Monday, May 24, 1999

Handed Down Does Not Mean Handed Over

by Richard Vireday

The Fribble from Mike Knight touched me deeply. He wrote about the building of wealth into the American middle class from, basically, nothing. My parents had come to this country from Europe in 1955 with little more than a job promise, their training, and some decent working English. Through long, hard work they were able to raise their three kids and provide a way for each to go to college. They had built up to the next level, and like Mike, I am trying in my own way to get my children set and ready for the next level.

The 401(k) is maxxed, and the stock in my daughter's college fund has more than tripled since November. I have a portfolio now and know what it means. I am doing many things Foolish, and have learned so much in the last 10 years -- things that should be taught in high school or college.

But I felt Mike missed something very important in his dreams. What's wrong with the kid eating PB&J for a week while in college? Or Top-Ramen noodles, turkey franks, and frozen peas for a month? The Rice-A-Roni 12-pack for $5. Or Tuna spaghetti! (a nasty memory, if ever there was one)?

And what about schlepping off to measly paying summer jobs or working like hell through the army or a company internship? Washing dishes, or counseling kids, or stringing wires, or cutting trees, or doing the hard work you might not totally like, day after day.

These are part of the dues. To hand children the results means they never know the price. Pizza in college looks easy, when you just got flush with cash from home. In the middle of the month with two more weeks till the next stipend, no matter how hot your date, if you ain't got the cash, you have to do something else! What about scrounging up enough aluminum cans to get enough for cheese and bread at the local supermarket because the cafeteria is closed down for another day on spring break?

One of the ways people learn is by feel. They have to hold an object and touch it, breathe it. Likewise, they have to earn and hold money before they spend it, to appreciate it's true worth and the labor it took to earn it. How many pro athletes who are suddenly showered with wealth screw it up?

So, when my kids call from college in the future asking for an advance or borrowing some cash, I will smile. Their mother and I will probably give them something, like my folks did. Maybe not all the cash they ask for, and maybe not right away. Letters take time to get through, even e-transactions in the future can be delayed for a while.

Like so many things with wealth, the characteristics and habits to use it wisely must be accumulated with time and effort. I hope that will be one of my children's finest legacies from their parents, above whatever estate we can manage to create.

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