By Robin Noble
When I graduated from college, my father gave me a gift of launch money. Genius that he was, he elegantly structured his gift to impart a financial lesson that guides me to this day.
My parents didn’t go to college. When I asked them if I could attend a private school in another state, they encouraged me. My dad said they would foot the bill, and with a single sentence clearly communicated his non-negotiable expectation: “Kid, you have four years to get that piece of paper.”
Just before my senior year in college, my dad wrote a check, payable to me, for my tuition. To this sum he added $5,000, a lot of money now and even more in 1990. He explained that I was to deposit his check, pay my tuition and use the remaining money for living expenses: my apartment, car costs, food, fun, clothing, travel, etc. Any amount still in my bank account on graduation day he would double as a launch gift.
It was a perfect lesson disguised as a lavish gift. It began on a purely positive note. “Here,” he basically said. “I trust you to take good care of this money and to make the most of it.” He proffered the possibility of a big payoff, based on my ability to be financially savvy.
Sure that I was rich, I quit waitressing and dived into my senior classes and work as a newspaper stringer, making less than minimum wage but experiencing print journalism up close and personal. I coolly figured on ending the year with at least $3,000 in the bank.
It didn’t go that way. I hemorrhaged money and realized that I must have been doing that my whole life. Seeing the sum dissipate so quickly (on what, I couldn’t say) was a stunning lesson on the fleeting nature of cash, the importance of planning, and the true cost of living.
With just six weeks to go before graduation, I got my waitressing job back and put every cash tip I earned into my bank account, managing to raise the balance to $900 by graduation day. This money and my dad’s match were just enough to get me to Chicago, secure an apartment, and launch my job search.
With my own kids on the cusp of college, I realize now how lucky I was. My parents involved me in a definitive launch strategy, and from there it was all up to me. Their greatest graduation gift was also their greatest goal: my independence.
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