The campaign I am prepping at the moment revolves around characters who grew up together, so certain elements of background have become more important than usual.
After some research and multiple other efforts that served only to prove Occam's Razor, I came across a system which serves my purposes for determining an element of background, as well as starting money for the characters.
In the starting town, education is available but not free. The families of the PCs are in decent enough standing that they can provide a basic education for them.
Basic Education: Reading, Writing, Mathematics, some History. Age 7-12. Affordable to average families, but not the poor.
Advanced Education: Philosophy, Rhetoric, Politics, Music, Literature. Age 13-16. An advanced education adds +1 to two mental stats, and +2 to one (your specialization). Costs 600gp, making it prohibitively expensive for non-noble families.
Apprenticeship: Takes 6 + 1d4 years. No income, but you are housed, fed, etc.
A young person has three career paths:
Labor: Menial task. Requires no education or apprenticeship. You can start at age 12 (medieval children would have worked at a younger age, but often not for pay, and 12 was a not-uncommon age limit imposed by guilds). Starting gold: roll 1d6 for each year you worked.
Craft: You have learned to ply a trade. Requires basic schooling and apprenticeship. Starting gold: roll 2d6 for each year you worked,
Career: You have studied under a politician or something like that and begun to work your way into the jobs of Nobles. Requires advanced education and apprenticeship. Starting Gold: roll 3d6 for each year you work.
The idea with these was to provide the player a meaningful choice, as well as risk. A 28-year-old starting character can earn:
Such that a laborer can earn more than an unlucky craftsman, and is in fact guaranteed a greater minimum (he can skip the apprenticeship to avoid the risk of bottoming out even worse), but a craftsman has more earning potential. A PC with a great inheritance has the choice to spend it on education (higher stats), but will almost certainly start with less money, or he can take the cash and run, and begin a very affluent adventurer.
You'll notice average values are lower than the usual 3d6x10. Beginning as common townsfolk, I'm trying to convey how far removed the average adventurer is from the populace (you've had to save every penny of your net earnings all your life to be able to leave), and create a limited-resource situation which does two things:
1) makes it all the more significant when the PCs do earn some money; they'll appreciate it and finding treasure will be all the more exciting for a while;
2) encourages the players to stick around for a bit longer, to pick up some more cash to supply and head out. Since the starting city is on the edge of the campaign world, time there gives interesting plot opportunities: to characterize the Empire and what people think of it from afar, to explore the dilemma of leaving home (much more significant where the campaign deals with a shared childhood where PC backstories often ignore family), and to spend a bit of time with the NPCs everyone knows from the last campaign, since changes in them will be the most tangible for players, and can set the tone of the campaign.