‘How can I be fair to both?’: I spent $20,000 more on my daughter’s education than my son’s education. Should I level the playing field — and invest $20,000 in stocks for my son’s retirement?

Dear Quentin,

I have a question concerning the right thing to do for my kids.

I have a boy and a girl, both great kids and both in college. When they were teenagers my wife died which left them with varying levels of trauma. My son was 14 and my daughter was 16, and it hit my daughter harder. My son is naturally very gifted and is about to graduate with a degree in mathematics from a major university. He works hard, but not too hard. He is gifted.  

My daughter is 3 semesters away from graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from a branch campus of a major university. She is smart, but not gifted like my son so she has had to work harder than anyone I have ever seen to be an engineer. I am very proud of her willingness to do what most kids would not do.

My son, because of his degree and his gifts, was able to work during school. He had a job in the cafeteria so when COVID-19 hit he lost his job. He made more from unemployment than if he was working. My daughter cleaned houses and did odd jobs when she could. She had worked her first year and it was just too hard.  

‘My children are both working very hard to better themselves.’

I worked my way through college and understood how difficult that was so I encouraged her to quit her job and do odd jobs for cash when she could. They both worked for a landscaper in the summer. So even though my daughter works harder at school, he works hard at holding down a job and going to school. My children are both working very hard to better themselves.

My daughter struggled more than my son after my wife’s death and went to college with little direction for a couple years, majoring in communications. When she changed schools and majors to go into engineering very little of her degree transferred. I have given my daughter far more money for college. I have paid tuition for both kids, they pay their own living expenses after two years in the dorms.  

However, because my son is on track and my daughter has been going much longer I have paid $20,000 more in tuition for her than for him. In addition, my son received unemployment and had 19 months of Social Security.  

‘I have given my daughter a lot more money than my son.’

My daughter’s job prospects after college are better than those of my son. His trauma has left him a bit anxious and introverted. She was able to get an internship in the summer in her field, but he was not able to get anything, and that makes me worry more about his future.

How can I be fair to both? I have given my daughter a lot more money than my son and she has taken that gift and used it wisely to better herself and set up a bright future. My son has not squandered his, but I do not feel he will have the same outlook and I worry. I was wondering if I should take the difference between what I gave her and what I gave him, and invest it for him: $20,000 now will be more than half a million for him at retirement.  

I would appreciate your thoughts. I love my kids and want them to have the life they deserve but I want to be fair to both. 

The Father

Dear Father,

They both have gifts, even if some are more visible than others. The ability to persevere and show compassion are gifts too. Your children have worked hard to get to where they are, and they have processed and overcome the death of their mother in their own ways. Their respective academic abilities, personalities, ability to hold down a side hustle while studying, choice of major and college, and tuition fees will never be exactly the same. Nor should they be.

As you suggest, life does not happen in a straight line. Your daughter initially faced challenges coping with her mother’s death, and your son appears to have anxiety in later life. It’s too hard to say whether their emotional life today and choices are directly related to this time. I caution you against drawing too many lines between the past and the present. It can help you remain compassionate about your children’s choices, but it may also hold them back.

And so to your question: Your children will both have times in their lives when one is doing better than the other financially and emotionally. It will come in waves, and you will be there when they need you, just like you have been as a single father making sure they had the best of everything. I don’t believe you should overthink the amounts you spent on their tuition. If you invest $20,000 for your son, I think you should bestow an equal investment on your daughter.

You are rightly proud of them. They have come a long way. You all have. 

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