Parent’s letter to an 18-year-old



After those last two blog posts, it’s time to lighten things up a little. Let’s talk about figuring out the “new rules” when your fledgling leaves the nest. Our daughter has given me permission to blog about an e-mail that we sent her a few weeks after she started college.

Until she turned 18, her checking account and her credit card were still held jointly with me. We were both eager to end that part of our relationship!  But she had plenty of other things on her mind during her first semester of college.  At the time we wrote this e-mail she was struggling with homework, exams, NROTC workouts, and her personal spending habits.

When spouse and I went to college (back during the second millennium, before the World Wide Web & cell phones, when woolly mammoths roamed the earth), we spent years stumbling through the minefields of our own parents’ expectations.  So when our daughter started college we decided to seize the initiative and set out the ground rules. Not that we’re control freaks or anything– we’re just trying to do for the next generation what we wish had been done for us.

Here’s what we told her:

Happy birthday!

Your 18th birthday also marks your independence from the family payroll and the end of our $$$ gifts at birthdays & holidays. You’ll still be reimbursed for tuition expenses that NROTC doesn’t cover, and our college fund will pay your cell phone bill. Of course both of those subsidies will expire when you get your diploma & commission!

The last payment to your clothing/toiletries budget will happen next month. After that… well… you’re a college engineering student now, so nobody will be surprised if you’re ragged & stinky. You could always tell people that you’re considering joining the submarine force.

Mom and I aren’t sending a very consistent message yet, but you should attempt to live your life as if we’re not giving you any more money ever. As you build up your personal property (like your collection of Navy uniforms) then you should consider insuring it so that you won’t have to call “Mommy&Daddy” to subsidize a recovery from fire/theft/floods. You already know we’re not planning to contribute to your first home, either, because you’ll be saving for a down payment or using the special “first home purchase” feature of your Roth IRA.

When we get together we’ll still take you out for meals and pick up the check, but there’s a very good chance that in 50 or 60 years you’ll be reciprocating this generosity by helping to feed me MY food. Of course we’ll buy you the plane tickets to visit home anytime. As the parents of the prospective bride I think we’re paying a chunk of your wedding expenses, a subject to be revisited waaaaay later. We’ll also spoil your kids with a trip to a Disney theme park once or twice a year, and we’ll take them off your hands for an occasional sleepover or grandparents weekend… but we don’t want to provide childcare so that you can go to work or stand weekend duty. We want to be “Navy Reserve Grandparents”: one weekend a month and two weeks a year. We’d rather not care for the grandkids while you’re on deployment, either, but we understand if that becomes necessary.

During this Christmas break (assuming you still want to come home!) we’ll spend 20 minutes a day on these financial independence tasks:

  • – transferring your Roth IRA over to Fidelity,
  • – setting up your CDs at PenFed,
  • – splitting out your NFCU account from Dad’s account,
  • – getting your own credit card,
  • – getting personal-property insurance quotes, and
  • – your tax returns.

I have a separate lifetime offer for you, not as “Dad” but as “Coach”. Mom and I have learned a lot of financial skills over the years (many of them the hard way) and I can share the pros & cons of nearly every major financial decision (including marriage & kids). Please feel free to make your own independent decisions without consulting us. But before you sign any paperwork, feel free to tell whoever’s offering you a “good deal” that you need to discuss it with your financial adviser– and then give me a call. I’ll show you where to educate yourself, what issues to consider, and what options you might want to choose. I promise not to criticize your lifestyle or your standards, although I may tease you a little.

We don’t intend to hurt your feelings or make you go “Aw, man!” with any of the preceding paragraphs. If we evoked those reactions then call us and we’ll talk about it.

I’ve wondered… do the other midshipmen call you “Nords” yet? Love, Dad


A few weeks after that she finished her first semester. She was more than ready to come home for the holidays, so we sent her another “what to expect” e-mail:

Since you’re returning home in a few weeks, we should warn you about a family rules change: there won’t be any rules. We feel that you’re coming home as a special houseguest, not just as “our kid”, and frankly your mother and I are more interested in being “life coaches” and “valued mentors” than parents. (We’ll always be your Mom & Dad, but we think we’ll all benefit from a transition to adulthood!) So when you get home there won’t be any chores or nagging or questions about your homework or where you’re going or who you’re seeing or any of that other fun stuff from the good ol’ days. Sorry!

Just try to be a good houseguest and we’ll figure things out as we go.  For example you know that getting off the streets by midnight is still a good safety plan, but Mom and I won’t be checking up on you. (Of course you probably don’t want to be explaining to your NROTC lieutenant what you were doing in a Waikiki bar at 2 AM when the shooting started. Not that I ever did anything like that.)  I never really had an adult relationship with my own parents and I’m looking forward to doing things differently from this side of the generation gap.  Love, Dad

Noble parenting goals, still a work in progress. So far so good. Zero drama or angst.

We no longer exchange holiday gifts but I dump several books on her reading pile every year. (We bloggers get review copies of new financial books and I hand them right on down the line.) We pass along freebies that come our way, like a Hawaiiana wall calendar that will make her roommates drool with envy. We send regular reloads of li hing mui mango and Kona and other local cuisine not found in her college town.

We still do some things because we worry for safety. This year when our daughter wanted to visit her grandparents over fall break, she had a choice of (1) a thousand-mile hypercaffeinated Cannonball Run road trip in a car full of classmates, or (2) a round-trip plane ticket from Mom & Dad. I still have scars from the former so we were happy to contribute to the latter– especially since we would’ve heard about (1) from her grandparents. When she comes home from college, the Hawaii flight is at such an early hour that she’d be leaving the college campus at 4 AM. Instead of depending on the kindness of roommates or airport shuttles, we put her up in an airport hotel the night before.  It doesn’t make sense to risk missing a thousand-dollar flight just because of rush-hour traffic.

Of course if she chooses to spend spring break wallowing drunkenly among the fleshpots of Padre Island, then she’s on her own.

Her college is in the middle of one of America’s largest cities, so she knows she doesn’t need a car. She “makes do” with ZipCars and friends, and after a rocky start she has that under control. When she was eight years old we put together David Owen’s eight-year plan for a “Kid 401(k)” to build $5000 in a “My First Car” account.  Somewhat to my surprise (I know what I would have done with it at that age) she still has that $5000 laddered in PenFed CDs.

We have a “college profit-sharing plan”.  She put her skin in the game for the NROTC scholarship (and the Navy service obligation) so after graduation we’ll gift her some of the money that we otherwise would have had to spend on her tuition. Her side of the deal is that she has to use the windfall to max out her Thrift Savings Plan and her Roth IRA. Hopefully she appreciates the deferred gratification of a maxed TSP & Roth IRA contribution at age 22.

An unexpected bonus is that her NROTC unit requires her to apply for additional scholarships, and she’s already won one. $250 is a great self-motivational morale booster. She’s also been leading $12/hour campus tours for the Admissions Office. What Admissions doesn’t realize is that she’d pay them $12/hour for the privilege of bragging on her college to a bunch of high schoolers.  The fruits of her labors are even sweeter when that money’s piling up in her savings account.

My spouse and I transferred 19 times in the military, so we’re keenly aware of what the movers do to household goods. When our daughter graduates, she’s invited to pack anything she wants out of our house to her first ensign’s apartment. Of course she’s going to take all her bedroom furniture and her desk, and she’s welcome to take any of our other furniture. (If you saw our furniture then you’d understand why we’re happy to give it away…) Our promise has been a tremendous relief to her as she’s watched graduating classmates struggle to furnish their first places. She thinks we’re being extraordinarily generous but she hasn’t yet realized that (1) there’s a weight limit on military moves and (2) if she’s going overseas then she’ll barely have 400 sq ft to call her own.

This is all a”work in progress”. So far so good. What’s worked for you with your young adults?

Related articles:
Retiring early– with kids?
Raising an ER-smart kid
Raising a money-smart kid
Lifestyles in retirement: Empty nester

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Military Life & Family, Money Management & Personal Finance. Bookmark the permalink.

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