My wife and I are suckers.
When our kids want a pet, we almost always give in. Currently, we have eight kids and seven animals: 2 dogs, 2 cats, 2 lizards, and 1 snake.
No matter how many conversations we have about responsibility and pet ownership, it inevitably devolves into the age-old result of the parents doing most of the work to keep the animals alive. The new wears off, the kittens grow into uninteresting, ordinary looking cats, and mom and dad are stuck with 17 mouths to feed.
Also, the pets eventually die and some minor grief counseling becomes necessary for the children who showed no interest in the pet for the majority of its’ life.
Everything has a cost, and it’s not just a financial one.
TOWERS AND WARS
There’s a teaching in the Bible that, for some reason, doesn’t get much press.
It comes from Jesus, and it’s in the gospel of Luke. Jesus said:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won't he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”
This seems so basic - of course someone would estimate the cost of a tower or estimate if victory in battle is possible with the available soldiers. Yet how many building or construction projects go unfinished every year? How many war efforts throughout the centuries have been fatally miscalculated?
It happens on a small scale too: How many home improvement projects are unfinished in your house? How long have you continued to pay for a monthly gym membership that you quit using ages ago? When was the last time you took out the boat you swore you’d use every weekend?
Sometimes our plans halt because the money runs out. But more often than not, we quit things because the hidden, non-financial costs prove to be more than we’re willing to pay.
As financial planners, we help clients think through the financial requirements needed for the life they want to live. But it’s one thing to have enough cash on hand to pay for the things we want, and another to calculate the full scope of our decisions.
What follows are three major life decisions almost all of us have to make at one time or another - choosing a career, buying a home, and starting a family - and the hidden costs that go with them. It’s our nature to weigh the financial costs more than the others, but these hidden costs affect our day-to-day experience far more than the financial ones, and we’re wise to consider them.
THE COST OF CHOOSING A CAREER
When it’s time to choose a career path, it’s tempting to let dollar signs make the decision for you. But every career and the jobs within have hidden costs.
Time is the most obvious. A career in medicine, while financially profitable, comes with a high cost in time away from family and friends. Long shifts, nights, weekends, on-call, don’t just require you to be away physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Friends and family who are not in the medical field are prone to blow off this cost with comments like, “Yeah but you earn enough money to make up for it!” No matter how high your income, time away from the people you love is still significant.
Every career field also comes with the pressure to move up the ladder and take on more responsibility. Promotions and higher ranks often come with a boost in salary, but can also require more time away.
Physicians and dentists can become numb to people’s fear, anxiety, and suffering. When you see a steady stream of sick people all day, it’s hard to maintain a sense of empathy for what each individual patient is going through. That can easily spill over into the rest of your life too, and cause you to become numb - if not cynical - about people’s life experiences.
Another cost that we’ve written about in the past that’s common to physicians and dentists is burnout. The career that once felt noble and necessary can begin to feel meaningless over time. It’s devastating when you sincerely believe your life’s calling is of no value. Burnout affects 1 in 3 physicians at any given moment and takes a serious toll on your job performance, relationships, and overall wellbeing.
THE COST OF BUYING A HOME
As wonderful and valuable as home ownership can be, it costs more than just the sale price or mortgage.
The home you buy determines who your neighbors are, how far you commute to work, the school your children attend, where you shop for groceries, and maybe the religious community you'll join. A home is not just about the number of bedrooms and square footage, it’s about the life you’re going to live for the foreseeable future.
If you have a family, the house you buy will deeply shape your kids’ childhood. Many of their memories and key aspects of their developmental years will be tied to that place. The physical structure of the house itself may not matter, but the life you build there does!
And then there’s all the maintenance.
A friend told me recently that the way he measures how well his life is going is by the number of weeds in his flowerbeds. When things are good, he tends to have more time to get outside and keep the flowerbeds looking nice, but when he’s stressed or busy there’s just no time to pull weeds. And every time he walks by the weed-infested flowerbeds, it just adds to his stress and confirms that life is getting away from him.
Homes can have that affect.
Just before I sat down to write this article, I called a plumber because our upstairs bathroom is leaking into our downstairs bathroom. If you own a home, you are well aware that things like this occur, and often. There’s a financial cost to repair this, yes, but also the mental and emotional burden of arranging schedules for the repair, limited use of space in your home, and subsequent issues this one might uncover.
The purchase of a home comes with more than just financial costs.
THE COST OF STARTING A FAMILY
It’s almost cliché now for a couple on TV or in a movie to stress over how much it costs to have a child. They sit at a table or behind a computer and say something like, “I just don’t know how we’re going to make it work.”
Having kids is a life-changing experience. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but for those who do start a family, it becomes clear quickly that money is not the most significant cost.
Sleep is, in my experience, the highest cost when starting a family. Newborns wake up all hours of the night, and it doesn’t necessarily stop when they get older. Kids crawl into their parents bed in the middle of the night because they had a bad dream or just can’t go back to sleep.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums this up well in this short clip.
Socially, your life changes with kids. People with kids tend to go out less, and time with friends usually requires bringing a kid or two along. Couples who live in an urban area might wish for the convenience and space of the suburbs as their family grows.
There’s a phenomenon most parents - and especially moms - know well called Kid Mode. It’s a mental state of being in which you are perpetually thinking about, planning for, and worrying over your kids. Nothing else can occupy space in your mind as long as you’re in Kid Mode, so it becomes difficult to be productive, engaged, or enjoy time to yourself when you can only think about what you’re fixing for the next meal or when you have to leave the house, or whether you signed that form. The mental energy required for parenting can be quite exhausting.
No one is ever fully prepared to become a parent. Everybody must learn on the job. But it’s important to weigh all the costs before making that decision, and the biggest costs have nothing to do with money.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE WILLING TO PAY
At first glance all this may sound depressing. But weighing the hidden costs is actually quite liberating when you’re willing to be honest about what is good for you and your family.
The pressure to choose the best career, buy a bigger house, or start a family can lead people into commitments they are not ready to make, or may later regret. There is no rule that says you have to be a certain type of physician or dentist, that you must live in a large house in the suburbs, or that you have to be a parent by a certain age, if any age at all.
It’s okay to choose a career you like - even if it pays less - simply because you like it, or so you can enjoy things in life that matter more than your job. You are allowed to say no to a promotion or opt not to relocate to a new city if you like where you are and what you do.
It’s okay to live in a modest home that you love without spending a lot of money on a different house just because it’s big or in a fancy neighborhood.
It’s okay to delay having children - or have no children at all - if starting a family will cost more than you can pay at the moment. And it’s okay to scale back on your career to be more present with your family if that’s what you want to do. Cost is associated with any decision, and the good news is that you get to decide which cost is worth it for you.
Money is a great motivator and an important part of our major life decisions, but it’s not the only factor to consider. High salaries often require big sacrifices in other areas of life, and sometimes the high salary is just not worth the cost. So, before you make critical decisions, make sure you weigh every cost, especially the hidden ones. Because more often than not, those are what matter most.