Time vs. Fortune (Not the Magazines)

Nancy and Harry Chapin’s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” is one of my favorites, partly because of the beat, and partly because it illustrates one of the essential trade-offs in life.

For those who don’t remember the lyrics, it sings of the life of a busy man who isn’t there when his son grows up and who, in old age, is ignored by the son — who is very busy and “grew up just like me [the father].”

The singer regrets not having spent time with the son, yet at the same time he describes his own busy life. I wonder whether — had the father spent more time with the son — the son would have been better off. The father wouldn’t have earned as much, and the son wouldn’t have had the financial security that the father’s earnings enabled him to have, but they would have had more time together.

Except for those who inherit large fortunes, the choice comes down to additional earnings and resources for one’s family, or more time with the family.

One is always constrained by both time and the ability to consume goods. We have to make a choice in the face of these constraints — a choice that we should make in light of all the gains for us and our kids that result from that choice.


A wise man once said "No success can compensate for failure in the home."


Sadly, for some people, happiness can only be bought...

...they are generally know as 'sociopaths'...

...and they seem to dominate economics discussions.


I'm living the debate. I've given up on a (potentially) lucrative banking career to work part-time and spend time with my 2 boys. I am clear I don't want to leave much money for them. I'd rather they get a decent education, the benefits of a dad-who-is-around and then work for the money themselves.

But comments like #26 from Marcus worry me. What if my sons don't appreciate my choice when they grow up? What if they resent the lack of money and associated comforts they could have had while growing up? The answer there (I guess) is that decisions ought not to be judged in hindsight.

Here is the real concern: what if I grow old with no money because I never manage to get back on the horse once my kids grow up. That will be one big oops.


I, too, have mixed feelings about that song. I am to the point that it is a good reminder; there are times when I have to make the conscious decision to work a little longer because a project has a time constraint but when my son says he want to go outside and ride bikes/play catch that I need to do that too. I think that even showing balance like that is important for a child to learn. As the great Ben Franklin once said "Moderation in all things."


My fathers work history was spotty at best, some years we had very little money but he was there for me 24/7, other years we had more money than we could spend but I never saw him.

Personally, I would take the money every time.


"money does not buy happiness."

Tell that to some one who has none.

David Paterson

Just for the record: Harry's wife was Sandy, not Nancy.

John C Abell

I was given an opportunity to essentially get a bit of both, which I know is very rare.

I was terminated by my old company nearly three years ago but given a generous buyout -- enough to last us in the (modest) style to which we had become accustomed for quite a while with just a little bit of incidental income here and there.

My "hiatus" began when my daughter was 11 and it made it possible for us to travel and do many other things that would have impossible otherwise. The best part is that all this happened during, as I often joked, the last time in her life that she would think it was cool to hang out with dad.

I recently went back to work full time but those 30 or so months as father-minus-breadwinner were precious and irreplaceable.

Yes, it does take resources, and a windfall really helps -- it would be the brave soul who steps off the treadmill voluntarily with designs to get back on (but I guess women do that all the time).

If life comes at you that way, though, give it a chance, even if it means depleting resources.

Money is for spending on what you want. This is something parents should really, really want.



the choice for me is easy and i make under 30000 a year. spend time with you kids. its better to enjoy your kids first hand rather than giving them everything theywant. money does not buy happiness. children are only young for so long and if you build bonds with them when they are young those bonds last forever. make money after that.


I think the point of the song goes beyond just working. As one example the dad comes home from work and his son wants to play ball but the dad doesn't have time. I thought of that song each time my kids wanted to play and I wanted to sit in front of the TV. More often than not I got up and played ball.


It's ridiculous to assert that you have to make a choice. My father made a fortune, but was an excellent father to me while I was growing up... The same was true with my father's father, and his father's father... They all worked hard, creating their own wealth, and creating incredibly strong family ties. I know of few other families that are as close as mine is... rich or poor.

It's simply self-serving to claim that you had to sacrifice wealth (which is really just security) for your family... just as it is to claim that you had to sacrifice your family for the sake of wealth. Both are possible.


Honestly, I wish my parents had spent less time trying to be parents. Neither was suited for it or marriage to each other, and whenever they spent time with us or each other, it always ended in tears. My mother was a frustrated accountant who could not devote time to the career she worked hard to attain because my father couldn't cope with that, while he was an engineer for the Navy and then a state government. The more he traveled, the happier we were, and not just because the money was better.

A peaceful family with little togetherness is far better than a chaotic or hostile one with too much. I didn't need their self-conscious concerns that were born in reading pop psych because that was expected.

I'm sure there are others from my generation (X, child of Boomers) who wish the same or the complete opposite.


I grew up on a farm with my parents and siblings. We worked hard all day long for very little. We never had finer things, and sometimes only had scraps for dinner. I will be paying student loans for a long time to cover my education and barely get by with my bills. Despite all that, I will always be thankful for how much time I got to spend with my parents and family. There is no car, big house, 5 star meal, or Versace dress worth that. Period.

Money does not equal happiness.

Michael D

AaronS - well said.

MC just doesn't get it.


Money buys lots of things that children and families enjoy, but money can't always buy children time and thoughts from parents who love them, and day care is a horrible substitute.


It all depends on what you value. If you want your kid to have a good diet, good education, good health care, etc. then work more.

If you want your kid to have well-forged values, a commitment to his family, a solid self-identity, etc. then I suggest you work less.

Exprop, you are right, but let's not forget that these activities you speak of for the early 1.5 million years were all done with or around the family. Especially mom, but also dad. How old did a son have to be before he started work as a hunter/gatherer/farmer? Certainly not 25, when he would graduate law school like his mother and father did.

John Squire

There are jobs that can't be done without extended travel without opportunity to return home (like the military), but almost none require that for a long enough time to be absent as a parent. It's a canard that a large number of people have time commitments that REQUIRE a zero sum tradeoff with time spent with family. "Too busy to do X" really means "don't care to do X".


@ MC (#11): am I right that you don't have kids?

I understand what you're saying, but... from what I see, the absent dads have the most screwed up kids.


What profession allows one more time to spend with their children? It seems to me that all professions require similar amounts of time commitment.


@ AaronS

"And, really, isn't that more valuable than gold?"

Not really, because then he's stuck doing the same thing you did -- just trying to set his kid up for a good life.

Why not actually create a good life (aka financial freedom aka lots of $$$) so you AND your kid can have a sweet life your whole life, and his kid, and his kid...