Ask the Grumpies: Outings for older kids

First Gen American asks:

Seems the last two go to weekend adventures have been dubbed as “for babies” by my tween. (They were a fall foliage historic train ride and corn maze/pumpkin fest in case you are wondering).

Wondering what new outings I can add that would hold the interest of the older one as I think we are outgrowing the zoo, museum phase of fun weekend activities.

#1 suggests: What do tweens like? Basically nothing! Also I have never outgrown the zoo and museum. [#2 notes, this is true– once when we met at a nearby city when #1 was at a conference, we went to the zoo]. Are there street fairs? I’d be happy to go to the library… Hiking? Fancy tea in the city? Music fest? Opera?

Make the tween suggest the things!

#2 suggests: What do tweens like? Protesting! Making a difference! Being active! Volunteering!

#1 says: That makes sense!  Volunteer at the cat shelter!

#2 notes: Miser-mom tends to have lots of good suggestions with her kids.

College Savings are hard to plan

If DH and I remain employed at our current jobs for the next ~6 years (something that is not incredibly likely given DH’s job situation), then we will not qualify for financial aid at most schools.  (IIRC, we’ll be in the phase-out range for Harvard and Princeton and may be able to move money around to get some aid there.)  If one of us loses a job, then DC1 will qualify for about ~10K/year in aid at many private schools, which isn’t that much given sticker prices (although on just one income, hiding moving money around will have a larger effect).

We currently (barring weird changes in the stock market between the writing of this post and its posting) have around 98K in DC1’s college account.  That’s $500/mo for the last 10 years invested in Vanguard.  That’s enough to go to our local flagship schools for 4-5 years if we stop saving now.

And that really sounds like a lot.  But in the world of private schools it isn’t.

It’s hard to tell what DC1 will want to do in 6-10 years, but current indications are that computer science or some form of electrical engineering will be involved.  Zie might want to go to MIT or Harvey Mudd or Stanford (and zie might get in– it is hard to say).  These schools are not cheap, and at >55K/year in total costs (and rising), there’s not enough in the 529s to pay for even two years of school. We have another $170K in taxable stocks (that’s from the 50K we had in 2005 and the leftover money from leave we just put into the market) that presumably we would use for the remainder.  However, we will be taxed on that remainder, so it might make sense to start saving *more* in the 529 vehicle while we still have six years for earnings to accrue.

Indeed, the simple saving for college calculator suggests that we would need to more than double our monthly contribution for MIT and almost triple it for Harvey Mudd.

If I drop DH’s income, then the college calculator suggests we should start putting away $638/mo, which is still more than the $500 that is currently going towards college.

Both Harvey Mudd and MIT have 5-year BS/MS programs that are a good deal.  DC1 is so young– maybe we should be open to funding some graduate school.   It is also true that we have two children, and by the time DC2 is ready for college, we should know how much DC1’s experience ended up costing, so we’d be able to move some money over.  As of this typing, DC2 has $33K in hir 529 plan.  We’re on an oversaving path for hir for state school (the calculator recommends cutting back to ~300/mo), but would need to put away more for the average private school– for my alma mater, for example, zie would need more than double what we’re putting away (same for engineering schools, though it’s harder to tell if engineering is likely with a preschooler compared to a 6th grader).

Looking over all my old 529 posts, I usually contemplate putting less money into the 529s.  This is the first time I’ve addressed putting more money there.  I’ve been assuming we wouldn’t pay for any graduate school and have been worried about the risk of over-saving.  But with only 6 years left before college, I think it is unlikely I’ll end up moving to work for a university that pays even part of school tuition.  And college costs have been increasing, as has our net worth.  Maybe it makes sense to get more tax advantage, especially given that in 6 years taxes may have to go way up (or inflation may be sky rocketing).  It’s hard to say.  Not to mention that $500/month isn’t worth what it was 10 years ago.

And we’re no longer paying $1200/mo in principal and interest on a mortgage.  If DH doesn’t lose his job, that money has to go somewhere.

Under what circumstances would we regret putting more money in the 529s?  1.  If we move to the bay area for DH’s job and want to buy a house.  That scenario suggests needing loans for private school and DC1 being on hir own for graduate school.  2.  If for whatever reason neither DC1 nor DC2 end up using the money (ex. tragedy, one or both of the DCs becoming successful entrepreneurs, both DCs deciding they prefer much cheaper college options).  3.  The world goes to heck and we have to leave the country (in which case money in the 529s will be very low on our list of regrets).

Ugh, I keep going back and forth on this.  I could increase our monthly contribution to be more in line with what the simple calculator thinks we should be contributing, and then we could cut if off if DH loses his job.  We could put in a lump sum (though dollar-cost averaging seems much less risky given the current uncertain political environment).  I could split the difference and put in, say $750/month per child instead of either $500 or $1000 (which is about what we would need if I kept my job and DH stopped bringing money in entirely).  Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing, which is usually the easiest thing to do.

*note for newer readers:  We are already maxing out our easy retirement options (required contribution, one 401K, one 403b, one 457) and will pay off our house very soon.  So don’t worry about our retirement savings or debt loads!

What are you doing in terms of college savings?  How do you decide to change what you’re doing?

Ask the Grumpies: How to teach organization and time management to a middle schooler.

First Gen American asks:

How [does one] teach organization and time management to a middle schooler.

We have had some luck with putting a checklist on the fridge that DC1 has to go through every night, but it isn’t foolproof. If it were, DC1 would be getting an A in orchestra because zie wouldn’t have forgotten to log hir practice.  How do you remember to practice but not remember to log the practice?  It boggles the mind.

Does anyone else have more/better suggestions?

DC1 is starting to read grown up books

It’s so exciting!

There is a little bit of bridging going on.  Technically the books zie is reading are probably YA that just haven’t been classified as YA.

The first one, of course, was a Tiffany Aching by Terry Pratchett.  Specifically The Wee Free Men (only $1.99 on Kindle which is a steal!).  Zie followed that up with A Hatful of Sky, which is the second in the Tiffany Aching series.

Then zie read the first 4 books in the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy (zie means to read the fifth, but sort of lost interest, which is understandable since the fourth and fifth books aren’t as good as the original three).

Then, because zie was rereading Meeting and Threshholds I offered up my favorite Nina Kiriki Hoffman, A Fistful of Sky (which DC1 noted has a remarkably similar name to that second Tiffany Aching book, but the Hoffman book came first).  (Don’t read the second in the LaZelle series though– it has a rape and victim blaming which is so uncool.)

Grown-up books are a whole new world of fun.  I’m pretty sure I first started with Agatha Christies as my first fiction experience (prior to that I read the humor section from non-fiction), but once I realized that adult fantasy novels existed, I was hooked on going upstairs to the adult area each week at the library.  Even though a lot of what I read up there wasn’t actually very good.  But some of it was.

What were your first adult fiction books?  What grown-up books would you recommend for a precocious 10 year old?

In which #1 is irritated by DC1’s public school teaching the “stock market game”

DC1 is in Gifted and Talented Pullout this year, and one of the things that they do is participate in a competition called the Stock Market Game.

As an economist and someone with a personal hobby interest in personal finance, the stock market game irritates me SO MUCH.  The criteria for winning is to be the team that has made the most money picking hypothetical stocks after a set time period.

The way to win this game is to be in the extreme tail of the normal distribution.  Of course, that’s also how to get the lowest score.  Essentially, the game rewards risk-taking, punishes diversification and fails to punish losing gambles.  Since it is a winner-take-all game, there’s no benefit to going for a middle-of-the-road strategy.  You’re going to lose just as hard in the middle of the pack as you would taking enormous chances and being the lowest ranked team.  So you might as well gamble and hope for that upside.

Of course, with real investing there are real losses to taking on risk and losing.  This game equates being the second highest scoring team (or really, the fourth highest scoring team) with being the lowest scoring team.  Anybody who aims for the more sure middle is going to lose because some other teams took risks.

Also, there’s a reason that real stock market investing is a long-term game, not a short-term one.  Games that praise short-term gains and ignore the long-term may even discourage investing because they show the market to be much more volatile than it actually is over a long time horizon.  Of course, that may be better than kids growing up to invest their retirement assets in the extremely risky portfolios that have the likeliest chance of winning this kind of game.

I’m not the first person to complain about this stupid school-sponsored game.  Here’s confessions of a stock market game winner.  Here’s someone at the WSJ complaining about how it teaches exactly the wrong lessons.

(And, just in case you’re a new reader:  You should invest in low cost broad-based index funds for long-term investing.)

Have you ever played the stock market game?

We got DC2 a cell phone

DC2 is 9 and in 6th grade.  There’s a lot of extracurricular activities and so on in 6th grade and we decided we’d be more comfortable if DC2 had a way of contacting us if something fell through or there was a miscommunication about pick-up etc.

When we finally decided to bite the bullet to add hir to our plan, we discovered that Ting had added the ability to add all four of our retired outdated dumb phones to the plan.  Back last year when we switched to Ting we actually had to buy new phones which is both why it took us so long to switch and why I am now addicted to an iphone.  But we were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to buy a new phone this time.  Zie is using my 2 phones ago phone because it has the strongest battery (I had bought a replacement battery right before DH decided to get new free phones when we renewed our plan many years ago).

/start rant One thing that annoys me about DH’s current school (as opposed to paradise) is that they often have “bring your own devices” days.  Kids are encouraged to play with their smartphones or to bring ipads or, to a lesser extent, hand-held game systems.  DC1 doesn’t have anything like that and we made the conscious choice not to give hir a phone with such things.  I have to say I’m really annoyed about something like that that makes kids whose parents can’t afford to get them iphones or kids whose parents are crazy hippies stick out in a negative way.  Last year in paradise, each kid had an assigned notepad device (I don’t think there was one for each kid–they didn’t all use them at the same time since there were 3 classes of fifth graders), but our school district isn’t rich enough for that, I guess.  But it is rich enough to do things that could hurt poor kids.  I really appreciate how the Paradise school district made everything equal for everyone.  It was a relatively rich district, but our school had a high population ELA and school lunch eligible and there was a lot of redistribution, which is how it should be, I think.  So my bottom line is, if you’re going to allow kids to play games in class, you have to provide the games. /end rant

Anyhow, if DC1 behaves hirself and doesn’t lose anything, having an extra cell line should cost us an additional $6/mo, and possibly the cost of an external battery charger since if DC1 treats hir cellphone like I did (leaving it at home and letting the battery run out), it won’t be much use.

What age do you think people should get their first cell phone?  If it depends, what does it depend on?

Using children as labor

I had a Monday deadline.  What with one thing and another, my (new) RAs didn’t finish or didn’t correctly finish turning my color figures into consistent black and white figures in Excel before the weekend.

Since I hadn’t actually finished writing the paper yet at that point I wasn’t going to have time to do it myself.  So I thought… I bet this is something DC1 could do.

I asked DC1 if zie was interested in learning excel and fixing up some graphs for me and said I would pay hir, though I didn’t yet know how much.  Zie said sure.

So DH showed DC1 how and we decided the exact shades and dottings and markers that we liked, and DC1 finished over the weekend in less time than I had expected (~3 hours total) and did a great job.  Zie had really nice attention to detail, something I haven’t had in an RA for several years.

My mom never let me help with her rote grading or other work activities, even when it was mindless stuff I could easily do.  I did do some data entry and cataloguing for my father for various of his self-employment ventures.  It is legal to employ a child in a family business.  Is my research a family business?  This particular deadline comes with a check and I do have my own EIN.  If I don’t have to do it, is it a hobby?  If it is legal, is it ethical?

I salivate at the thought of my brilliant, careful DCs running Stata code for me.  We’re not there yet, but man, that would be awesome.  I know economist children of famous economists who grew up doing RA work for their parents and other economists for cash, and they seem to think they picked up useful skills, especially when that first non-economics major didn’t work out.  A person who can code can make a tidy sum.

Did you ever help your parents out with their work?  If you have children, have they helped out with your work?