When you’re digging a hole in your backyard after dark, it’s hard not to worry that the neighbors are peering from behind curtains and jumping to grim conclusions. I force a laugh, because I think this makes me look more relaxed and casual, like I’m not doing anything that would require police interference. It also helps that my six year old son Charlie is with me. Or maybe that just makes it look worse.
“Is this deep enough?” I ask him.
He peers into the hole, just few inches deep, and crinkles his nose. “No,” he says, testing the hole with his feet. “They could still find it.”
“They really won't,” I tell him. “They probably won’t even come back here.”
He shoots me a what do you even know about pirates? look.
I keep digging, and Charlie counts his loot. He has some paper money, mostly two dollar bills—which his grandparents slip him every time they visit, like some grandparents hand out hard candy—and a bag of coins that’s equal parts real currency and arcade tokens. He stacks everything neatly into a small pirate’s chest—and you know it's a pirate's chest because it has a skull and crossbones on the front, the ticker symbol of the pirating world.
I feel clammy-handed and nervous, because I’m not quite sure if helping my son bury his life savings in our backyard is the best parenting. But how else am I going to teach him about the value of money?
The problem started back in Christmas, when Charlie got a few too many gifts from his grandparents. They bought so much for him, giving him literally every toy on his already comically bloated wish list, that he started to believe his mere existence qualified him for some sort of never-ending payola scheme.
We had to break him of his Christmas hangover. He was turning into a spoiled little brat who couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t always get exactly what he was pointing at; a white privileged, boysplaining “I should have that new Transformers action figure I just noticed because it’s a Tuesday” douche. I couldn’t have that.
I sat down with Charlie to have The Talk. Why money matters, and why you shouldn’t spend all of it the moment you have it even though you totally could. Kids are walking Ids, and they live in the moment. The idea of saving for the future is intrinsically ridiculous to them. Which is great if you’re talking about emotions, but not so great when living in the moment means maxing out Dad’s credit cards.
I clumsily tried explaining anyway, expecting the worst. But Charlie picked up on the gist of saving almost immediately. “So it’s like pirates?” he asked.
“Um . . . I guess,” I said.
“They bury their money so other pirates can’t get it,” he continued. “That’s the idea?”
“Sure. Or you could put it in a bank.”
He thought about this for a moment and then shook his head "no." “You have to put it somewhere more secret.”
Shockingly, our talk yielded action. Suddenly he was more interested in hoarding money than accumulating more junk. It started with piggy banks, then he moved on to shoe boxes hidden in his closet, and when that proved too vulnerable, he informed his mother and me that the back yard would become his personal safe deposit box.
I had mixed emotions about this. One the one hand, it was nice he’d taken an interest in his financial future. But on the other hand, pirates? That just sounded like bad parenting.
We probably should’ve been paying closer attention to all the TV he’d been watching—Peter Pan, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Muppet Treasure Island, even the freaking Goonies movie. He’d seen so many men with eyepatches and scurvy who kept their retirement funds in chests that they’d become his de facto adult male role model.
But maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. Aside from all the plundering and murder, pirates aren’t all bad. They’re definitely frugal with their finances. And they make some serious bank. Look at this Forbes’ ranking of history’s top-earning pirates. “Black Sam” Bellamy, the 18th century English pirate, was worth an estimated $120 million (in modern dollars). Maybe not Warren Buffett money, but he was at least as rich as Ray Romano.
The United Nations crime unit did a comprehensive pirate report in 2013, and found that modern day pirates in places like Kenya, Seychelles and Somalia have done a brisk business, amassing around $400 million in ransom money in less than a decade. That’s tax free profit! I mean, assuming they didn’t get caught and imprisoned or executed. If they managed to get a fraction of their 400 million doubloons in the ground and were like “Booty? What booty? We don’t have any booty,” they did okay.
But I still felt guilty. So I reached out to Shark Tank investor and billionaire Mark Cuban. He’s always seemed kind of piratey to me. (I don't know why exactly, he just has that brash bravado and swagger than seems pirate-like.) If anybody could reassure me that letting my son open his first savings account in the dirt of our backyard, because that’s what a pirate would do, as an important step towards becoming a financially responsible adult, it’s Cuban.
Cuban emailed back with a single question. “Is this a stupid joke?” he asked me.
Um . . . no? I don’t think so anyway. It might’ve been at first, but I’m starting to think my son is onto something. Since we started pirate burying, Charlie hasn’t asked for a new toy in almost two months. Even if he wanted to go on a shopping spree, he knows we’d have to go out to the backyard with a shovel, and that’s a whole deal. How can he not be learning something positive from this? He took all the awesome lessons from pirates and left out the crime and murder.
"He is six,” Cuban said. “It doesn't matter.”
For a second opinion, I turned to Peter Leeson, a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. He was a bit more enthusiastic, but only a bit. “While the pirates of lore were scrupulous savers, burying their booty for a rainy day, most actual pirates were spendthrifts,” he told me. “They blew their dough at bars and brothels—not the kind of fellows whose financial habits you’d want to encourage your children to emulate.”
They’re both right, of course. And yet for the third time this week, I’m digging a fresh hole in my backyard, to entomb Charlie’s latest haul—some sweet coinage from some change he found on the sidewalk. But this time, I’m throwing something of my own into the plastic crate.
It’s an American Express card, the one I use for all the crap I don’t need. Like Tablets and wearable tech and new headphones and downloads of ebooks and music I'll probably never listen to. I almost bought a drone the other day. A drone! Because it was on sale, and how cool would it be to own a drone?
“It’s okay,” Charlie tells me, pulling the credit card out of my anxious hands. “We’ll draw a map.”
How do you argue with that logic? There’ll be a map! With an X where the gold is and everything. We'll be fine. The money’s not gone, it’s just . . . in hiding.
My son and I are pirates now. And that feels okay. Don’t even try looking for our treasures. Without a map, you don’t stand a chance.