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How to Retire Decades Early, Even If You Have Kids

The idea that children are expensive falls firmly in the category of "things that go without saying." However much money you make, the little darlings can easily cost you 10% more. That may lead you to think that if you're a parent or plan to be one, you're doomed to be excluded from the small but growing community of people in this country who are living the FIRE philosophy -- Financial Independence/Retire Early. It's an ethos based on the proposition that even folks with ordinary incomes can reach financial independence decades ahead of the traditional timeline.

In this episode of the Motley Fool Answers podcast, hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp's guests are Jonathan Mendonsa and Brad Barrett, creators of the ChooseFI website and podcast. And Barrett, as a dad of two, is both FIRE-ing and fathering. In this segment, he discusses a few of the ways in which parents can render their offspring less fiscally all-consuming.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Oct. 09, 2018.

Robert Brokamp: In the earlier days of when I first discovered this whole movement many years ago, many of the people I came across were people like Vicki Robin or other people who, frankly, didn't have kids. But more and more it does seem like people are doing it. They're able to raise families while living this. Do you feel comfortable with any of the trade-offs you might have made, or do you feel like this actually hasn't been that difficult?

Brad Barrett: I have two young daughters. I have 10-year-old and a nearly seven-year-old. I think they've lived this wonderful life of abundance because we spend time with them. What do kids want? They want time with their parents. And I'm not at work all the time. I'm there at home so when they come off the bus, I'm there with them. We come home. We run home. We play board games. I mean, I'm playing board games at four o'clock on a Wednesday. How crazy is that?

It's almost hard, honestly, for me to imagine that this is real sometimes. Seven years ago when I was working in an office, this would have been impossible. My daughter Anna knew me in the pre-FI days and the post-FI days and now she's getting to, I guess, experience this life where I am there all the time.

So to me, I don't know what the trade-off is, honestly. I search for it, and it's almost like it's hard to imagine sometimes what people are spending money on. What they prioritize over spending time with family and friends. So for me it's such an obvious choice. Like what am I giving up? A 2018 BMW as opposed to my 2003 Civic? And you mean I get to spend all this time with my kids and watch them grow up? That's so obvious to me. I couldn't even fathom anyone making the other decision when it's presented to them in that manner.

But sadly, people don't think about that. You go through life. You see what the Joneses next door are doing, and you emulate it, because sadly we don't have financial education in this country. People don't learn how to do this. They don't learn what it means to spend all your money. So I guess I'm fortunate that on some level I was this natural saver.

But I think what's beautiful about what we're trying to do in the FI community is we're trying to open people's eyes to the fact that this is possible. I'm just a regular guy. There's nothing special about me. I just happen to be a saver. And even if you aren't that saver -- even if you've made mistakes in the past -- you can start today and take action. So we talked about those levers? Make some choices that will provide you some space. Will provide some savings rate and move forward from there.

Brokamp: One thing some parents might think about is college. At some point either you may decide to save for college or not, or some parents will decide that kids are on their own for college. What's your take on that?

Jonathan Mendonsa: This community is a crowdsource community. It's one of those where best practices rise to the top, and we find that while you and I might have trouble thinking of a single solution for our kid; as a whole [as a collective group of people], there are ways to do college more intentionally. Smartly. There are ways to do college for less.

So if MSRP [to grab a term from the car industry] for college is estimated at $300,000 for my two-year-old to go to college when he's 18, there are plenty of people who have a plan to do it for less $40,000. There are plenty of people that have a plan to do it for nothing, because they know how it works.

And I can think of several examples that have risen to the top which I would be happy to share with you; most notably in Virginia. In Virginia, we have guaranteed admissions programs in like 23-plus public universities.

Barrett: The University of Virginia and William & Mary, so we're talking top-tier universities. Essentially you go to a Virginia community college, you get your two-year associate's degree, and you check a number of boxes.

You need a certain GPA, but it's not a 4.0. [I believe it's a 3.4 that's in the contract]. This is an actual contract between the Virginia community colleges and the Virginia university system. So you look at this contract for UVA and you take X number of courses. You get a 3.4. You are guaranteed admission to UVA. UVA is one of the top 25 universities in the country.

Now as a high school senior, you need a 1500 on the SATs. You need a 4.2 GPA to get into UVA. Well, if you take the somewhat unconventional choice to go to community college, you are guaranteed admission to UVA. So you go for two years at a tiny fraction of the cost [even as compared to a public university], get your associate's degree, go in as a third-year student in UVA [or William & Mary, James Madison, or any of those Virginia universities] and finish up your two years and you've got that degree from that university. That's amazing. That's essentially half price right there.

Mendonsa: And that's just an anecdote for the Virginia area. There are all sorts of little outlier events, but they don't necessarily have to be outliers. They're outliers because we're not talking about them as a society. We're not highlighting them for our community.

There are certainly public programs that I would like to see expanded. There are things that I would like to see done to make college more affordable for everybody. But when you're talking about what I can control for my kid -- with what I can do now -- you need to also look at the scholarship side of things, as well. There's an app called Scholly. There's scholarship.com.

I know an individual in our community, and what they did for an entire summer is they looked at the common threads between all of these different scholarships? Are they merit scholarships? Are they based on your ethnic background? Whatever it may be, realizing that there were these common themes, he said there's probably seven different types of scholarships. He created a template for each one of those different types, and once he had the templates, then he just rolled through 10 applications a day. He was getting like 10% to 30% acceptance rate.

Think about just doing that instead of a summer job. Is that an option? If you start looking at your ROI, it so vastly outperforms your minimum wage job that you got over the summer, it's truly insane. There's a caddie program [a Caddie scholarship] if you act as a caddie while you're in high school. You can get a free ride to Purdue. I think that's called the Evans Scholar Program. There's a firefighter scholarship. There's the HOPE scholarship if you're down in Florida or Chattanooga. It's based on the lottery system.

I say all this because you couldn't possibly write that down and act on every one of these, but what if you had a community of people that were not just doing it, but documenting it with other people in the community and best practices rose to the top? And you said, "You know what? If you're in Tennessee, this is what you should be looking into. If you're in Virginia, this is what you should be looking into."

Can we solve the problem as a society from this particular podcast platform? Maybe not. But can we highlight for our community what options are available so you can take ownership of it? Instead of saying, "$300,000. $300,000," what if we could just bypass college altogether. This is all, "Hey, college is going to happen." But right now we know that society is trending increasingly away toward either a gig economy, a "what have you built economy," or one where you look at trade schools.

Trade schools in your traditional sense, but also what about software engineers? We know that you can self-teach this stuff and we know that plenty of people, if you have taught it to yourself, are willing to give you that first shot. And we know that once you have your first job, your degree rarely matters.

In fact, an individual I was talking to is a CEO of a start-up. He doesn't want me to name his name, because he doesn't want to be behind this, but I'll put it out there. He says, "I'll be honest with you. Having an MBA actually holds you back a little bit, because I want to see what you have built. I want to see that process." And so we have got to understand that the rules are swiftly changing beneath our feet and not just assume that it's college at all costs. Not just assume that it's $168,000 in debt for everybody.

Barrett: So I think to summarize that it's just looking at the problem differently. I think this is how we view the entire FI community is look at your life, look at these issues, look at these problems, and just think a little bit differently. Unconventional thinking can get you further in life and this is a perfect example.

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