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What I Learned on Father’s Day

This article was written by in Career and Work, Education, Family and Life. 9 comments.

On Father’s Day, I visited my dad, who is in the process of moving out of the house he has shared with his long-time girlfriend for the past thirteen or so years; she had been living in the house for about forty years, if I remember correctly. We met at the house, which was clear of almost all of its furniture, and walked into town.

Maplewood is a township in New Jersey with a cute downtown area, with several good restaurants and shops. There’s a convenient train to New York City. It’s not a cheap place to live, though. In 2011, the mean price for detached houses in the township was $570,158, and property taxes are typical for New Jersey. In other words, high.

We walked to one of the restaurants, St. James Gate Publick House, for a Father’s Day dinner and proceeded to talk about life. To provide some context for the reader, I think my father and I have a good relationship. We’re not particularly close, but we check in with each occasionally and I take some time to visit him several times throughout the year. My parents were divorced around the turn of the millennium, but each has been in a committed relationship with their current partners for a long time.

The photograph you see here is from when I was about six months old.

I don’t normally write about my family on Consumerism Commentary. I started this website in 2003 to talk very candidly about my finances, and because of this type of exposure, I wanted to remain anonymous. And I’m still anonymous to a degree. Because I put a high value on my privacy, except for my finances until a certain point, I respect the privacy of people in my life. But I think it’s safe to share some aspects of the discussions within my family that could have an effect on me or other people who may be in similar situations.

The first thing I learned pertains to retirement. I actually already know the things that I “learned” during our discussion, but hearing from or observing one’s father can have a more direct impact than harboring any particular piece of knowledge intellectually.

Don’t wait until retirement to live your life.

Now, my father has not waited until retirement to do many activities that he would enjoy. Even when he was young, he was exploring his world, with bike-riding trips, camping with friends, and cross-country road trips. Later in life, he embarked on cruises to Europe.

He’s several years beyond the traditional age of retirement now, but he’s only now starting to pull back his hours. He’s considering continuing to consult in retirement as well — not because he needs the money, but primarily because he’s not sure how he’ll be spending his time in retirement. To complicate the matter, I found out last year that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The symptoms are being controlled well by medication now, but physically — and this can apply to anyone as the years advance, anyway — he can’t handle the same activities he had handled well in the past.

There are many things I’d still like to do, mostly regarding traveling and experiencing the world. There’s little holding me back right now other than myself. Personally, although I put pressure on myself to work, the reality is that I don’t need to. If I wanted to take a few months and travel, financially, it is possible. It takes some planning, and perhaps that is what is stopping me. Another barrier is that most people I know do have to work, and that makes it difficult to have a traveling companion.

I could be living an exciting life right now — so I need to start figuring out how to make that happen before I get old.

Your education, regardless of your career path, is worthwhile.

But my dad might disagree. With my parents’ encouragement, I pursued a music education degree as an undergraduate. Entering the degree probably, although I was apprehensive about the big changes moving to campus would bring, I was passionate and dedicated to the idea of my calling to be a music teacher in a high school. I expected I would follow the typical career path of a teacher who was looking to be effective with students as well as experience career development; I expected to eventually move from teaching to administration.

It turns out I didn’t like the public school environment and moved away from the teaching field. The passion hasn’t fully left me — I recently began teaching rhythm to a group of special needs children, and find it very rewarding. Nevertheless, my life took a different path. I am, however, thankful for the education, and I think that the courses I took in college helped prepare for being a leader in the field in which I work.

My father considers my education to have been a waste of time, and doesn’t understand why I am currently giving back to my university community. Perhaps he read Matt Yglesias’s article in Slate dissuading alumni from financially supporting greedy universities. After all, these are organizations that are generally cash-rich and favor students who can afford the high cost to attend the schools. But my alma mater is not an Ivy League school and is not “well-endowed;” it is a private university while also a land-grant college; most of the funding for its programs comes from private money, yet it has the misfortune of having a public charter.

Not that any of this really matters — the bottom line is that I experienced an unfairness while I was pursuing a minor. I was required to take, and pay for, a credit course representing a non-profit internship. I was paying the university tuition so that I could work for an organization for free. I did receive a benefit — I ended up working full-time for the organization where I had the internship (though that may have been a bad idea anyway). This situation helped predicate my spiral into financial despair, all of which resulted in my life-changing run as the founder of this site, which I successfully sold several years ago. So it’s not all bad.

I’ve been giving back to my university in several ways.

  • I’ve established a stipend to help one student each year pay his or her bills while pursuing a required internship, opening up more opportunities for someone who might not be able to afford to take the best opportunity available, even if it is in an area with a higher cost of living.
  • I’ve been back to campus to address aspiring entrepreneurs in a speaker series. I can guarantee the students did not hear a story like mine before or after my visit.
  • I signed up to meet with high school students who are interested in the University of Delaware, particularly those interested in pursuing arts-related degrees, to share my experiences with the university and with life.
  • I am now a member-at-large on the alumni association’s Board of Directors.
  • I’ve been invited to be on a panel of Department of Music alumni to better prepare students for life after college.

I don’t see any problem with giving back to my university, even though they certainly received a lot of funds in the form of tuition from me (and my parents). Would my father had been happier if I had pursued an engineering degree, like him, and had a career path that took advantage of the specific education that degree would provide? Perhaps, but I think things worked out fine.

One of the reasons I’ve avoided being involved with the university since my graduation is the fact that my life has taken such a strange turn and I’m not doing what I intended when I was in school — teaching music. And I do feel quite a bit separated from the friends, students and professors, I had made while in college. But I’m really excited about getting involved again, and I think it will become a worthwhile piece of my life, and something I can be proud of.

Not everyone will have children or a family of his own.

One day while in college, someone who knew me well looked at me and said, “You’re going to make a great father.” Today is almost twenty years since that moment, and I still haven’t proven her right or wrong. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I don’t have a family I thought I might have had by now. It’s really my own fault; although my relationships tend to be long-term, I’ve never “settled down.” Today, I’m in a relationship that’s still relatively new, and things are going well despite the distance between us.

During our dinner, my father suggested that maybe I just won’t have a family of my own. There’s nothing wrong with that path, and single people live their lives just as well as married folks, and in many cases, they live better, more complete lives. You can’t really generalize; every individual is different. Having a child now means I’ll be no younger than 56 when he or she graduates high school.

I can’t really look back and say that I wish I had children ten years ago; my life was in a vastly different situation at that time.

There are two choices — decide to change and actively make choices to put that change into effect, or come to terms and learn to enjoy the current situation.

Even if I disagree with my father in some respects, our discussion gave me a few things to think about. It’s good to have these discussions once in a while. At the end of dinner, to which I treated him, we walked back to the house he’d soon be moving away from. I was then on my way back to my own home, an apartment where I just renewed the lease for another year (with a break-away option) with more to think about.

Published or updated June 26, 2014.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Nice Luke! And hopefully you do get to travel before you get older. Most of the seniors I’ve met on my travels really wished they did it all when they were younger. Places like Santorini, Greece and the Scottish Highlands are nothing but steep hills–and exploring isn’t easy on the knees (or stamina) for even most younger people. Climbing the 400 church or castle steps to the balconies and turrets is often out of the question. It seems like part of the Western dream–to retire and travel the world, but your body could end up rebelling against you. A senior who gets violently sick on Moroccan or Mexican food has a much harder go of it than a middle-ager. Heat and cold feel much more extreme to them. This little bit of information just isn’t in the retirement brochure. Anyway, the folks I’ve met in many countries wish they’d done it when they were young so they could have gotten the difficult ones out of the way and so they’d know which ones they liked so they could return later. (Or at least know in advance that the terrain was flat and knee-friendly.)

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

Thanks, Edward! I had a chance to go to Scotland this summer (Edinburgh) but turned it down. I keep thinking real life gets in the way of plans… so I’ve got to change that.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

This is a touching article. Thank you for sharing with us. I hope things work out alright for your father and his girlfriend. Leaving your home of 40 years can’t be an easy step.

I have a question though about the idea of spending to travel now versus saving for when you’re older. I’ve heard this suggestion before but I’ve noticed I’ve only ever heard it from people who are very well off and successful. It seems to me that if certain circumstances went poorly instead of well, they could have possibly run out of money if they had spent it on travel in their youth. It seems easy to look back and say “I should have done X, Y, and Z” when you know everything turned out okay but you can’t possibly know that ahead of time. International flights are very expensive. Wouldn’t it be better to more modest in your youth so that you have money for “just in case” than to be shackled to your desk in your old age because of that youthful extravagance?

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avatar 4 Luke Landes

You bring up a good point, and this is something I’ve noticed as well. There is no way I could have traveled internationally ten or more years ago. I needed to be present, I needed to be focused on earning money. I probably wouldn’t have been able to consider studying abroad while I was in college (though I might have by just continuing to ignore my debt situation and making it worse). I could never say, “Everyone should travel or otherwise make the most of their lives while they are young!” because it doesn’t reflect the reality that most people need to focus on earning a paycheck almost all the time.

I’m in a place where I have some freedom to make choices about how I spend my time. And I’m lucky to be in that position (though it came after many, many years of focused attention on one project that ended up being successful). They say there’s always something anyone can do to enjoy life regardless of financial situation, but again, that’s really only true when addressing generally middle-class people.

I think it’s good to be mostly modest while accumulating wealth, sacrificing some freedom today for comfort in the future, but there’s always a personal balance to find (and balance doesn’t mean equal on both sides).

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Great story and I so desire to travel more as well. But I am not fully ready as I am still accumulating wealth before I can take extended travels. We all should give back and even though your father doesn’t agree with the University giving, its still a noble act. Getting rid of that tax burden will free up some cash flow indeed, as NJ taxes are insane. Good Luck.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

one small comment. You state that “single people live their lives just as well as married folks, and in many cases, they live better, more complete lives”

Single vs married maybe. But childless I will have to disagree with. I say this with no maliciousness, only honest truth… the only true way to life a complete life is to have a child. Because that is the only true way to understand what it is like to place someone else’s well being ahead of yours. I understand not all parents do this, but being a parent is a pre-requisite. And just having a child will not make your life complete. But it is necessary among other endeavors. Non parents may not agree with me, and that is understandable. But nearly all parents understand exactly what I am saying.

And what I am saying is if you want a great life, you probably have it. But if you want a complete life, become a father. Become one and you will understand.

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avatar 7 Donna Freedman

Disagree, respectfully. People who can’t have/don’t want to have children DO live complete lives. They simply define that differently than you do.
I am a parent. I do understand the depth of love parents can feel for their children, especially since I almost lost my daughter to a rare disease. But to say that a life cannot truly be complete unless you have a child is, I believe, an unintentioned insult to those without children.
In fact, it’s patronizing: “Oh, you never truly understand what ‘real’ love is or a ‘complete’ life is until you have children.” Unspoken corollary: “You may THINK you’re happy and fulfilled but actually you aren’t. You can’t be.”

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avatar 8 Donna Freedman

Here’s the thing about what you “should” or “might” have done: It’s what you DID do that created the life you now lead. Had you gotten that other degree and become a highfalutin’, high-earning engineer, it would have been a different life. Who’s to say it would have been better, or worse?
Put another way: I had one year of college right out of high school and dropped out for personal and financial reasons. Within a year I was pregnant and unmarried. A relative’s husband sat me down and told me in a patronizing and know-it-all way that I was about to ruin my life. After all, I had no real job skills, no money and no help. It would be a lot different for any children HE had, of course, because that child would have two employed parents. I, on the other hand, would probably end up on welfare.
That upset me quite a bit but I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, so I just sat there and took it.
As you know, the baby did NOT ruin my life, although it was quite a difficult path, followed a few years later by an unfortunately difficult (and abusive) marriage. Yet I’ve been thinking about that lately:
If I had not married that guy, I would never have made it Alaska.
If I had not made it to Alaska, I wouldn’t have become a newspaper reporter.
If I hadn’t been a newspaper reporter, I wouldn’t have met Liz Weston (she sat next to me).
If I hadn’t become friends with Liz, then I wouldn’t have had the chance to do a guest post on MSN Money a couple of decades later when my life imploded and she urged me to write about it.
If I hadn’t written that guest post (“Surviving and thriving on $12,000 a year”), I wouldn’t have been invited to start the Smart Spending blog.
If I hadn’t had the full-time gig at MSN Money, I might not have been able to finish a college degree in midlife without incurring debt.
Most of all: If I hadn’t made it to Alaska, I would never have met the man with whom I now share my life (although I used to squirm at the phrase “soul mate,” that’s what he is).
Often the choices we make — even the ones other people question or criticize — are the ones we were SUPPOSED to have made. It’s not until much later (if ever) that we realize why.
And now? When things go kerflooey, I try to remind myself to ask, “What am I supposed to learn from this?” (Hint: Sometimes the answer is “Not to do that again, dummy.”)
As for the whole having-kids thing: My sister would have made a great mom, but she and her husband were never able to have children, even after fertility treatments. But she’s had an impact on kids in other ways, such as being a godparent, teaching Sunday school for years and now being the unofficial auntie of a couple of preschoolers who moved onto her block. Now she says maybe she wasn’t meant to be a full-time mom, and she’s pretty happy with her life the way it is.
Maybe you will have children, maybe you won’t. My advice — and pardon the long poking nose here — is not to get married and have kids ONLY because you think there’s a timetable or a deadline. That way madness lies.
Incidentally: That guy who predicted that I would come to no good? Not only did he and his wife never have any children, he has job-hopped for years (almost causing the two of them to divorce) and he seems never to have been consistently happy. In fact, he’s becoming increasingly reclusive and fixated on routine. He lives in a big city but hardly ever leaves his neighborhood. Sometimes I wonder why the two of them are still married. Always, I remember that revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I loved the personal approach to this post. You should write more like this one! Why not consider taking a trip with your father. If he is reducing hours and you have the money and flexibility he might be a great travel partner and it could be the trip of a lifetime especially if his health may decline due to his disease. My 90 year old grandmother now tells me she always wanted to travel to Paris and I wish I would have taken her, she is unable to go at this age, and the window has closed on what May have been an amazing experience for both of us. I never seemed to have the time or money but I now realize I actually had plenty of both. Time isn’t infinite as you know so take some time to enjoy it with the people you love.

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