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A collage showing a check from the US Treasury addressed to Relief Program, surrounded by cash. Getty Images/Christina Animashaun for Vox

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Money Talks: The mother and the college student who shared stimulus checks

Kai and April had a candid discussion about Kai’s right to collect stimulus money as an adult dependent.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Kai, 19, is finishing their second year of college and works at PetSmart. April, 52, is Kai’s mother (and a single parent) — she works as a third-party reseller on both Amazon and eBay, and she also runs the personal finance blog Midlife Sunshine. They live in an East Coast suburb, and April’s total household income is in the mid-five figures.

April: For me, the coronavirus pandemic was actually a positive financial change. People were home, and they were buying stuff online. My sales just over doubled last year, between Amazon and eBay. I had a good year.

Kai: Nothing really changed for me financially, either. I worked for PetSmart, so I was considered an essential worker. My boss said that she wouldn’t be able to give me hours if I worked as a cashier, so I got to switch to the grooming salon — which actually worked out well for me, because now I’m probably going to go into a career in grooming, most likely.

The only real financial change was that I was sitting at home [after work] — I wasn’t going out, and I wasn’t spending as much.

April: When we got our first stimulus checks [in 2020], Kai obviously didn’t get one. Mine went to my Roth IRA; I’ve been trying to max it out every year, and I haven’t quite gotten there yet but I’m pretty close.

I don’t remember hearing that the third round of stimulus checks would include money for adult dependents until Kai told me, “You’re going to get money in your check that belongs to me.” I was like, “What do you mean?”

Kai: I spend too much of my life online, so I heard about it on Twitter pretty much as soon as it happened. I was excited, because I looked through [the stimulus package] and saw that they were including college dependent students, and I was like, “Okay, great, my money! Cool!”

April: Kai was at college for August through April, and then April through now, they’re completing college courses here [in the family home]. I’ve had to pay a little more money for Kai’s food, but I haven’t had to pay any more money for college expenses — they were all covered under a 529 Plan. So when Kai said, “That’s my money,” I said “Huh.” I asked myself, “Is it really Kai’s money?” and then I said, “Yeah, I know they are responsible.”

I also knew where [the stimulus money] would go. We’ve discussed the third year of college, not living on campus anymore, and who’s going to pay for that.

Kai: I don’t want to live in the residence halls anymore, and it’s no longer guaranteed housing for me. With Covid, they didn’t allow us to use the residence hall kitchens, and that was the main thing — my only option was the dining hall and a couple retailers that weren’t always open.

April: If I wasn’t working online or if my online business wasn’t doing well, we would have had to have a discussion about whose money it was.

Kai: I honestly don’t know if the money was supposed to be for me — but the way everybody treated it online was, “Oh, they’re finally including us.” I don’t know why I decided it should be mine, but I looked at the package and thought, “It says it’s for both of us, but the extra money is because of me, so it should go to me?”

I don’t really know if that was what it was intended for. A couple people online said, “It goes to the dependent, it just goes through the person who claimed them,” and I latched on to that and said, “Cool, I’m getting money this time.”

April: I’m going to claim Kai as a dependent for as long as I can because I get the tax credit.

Kai: All of my friends are in the same situation. I’m in college, I work full time, I do classes full time. I don’t have a single moment when I’m not doing something. I’m either studying, doing homework, going to classes, or going to work. Occasionally I get time to go hike. I’m also the president of an organization, so I’m dealing with that all the time. I’m always doing something.

I’m paying my way, I don’t have any outstanding debt, I literally got a job the day I turned 16 and have had a job nearly ever since. I buy my own gas, I pay for everything I do. When I’m home, I help around the house, I do dishes, vacuum, grocery shopping, normal everyday things. I take out the trash.

That’s why I think that I’ve earned this. I’m not costing my mom much money, and I’m helping her out by living at home.

April: Kai’s always been so responsible, and that’s the way parents should look at it. Knowing that money was going to go towards college costs, especially food — we’ve been lucky in that their father set aside money so that their college [tuition] was taken care of, but there are still other things they have to pay for. Not once in two years has Kai called and said, “I need money.” Every time I’ve called and said, “I’m going away for the weekend, do you want to come home and watch the dogs?” BOOM, Kai comes home, watches the dogs.

When Kai was home over winter break, they switched from the PetSmart near their college to the PetSmart over here. It wasn’t four weeks of break, it was four weeks of working. I think parents really need to look at their kids and see how responsible they are, and where the money might go if they give them the $1,400.

Kai: If my mom had needed the money, I would have given it to her, 100 percent. No doubt. I would have said, “Take it, and we’ll figure out something else for me.”


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