’s how it appears to me. Not his fault, though.  It seems these days that every school with a football team and a fight song can ask whatever it wants, and folks are willing and debatably able to pay.  This past weekend we visited two such schools in a neighboring state. One is the state’s flagship university, while the other is a small, private liberal arts, beacon of goodness school that’s tucked away in God’s country in the northwestern part of the state. Both schools retail for $45,000 per year – one, in large part due to out-of-state tuition, and the other…just because it can, I guess. And not to be left out of the sticker-shock party, an Ivy League school sent us a nice letter of introduction. It was a paltry $67,000 per year.  Nick found the letter in the trash, unfortunately, before I could burn it.

It should be noted that Mary Lisa and I attended one of the aforementioned schools and paid less than $67K for all four years. One just might be tempted to ask whether higher education represents the next bubble. Loans being handed out like candy, borrowing like there’s no tomorrow, and dramatically increasing tuition costs.  Sound familiar?  I remember my freshman year, and I can tell you that no experience was worth $45K – though one or two might have come close.  Try telling that to a 17 year-old. He clearly hears the sirens’ call, and his emotions are ready to answer. And it’s here, where my heart rate becomes audible. I’m not about to let him take on life-long debt. Nor will I take it on either. As I’ve said before, I married his mother and she’s my first priority. Tough words to hear from your father; tough words to say to your son. And chock-full of emotion.

That said, we want him to have the type of college experience that we had. Emotion. We want him to make life-long friends and possibly meet the girl of his dreams. Emotion. I want him to run off the field, celebrating with teammates after throwing a game-winning touchdown pass. Emotion with a touch of “father living vicariously through his son.” We want him to feel the overwhelming sense of pride one experiences when life and purpose collide. Emotion. We want him to experience the excitement and uncertainty of the journey from dependence to self-actualization.  Emotion. Lots of “wants” in that stream of consciousness.

Emotion is a wonderful motivator. It’s life affirming, validating, enriching…blah, blah, blah. But it’s not qualified to make major decisions. Left unchecked, and despite one’s best intentions for objectivity, emotion will eat all the meat on the table – leaving nothing for the rest.

“So move over emotion, and pull up a few chairs for objectivity and reason.”

Here’s what I know to be true:  Wise financial decisions don’t always occur naturally. There will be competing interests at play.  Wise financial decisions, I can attest, are made from a proven process.   One where emotion, objectivity and reason have their roles in the conversation.

And despite the well-scripted, emotionally appealing presentations from the schools’ respective tour guides, objectivity knows the well being of my son will not be determined by how many gyms (or girls) are within walking distance of his dorm or how late the cafeteria stays open. Nor will he be prepared for life outside “the Gate of Opportunity” from the graduation rate of the football team.

This “setting of the table” is the first of many steps my family will be taking over the next year as we send our firstborn off to college. We’re at the beginning of the process, as you can see, and we’re catching the first glimpse of the tension between emotion and objectivity.  I’m as emotionally charged as the next guy, maybe more so. And while incorporating objectivity and reason into this process may be difficult, if not messy, I do believe it’s a model best serving the interests of the entire family.

And I’m already uncomfortable with it.

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