'We have no college savings of any kind,' says 'Exploding Unicorn' comedy writer and father of 4

The Breakwells.
Courtesy James Breakwell
Key Points
  • Comedy writer James Breakwell has 1 million followers on his Twitter account, @XplodingUnicorn.
  • The father of four daughters has made a career out of sharing amusing things his children tend to say.
  • "The cost of college, at least for a while, was going up at something like 11% a year, and there was no place we could save that was going to keep up with that," he told Grow.

James Breakwell is famous for being a dad. The father of four daughters (ages 11, 9, 7, and 6) first gained notoriety for his Twitter page, @XplodingUnicorn, where he jokes about the absurdities of parenthood.

Parenting wasn't always the focus of Breakwell's career. As a young comedy writer, Breakwell began blogging and tweeting about everyday life — to little avail at first. When he became a father, though, he found a topic that seemed to stick with internet audiences.

"I started writing jokes about my kids — the things they said, or things inspired by what they said, or the things they could have said — and just built it up that way," he says. "And that's what people responded to. And all of a sudden, I went from the guy who wrote about everything to the guy who wrote about his kids. And I was kind of, overnight, this daddy blogger."

In the years since, Breakwell has published six books and three webcomics in addition to managing Exploding Unicorn across several social media platforms. His Twitter account currently boasts a million followers.

Between juggling all that and, you know, parenting, he sat down with Grow to discuss how he teaches his kids about money, what he hopes they learn as they get older, and his views on saving for college.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

'We have no college savings of any kind. It seems like a fool's errand'

Grow: What's been your and your wife's approach to saving for college?

Breakwell: We have no college savings of any kind. It seems like a fool's errand. The cost of college, at least for a while, was going up at something like 11% a year, and there was no place we could save that was going to keep up with that.

I'm one of seven kids. My parents didn't have any kind of college savings for me. My wife is one of four. Her parents didn't have any kind of savings for her. I think they ended up helping her out a little bit. But she mostly had scholarships, and I went to college full-ride, room and board.

So essentially, the market forces are going to dictate where they go. I think it would be great if they could go to online college and live at home to save money. I would strongly discourage going to graduate school or any kind of a course that keeps you just endlessly in college forever. I'm a big fan of getting in, getting out, and getting a job.

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So they'll go to the best school they can for what their scholarships will allow. And if there's a small gap, we'll try to help out in there. But there is no blank check sitting around to go to Harvard or Yale or whatever else there is. They'll just do the best they can to manage, just like everybody else around them.

I think most people don't have a few hundred thousand dollars sitting around to pay for college. And if they have to take out loans and pay them back, they just have to make smart decisions about picking a career that you actually earns enough money to pay that back. Ideally, they will not come out a million dollars in debt. If it looks like they're going down that road, I think I would just recommend they skip college altogether and go some other route.

'The primary time cash changes hands in our family is when the Tooth Fairy comes'

Grow: I caught a tweet of yours where you joked about never handling cash these days. How does that work when it comes to teaching your kids about money?

Breakwell: I give them an allowance every week. It's electronically transferred from my bank account to their savings accounts. I'm not sure it really means anything to them. I never carry cash on me. The primary time cash changes hands in our family is when the Tooth Fairy comes. My 7-year-old, some of her friends get actual cash. These parents either have fewer kids or their kids have fewer teeth. My kids have too many teeth to be giving out $5 every time they lose one.

Grow: Transferring money electronically gives them a chance to accumulate some money, but how do you teach them what spending means and what money buys?

Breakwell: In general, they've got a pretty easy life: Food, clothing, shelter, it's all covered. It's not like they have to go out here and pay rent or pay for groceries. So the primary time they use money is when we go out for something fun. If they get money for their birthday from relatives, or if we're at a gift shop at an amusement park or a museum or something like that, there may be something that's definitely overpriced, and that we definitely don't need.

If the kids really, really want, it's like, "OK, you can spend your own money on that if you want."

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Even there, though, I ended up always pulling out my credit card. They don't carry wallets. They don't carry purses. So we try to tell them, "I'm gonna pull out my credit card. It doesn't look like money is changing hands here, but then when we get home, you have to go into your piggy bank and pull out that money and give it to me." That should be the learning part of the process.

However, sometimes we get home and then I forget to take the money from them. And they just pull one over on me.

They do, though, with their games, kind of teach themselves a little bit. They like to play store and they have play money that goes back and forth.

'To balance out the increased workload, I give them extra money'

Grow: How do you try to keep things fair, so to speak, when it comes to spending on or giving money to a bunch of kids that are close in age? I imagine you occasionally get some complaints.

Breakwell: There wouldn't be if they saw what was in their bank account, but I think they forget that they even get the money. I've created a system where the older they are, the more they get. Basically, it's $1 per year. So if you're going to turn 12 this year, it will be $12 a week. If you're going to turn 10 this year, it's $10 a week, and so on, with the idea being that the older kids generally get stuck doing more work, because they're more competent.

My 11-year-old can wash the dishes. My nine-year-old can sort of wash the dishes. If I let my seven- and six-year-olds wash the dishes, they would come out dirtier than when they started. So to balance out the increased workload, I try to give them extra money.

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Grow: What about when it comes time to buy them things or get them gifts?

Breakwell: When we get them stuff, we always try to go for things of equal value. That's kind of the basic approach. There's an amount that we spend on them for birthdays and Christmas. So we do try to very much keep it equal, but it doesn't always look equal to them because they're not entirely sure of the value of things.

When you get one kid something electronic and you get one kid a bunch of stuffed animals, 25 stuffed animals look huge compared to this one electronic gadget the older kid got. And you have to explain to them, these things are not of equal mass, but they are of equal value. And that's how the scales are balanced.

On the kids getting jobs when they're older: 'We're going back and forth'

Grow: How do you envision lessons about money shifting when your kids get older? Will they be expected to get jobs, for instance?

Breakwell: It's something my wife and I have debated. When I was going into high school, my parents got me a car, and they paid for gas so I could get around. But more importantly, I think they did it because I was one of a whole bunch of kids, and they just didn't want to drive me to all my practices and stuff anymore. My wife, on the other hand, had to work to pay for her car and pay for the insurance and all of that.

I got jobs during the summer and things that wouldn't interfere with school or sports, but I didn't depend on it.

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So we're going back and forth on whether or not we want the kids to try to work during the school year when they're old enough, or if we want them to prioritize studying and school and extracurriculars, which long-term are going to be much more important in terms of getting a job in the future … rather than working at something for minimum wage to pay basic bills that we could take care of for them.

As far as that goes, I think I would side on just paying for it for them, getting them very old, beat-up cars, and paying for it ourselves. Because right now, even though they're young, they're in enough activities, that I have to drive them a million places a day. So as far as I can help it, as soon as the oldest one is 16, she will have a car hopefully, and she can drive the rest of the kids everywhere.

Grow: Any other advice for parents looking to figure things out financially?

Breakwell: Nobody ever feels like they're ready to have kids, financially or emotionally. I don't know if anybody is ever ready, but somehow we always manage — the human race has yet to go extinct.

Somehow every generation reproduces. Somehow every generation pays for it. Somehow every generation gets their kids to adulthood, and then we repeat the process, and that generation thinks, 'Oh, I can never afford to have kids. It's not going to work.' And then they do and everything is fine.

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