The difficulty of being FI-minded with kids: executive function

For many people, myself included, saving and budgeting became a thousand times harder with kids. It’s not just the things they need – food, shelter, clothing – it’s also the things they want – board games, LEGOs, a trampoline. And things I had never considered – music lessons, horse camp, adult-sized portions at restaurants. Teacher gifts. A larger car. Gas to drive them a thousand places per week. Zoo passes. Plane tickets for five instead of two. Saxophone rental. Fake hair for cheerleading. Adult-sized beds. Backpacks. Birthday parties. Not a week goes by when I don’t think “oh crap kids are expensive.”

But there is something else I’ve been thinking about that makes it even harder: executive function.

I was listening to a podcast the other day and the interviewee talked about how she and her husband split childcare duties. “He has better executive function,” she said, “so he does all the organization and school stuff.”

I hadn’t thought about it that way before – the mountain of cognitive responsibilities that comes with kids. Today is pajama day, have I made sure they have pajamas clean and ready? What about a Christmas sweater for tomorrow? Do I have enough diapers and wipes for our trip on Friday? Who has a passport that needs to be renewed? Field trip form – crap I have to get that back by tomorrow, and don’t forget picture day money. Oh and today is the day that I take Sonya and her friend to cheerleading so that her friend’s mom can take them next time. IEP meeting at the school and did Viv practice the piano yet? Plus we have two birthday parties when we come back from traveling, I’ve got to be sure to get presents lined up and wrapped.

Heading toward FI also takes considerable executive function. How many credit cards have I applied for in the past 24 months? What is my interest rate on my mortgage? Have I called FedLoan services again yet to see about my employment certification? What are the best health insurance choices and can I shave my cell phone bill down to $12?

It seems that the trick to FI is optimizing the details. Index funds instead of a managed account will save you $200,000 or something. If you don’t get that cup of fancy coffee every day, you can retire early based on that money’s compound interest alone. A .02% difference in interest rates changes your whole life. Call the Internet company to get a lower bill, have you compared car insurances lately? Shopped around for the best prescription drug store? Figured out if your best bet is to have groceries delivered from Aldi or do pickup from Walmart?

I paid off our Lowe’s card (0% interest) last month. Except I sent the check on the first like my spreadsheet said and it turns out that the due date was the first – it got there on the third. I think there was a grace period for the interest deal because they didn’t charge me back interest, but there was a $28 late fee. We’ve never had a late fee on this card before, so I called and got it removed. Easy peasy only took a half hour of time I don’t have and 40% of my executive function for the morning.

I never used to have this kind of thing happen. I’m great at functioning executively. My credit score has always been excellent. I am a person who can be counted on to get things done.

So this brings me to my point. The difficulty of pursuing financial optimization with kids isn’t just that they cost so much money (they do). It’s also that chasing frugality takes a lot of cognitive resources, and it’s hard to find time for those resources when you have to figure out when soccer registration ends, to get to parent-teacher conferences, to set up dentist appointments.

I think pursuing financial optimization is worth the reward. But I also have to remember that, when I’m rejiggering my spreadsheet and simultaneously making sure every kid brushed their hair before the bus comes, it’s not surprising that I sometimes write down “pay on the first” instead of “pay by the first.”

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