Is a Gift Just a Gift? Am I Being Unfair?

While it’s always nice to hear from readers who agree with my posts there is nothing I love more than finding an intelligent reader with a different point of view. I received an interesting response to a recent post in which I asked readers whether or not they would turn down a financial gift from their parents.

My post focused on the gift of financing a home, but the reader, (a long time reader at that), said I was being hypocritical and at the very least a bit unfair. She pointed out that I accepted a sizable gift from my parents in the form of tuition and at times room and board. It’s an interesting point, which made me reflect on parental gift giving.

In theory I like to believe that I will make the right decisions for my son. He is not even a year and a half old yet, but I still dream about who he will become. I want my son to be kind and compassionate without getting stepped on and walked over. I want him to stand his ground and simultaneously reach out his hand to help others stand up. I want him to be proud without being vain. I want him to take life seriously, but also to find happiness and joy in all of the little moments that make up his life.

Having said all of that I also believe that the majority of a child’s personality is programmed long before birth. I know that I will have an influence on my son, but I’m not certain how much. And of course as he grows and matures he will be whoever he is and we will love him because of who he is not in spite of it.

In terms of gift giving I want my son to appreciate what he has to work for as well as what he receives. The reader who emailed me asked if I would have appreciated my degree more if I had to pay for it. I can’t say for certain. I do feel that I have a greater appreciation for my homes because I had to work for them. If someone handed them to me I don’t know that I would feel the same. Do I have less appreciation for my degree, because I didn’t pay for it? Possibly.

My father did not make a lot of money when I was growing up.  For as long as I can remember he stressed the importance of paying for our education. While a lot of parents pay for their children’s tuition I do not know how many of them stress the importance of the gift. My brother and I knew that my father was sacrificing his own goals in order to pay for our schooling. My brother struggled in his first semester at college and wrote my father a letter telling him that he would do better, that he knew my father wanted us to earn a degree and that he didn’t want to lose the gift our father had worked so hard to give us.

The reader’s question to me is an interesting one. In my opinion if your parents provide money for college you still have to study hard and perform well to graduate. The degree should help you maintain independence and self-reliance as you can now start your career and earn money for yourself.

I’m not sure you can compare the gift of a house with the gift of tuition, but I guess the real question is does the gift need to teach you something? Can’t your parents give you something just because they have the money to do so? Do you have to learn to be better or do better with every gift you receive?

I need to take a little more time to think about the answers to those questions. In the mean time I’d love to hear what you have to say. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Is a Gift Just a Gift? Am I Being Unfair?”

  1. Hmmm. My parents did not go to college beyond 2 or 3 semesters of community college; they were from working class families and married young (and happily). I was actually the first in my dad’s family to go away for the full 4 years of college — a cousin went to community college and then transferred. My husband also went to CC and transferred for junior year.

    My parents paid for the vast majority of my tuition and expenses at a Big Ten state university — my federal loan ended up being about $10K (1995 to 1999). I don’t think they considered it a gift — they’ve never discussed it as such or held it over my head in the least. It was one of their goals and values. They somehow managed to put three kids through college in 7 years. They were of the opinion, and still are, that it is better for students to not have to work their way through college. They wanted me to concentrate on my studies and were very proud that I did well (high honors, Phi Beta Kappa). They knew from experience and observation that it’s often very hard to manage studies and a part-time job.

    My roommate — now my best friend — struggled to pay her way through college. Her parents had wanted her to study chemical engineering, and when she changed majors, they withdrew financial and emotional support. Time management has always been a struggle for her. Her work schedules fluctuated, as is typical of many low-paying jobs off campus; she missed coursework deadlines and classes; she was late with rent and utilities; and she wound up taking 6 years to graduate with a low GPA. She faced a lot of obstacles and, again, she didn’t get much encouragement from her parents.

    You have to be supremely organized and motivated, in my opinion, to work your way through college on schedule. My daughters’ sitter has done so successfully. She is very organized, but she’s also working in her field of study — early childhood education — and her motivation is high. She lives at home and commutes to school, then drives to one of her regular sitting/nannying jobs, or she works in the morning and has class in the afternoon. In 3 years she has never been late or canceled on me because she needed extra study time!

    My SIL, on the other hand, took a very long time to get her RN degree because she had to work one or two part-time jobs. I think she was 28 when she finally graduated. She’s very Type A, but that only goes so far. If your job hours — and as a nursing assistant, she wanted work experience — clash with your school schedule, especially for the most important courses/clinical work, it’s not going to be a very smooth, quick path to graduation.

    We contribute monthly to our twin daughters’ 529 accounts, and we refinanced our home for a 15-year mortgage so that the house will be paid off before their senior year in high school. We want to help them as much as possible. And I don’t see it as a gift. A wedding is a gift; an education is not.

    College costs are spiraling absolutely, unreasonably, insanely out of control, though, so it’s unlikely we’ll be able to pay more than half (my parents, who are generous and happy to be so, plan to help their grandkids pay for school). I also want my daughters to enjoy their campus experience more than my husband did as a transfer student, so I hope they will be on campus beginning freshman year.

    Sorry for the very long post!

  2. I also don’t think you can equate a house with college tuition. College tuition is during your college years where you 90% for sure don’t have a job that can support you financially. Any extra income you make during college should pretty much go to support you in the basics (ie, food, books, etc) and your social life. Buying a home for your son that can afford a home on his own is a completely different ballgame.
    I graduated with $30,000 in loans. My parents paid for the loans while I was in school, and I took over right after I graduated. They’re doing the same with my brothers.

    • Yeah, I’ve thought about it some more and I just don’t see how college tuition can be equated with buying someone a house they don’t need. Thanks for leaving so many comments. It’s good to know that others think about this the same way I do.

  3. My experience is different. My parents had 4 children. They, too, always stressed the importance of education. We were not a wealthy family by any means. Sadly, my parents were only able to support 2 children thru college. The oldest and the youngest. The two in the middle (one of them being me) lived at home and commuted to our local colleges. The other two lived at the university.
    I consider tuition a gift because it is a gift I never got. Apparently someone somewhere decided it was not a “need”. But I am glad for it now. I appreciate my education so much more now because I earned it and it was a gift I gave myself. I also OWN my career. The two siblings that had their education paid for? Yeah, they now live in far away states and never come home to see the parents who sacrificed to pay for their education. It is REALLY sad. These are the two that should be caring for my parents in their old age and it is really just me and my younger sister who see them and visit them.

    I will say I think my parents feel horribly guilty when they look into the face of my younger sister and I.

    Lesson: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!

    • That’s an interesting situation. I do believe that parents may feel guilty about these types of things after the fact. It is interesting how often a child who receives a lot provides little back in terms of love and support to his or her parents. I wonder if any studies have been done about that. It would certainly be interesting to see if there really is a pattern.

      Thank you so much for sharing your personal story!

      • It is interesting but just in an informal survey among my friends and family – that IS the prevailing pattern. It seems that the child that received the most support growing up – has an “entitlement” attitude. That it was a “given” that they deserve to get everything without doing anything to deserve it. Therefore, the concept of “giving back” is completely foreign to them. My younger sister and I have tried on several occasions to explain this to our two siblings and all we get is “well, I never ASKED for it – they WANTED to give it to me. ”

        As the mother of two now, I don’t play that game with my two children. Both will receive equal support. They have both been told how much their father and I can afford for each year of college for them – if they exceed that amount – they must take out a loan for it – if they go under that amount – they get to keep the “extra”. But they need to go to college or some kind of training school.

        • I have heard that “I didn’t ask” comment before. It’s good of you and your sister to try to talk to your siblings, (kudos for trying to discuss the topic with them), but unfortunately in the end they have to repair the relationship with your folks. It’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s good that you are trying to right the wrongs of your childhood by making sure things are as equal as possible for your own children. If we have two I would hope to do the same.

  4. Taking monetary gifts from parents is a tough one, more so when you’re older and independent then when you’re still studying. My mum had a free university education because that’s what the country she lived in offered. My parents didn’t give me money for my uni fees but I never had to pay rent at home. Fortunately, in Australia there’s HECS which means you defer your university debt from when hit the workforce and start earning over $48K per year. While there’s no interest on that, it does rise with inflation of about 2-3% per year.

    I don’t think college tuition or uni fees are in the same ball park as getting a house or a car. If you’re parents can afford it and that’s what they want to do then that is their prerogative.

    I’m planning on starting a family soon. Choosing to have children comes with extra financial responsibilities. That also includes school fees and college tuition down the track. As soon as my future child is born I plan to put a couple thousand into shares and then contribute $1k-2K per year over eighteen years so that my future child doesn’t have to start their independence with a financial burden. It might not be enough but it will definitely be a decent start.

    Of course there’s also the chance that they might not want to go to college or uni, but that’s something that can be dealt with down the track.

    • We too will try to fund a portion of my son’s education. I believe a strong education is the key to success. You learn a lot of things in school. It’s not just about the classes it’s also about the experience of solving problems and focusing. It sounds like your future children will be on the right track.


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