Where I Come From

by sally on February 9, 2008

This evening, a friend and I were discussing the economic stimulus package. She was saying that she wasn’t really sure what she was going to use hers for, that she’d probably end up just putting it in her checking account and using it for the mortgage, groceries, etc. I shrugged and said I was probably going to put it towards my student loans. “I hate being in debt and I want to get out as quickly as possible.” She kind of laughed and said, “I don’t think many others feel that way. People still seem to be getting themselves into a lot of credit card debt. I keep reading articles about people who have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.” “But I don’t know,” I said, “There’s been talk about a trend towards cutting back on consumer spending.”

I guess it’s hard to tell what the real trends are. Newspaper articles put such a spin on things that it’s hard to find and assess the facts they’re based on beneath the provocative headlines and anecdata. If there are people out there in that much debt, then it will obviously be a while before they can dig themselves out. And really, the trends don’t matter much, because the only thing I have any control over is my own spending. But I look around at my fellow pf bloggers, and I see positive movement. We are fighting back against debt. Debt is where we are coming from (though there are some among us fortunate enough to have never been there in the first place); financial freedom is where we are going.

I didn’t come from the best of financial backgrounds. My parents were on welfare when I was born. When I was an infant, my mom used to put me in a sling and walk in playgrounds and along roadsides, picking up cans and bottles to cash in for the deposit (this was in Michigan). My dad had just finished a degree in engineering before I was born; my mom had supported him through his schooling with a factory job which she quit when she pregnant. He had found a job after college, but was laid off rather quickly–this was Detroit in the mid-80s. I should point out that my parents were not particularly young at the time. My mom was 28; my dad, 27. I was their first child. After a few years of floundering, living in my paternal grandparents’ basement, and two more kids, my dad lucked out and got a job with the federal government and we moved to Virginia.

My littlest sister was born two years later, and my father works at that job still today. He makes a good salary now–just into the six figures. My mom works part-time at a Catholic school, in the cafeteria and after-school child care. They currently bring in about ~$115,000 a year, back when I was in elementary school, it was half that. My mom didn’t work outside of the home then, either. She started that when I was 13. I know about their income because my dad used to make me double-check the family taxes after my mom did them as a math exercise. I’ve told some of my friends who have children about that and they’ve told that they would never want their children to know how much they made. Now, their income might seem like a lot, but bear in mind that my family lives in northern Virginia, specifically in one of the richest counties in the country. While we were not poor while I was growing up, we were not upper middle class/rich like most of my friends in my AP classes in high school were. We got by. We shopped at Walmart. We rented our house. My father always really wanted to buy a house, but we just never managed. Recently my mom told me that years ago when she had told a real estate agent what my father’s salary was, she had been laughed at. “Oh, you’re never going to find anything you can afford in this area.”

My parents weren’t great at handling money. My father was particularly short-sighted. One of my close friends is much older than I am and used to be a good friend of my father’s as well. When I was a freshman in high school, he and my were discussing financial strategies one day. My dad told him, in all seriousness, “Well, Sally will be out of the house in four years. That should free up some money.” When I heard about this, I was shocked. Yes, because supporting three children instead of four is so much less expensive. I was a low-maintenance child: not involved in expensive extracurriculars, not interested in make-up or fashion, baby-sat to provide my own pocket-money. That was my first real inkling that my father was not very good with money (and kind of an asshole besides, but I already knew that). I know now that he resented spending money on us kids. He strikes me as the sort of person would would have been much, much happier as a bachelor to begin with. He always loved babies, though–just couldn’t stand them once they started to speak and think for themselves.

Of course I was on my own for college. My father was very “18 and you’re out” with me; he has since been more lenient with my siblings. Now, I was stupid about college in many ways–but part of my choice was a rebellion against my father who didn’t want me to go at all. He didn’t even want to co-sign my loans. He didn’t want me going to college to affect his life in any way. He almost didn’t let my mother co-sign my loans. He kept taunting her, “If she dies, you’ll be responsible for them.” And he’d tell me, “If you die you’ll be responsible for them. Your mom can’t handle that kind of debt load. You don’t want to do that to your mom, do you?” (Note: This is not even true. In the event of death of the student, Federal Direct, Perkins, and PLUS loans are all discharged.) But eventually he relented. During college, he gave me some money, a $60 monthly allowance during my freshman year, a few miscellaneous gifts. I am grateful for that. But in general, I was on my own.

Now, I’m not telling you, “You should definitely pay for your children’s college educations, or else you’re a bad person.” I find those sort of pronouncements to be foolish, as everyone’s lives and abilities are different. I am suggesting, “Whatever you decide to do, don’t be a jerk about it.”Either way, you should respect them as the young adults they are now and offer whatever guidance you can. If you can’t help them pay for college at all, and the FAFSA says you should be able to, maybe you should explain to them why. Yeah, I can hear a lot of you out there going, “But I don’t want to do that.” But really, wouldn’t this be one of the best financial lessons you could teach your adult offspring? And I’m not even saying it’s necessarily “your fault.” The FAFSA is not exactly known for its fairness. I think America’s finances would be in better order overall if we fostered the kind of environment where parents and their children could talk about these kind of things. If my father had talked to me about college, instead of talking down to me and making demands, I sincerely doubt that I would be in as much student loan debt as I am today. I was in such a rage over what he was doing, that I just wanted to get out of there and into college.

So, I guess what I’m saying is : I have financial baggage. I think a lot of us do. But I see the people in the personal finance community looking at their baggage, dissecting it, working to overcome it. Some of this baggage manifests itself literally as debt, some it is in the psychological problems we have in the way we think about money, the significance we give it. Some of these come directly from the way we were raised, some from wider cultural attitudes. But I think it’s silence that perpetuates these issues. A society in debt is one that cares more about appearances than the truth.

And now I’m looking at the truth. I’m looking at where I am with eyes wide open. I am not blind to my obligations. Though I resent my debts, I recognize that they were my choice. I can’t change what choices I’ve made in the past, but I can change the ones I’ll make in the future.

Spread the word.

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Kaye February 10, 2008 at 1:04 pm

I understand where you are coming from and the resentment you must have felt due to your parents’ (dad’s really I guess) lack of money management skills. However, I will tell you that I did not ask for a penny of my parents’ money (as they had none) for college. I think over the 4 years I attended, I asked for a total of about $400…placed over 2 different phone calls. I do not resent them in any way. They did the best they could for me by 1.) teaching me to be responsible for myself, as I was going to have to handle it as an adult as well as 2.) assuring that I got the best education (both at a rural high school and at home) so that scholarships could pay for my schooling. I chose a major that would both get me a good job and had a lot of scholarships available.

sally February 10, 2008 at 2:51 pm

@Kaye: Thank you for commenting. I do understand my dad’s reasons for not being able to help pay for my college. I just wish that he had talked to me about them and helped us work out a solution, instead of equating him not having money to pay for my college education with him not wanting me to go at all, and trying to keep me from going.

Also, good for you! I did get scholarships as well, over $50,000 in fact, but the school I so foolishly chose was very expensive.

Monevator February 13, 2008 at 5:56 am

Sally, don’t mean to sound patronising, but I think it’s really impressive how you’ve overcome your parental upbringing to take responsibility for your finances. Even if you do mask it as teenage rebellion!

As for the rebate from the government, you patriotic duty would be to go out and spend it… paying off debt doesn’t stimulate the economy. That said, I’d do exactly what you propose (I think it’d be more patriotic in the long term, but I’m pretty old fashioned about debt!)

sally February 13, 2008 at 9:06 am

Heh. Going to a private liberal arts school was definitely a rebellion, but a much smaller one that it could have been. My first choice was Evergreen State College in Washington State (big time hippie school), but my mom wanted me to go to a Michigan school so I’d be close to family in case of an emergency, and that’s what I ended up doing.

I agree with you. Paying off debt is definitely better for the economy in the long term than buying a bunch of consumer junk right now. Think of it this way: the $300-$600 I’ll get is a one time thing, but once my debt is gone, I’ll have an extra $600+ *every* month that I could potentially put towards consumer goods and services. Most of it would probably go into savings, but I’ll be able to up my living standards a little bit, maybe by, say, $150+ a month. And $150 a month adds up to a lot more than $600 all at once.

Penny Saved February 13, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Sally that’s the kind of long term thinking that the government doesn’t want you to do 🙂 But it makes perfect sense, and our politicians could use some long-term thinking when they are making policy decisions.

Kat Horn January 4, 2009 at 5:29 pm

My parents didn’t pay for my college, I did and never finished.
My husband paid for his own and has three degrees..including an MBA.
We have two children…one married and who paid for her own education, because we knew if we did..she would have party her way through college (and she did, but on her dime) and another in which we will pay for college 100%. Why…because when dad told both girls..you get the grade…I’ll get the money…One did…one didn’t
To us; deciding to pay for your children’s education, depends on the child..both kids were told the same thing…one made a choice NOT to get the grades…the other made the choice TO get the grades.

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