My husband came home from work and told me about a conversation he’d had with a co-worker, Jennifer, who grew up in a small Midwestern town with parents who had rental properties.

As a kid, Jennifer spent weekends helping her parents clean, repair and fix up their rentals. It wasn’t pretty work – she recalls pulling up pet-stained carpets and scrubbing some nasty toilets.

When Jennifer turned sixteen, instead of being given keys to a car, her parents gave her keys to one of their rental properties. If she could properly manage it for the next two years, it would be hers. If she missed one mortgage payment, her parents would take back the property.

When Jennifer turned 18, she sold the house and used part of the proceeds to pay for her first two years of college and the other portion for a downpayment on a large Victorian in her college town.

She and five other rent-paying girlfriends lived in that Victorian for the next four years. When Jennifer graduated, she sold the house and used the proceeds to pay off her college loans, make a downpayment on a home where she’d accepted a job, and put some in reserves to start her nest egg.

I thought Jennifer’s parents were ingenious. With one rental property, they had taught their child valuable lessons about money and gave her the tools to pay her way through college.

Not long before John came home with this story about Jennifer, we had worked with a financial planner to prepare for our future. We were both in our early-40s and had gotten a later-than-average start on marriage, having children and retirement savings. Our son, Liam, was about 18-months old.

Like most parents today, we were shocked by the cost of education for Liam. We had asked our financial planner to estimate how much we’d need if we wanted to provide Liam with “the best” – private primary schools and then four years of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater) or the equivalent. You might want to sit down for the answer:

$767,000

Double that if we had a second child: $1,534,000.

I knew that my stay-at-home mom days would need to come to an end soon – both for the well-being of our family finances and my individual sense of self. Investing in rental properties would, hopefully, provide for Liam, contribute a little cash flow to help with our living expenses, and, most importantly, give me the flexibility to spend time with my child.