I was preparing to send my son, whom I’ll call “Ben,” to college in the spring of 2009. It was my intention to pay his way so that he wouldn’t have to work and could focus on his studies. In fact, this was my solemn promise to him (and to myself) since he was a child. It was the best gift I could possibly give him, or so I thought.
Miraculously, I had managed to put all the tuition money away in a state-sponsored college fund. I say “miraculously” because my propensity was to spend far beyond my means. So I felt pretty darned proud of myself, having made good on my promise despite my proclivities.
But when we actually began the process of selecting the school, I discovered that in-state tuition was just a fraction of the total college costs. I would have to cough up another $7,200 a year to cover housing, food, books, and other expenses!
That’s when I hit bottom. I was filled with guilt, shame, and remorse at the thought of all the cash I could have saved if I hadn’t acted like credit cards were free money. The biggest delusion I had was that somehow, some way, the money would be there when I needed it.
Well, it wasn’t.
Instead, my debt was inching up and would soon exceed my income. I had no idea where I would find that extra money.
It was at that point that I went to a support group for compulsive debtors. On April 24, 2009, I stopped using money as a drug. I cut up my credit cards and canceled the accounts. With the help of the group, I learned how to say no to myself, live within my means, and pay off my credit card debt for the last time. Fortunately, the extra money I needed became available through a combination of good decisions about how I would spend my income and my ex-husband grudgingly agreeing to contribute a few thousand dollars toward the first year.
I finally breathed easy. Ben would be going to college, and I would keep my promise.
Or so I thought.
Financially, all went as planned freshman year. But in the middle of sophomore year, I became disabled. My income was drastically reduced, and my healthcare costs rose dramatically.
Though relieved that tuition costs were taken care of, I was, once again, despondent about how to continue paying for Ben’s living expenses. I didn’t care that my nearly 19-year-old son was perfectly capable of working part-time, and that doing so might actually be good for him. And forget about any talk of his getting a student loan on his own! Oh no, I was convinced that I owed him a completely paid-for college education and any other option was unacceptable.
Thankfully, this time, I turned to my network of support instead of trying to figure it out on my own. I was sure that my friends would agree that by cutting back on my own living expenses, I could pay for my son’s.
Instead, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was living in delusion. Under my new circumstances, there was no wiggle room to shift money from other categories without my living in abject deprivation (a surefire way to cause a compulsive spender to binge or indebt). There was no way I could sustain a $600 a month college expense without ravaging my small cache of savings. “And then what?” they asked.
Kindly, but firmly, they told me that I needed to put the oxygen mask on myself first; that I would be far more helpful to my son if I let him figure out how to pay his own way than if I bankrupted myself and ended up going into debt in order to keep that promise.
Still, I balked, sure that my friends were misguided. So I started talking to other people about this, and I was astonished at their reaction. No one, not a single person, agreed with me. In fact, everyone I spoke with, including my son’s girlfriend, told me they had paid all or part of their own college expenses. I began to see that I was the misguided one.
Finally, I agreed to do what had seemed anathema to me. I sat down with my son and told him I couldn’t afford to pay his living expenses any longer. He would have to get a job and student loans if he wanted to stay in school.
I felt sick.
Ben looked none too happy. I couldn’t breathe. And then he shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ll get a job and a loan.”
That summer, he got his first job as a waiter and ended up taking out $15,000 in college loans. As a bonus, he became far more serious about his studies. And he has never once asked me for money.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about how wrong I had been and how well Ben turned out despite my dismal role as a financial model for most of his life. But I hadn’t taken into account the influence my current husband, Ray, had on him. Ray and I married when Ben was just 10 years old. Thankfully, we kept our money separate.
While I was financially reckless, my son watched my husband live simply, buy cars with cash, and use his credit cards responsibly, always paying off the balance each month. And other excellent mentors, like Ben’s marching band coach, taught him the value of discipline and teamwork.
It was now obvious that I had not put enough faith in my son. Despite all my fears that my poor money management parenting skills had caused Ben irreparable damage, it turned out that my son was just fine. All he needed was a little nudge to fly on his own.
When Ben finally felt the pinch of that debt repayment six months after graduation, he also got the message that loans weren’t free money — and he didn’t like it one bit. In less than five years post-graduation, he’s paid off all but $1,800 of his student loans. At one point, I got a windfall and offered to help him with the payments. He refused, saying he preferred paying it off himself.
Like my husband, Ben lives simply. Now 26, he uses credit cards sparingly, pays the balance each month, and finds the best options to give him cash back and other rewards. Thankfully, it looks like he didn’t inherit that compulsive spending gene.
It took a long time to overcome my guilt for not giving my son what I had promised him. For some parents, paying all the costs of college is the right choice. But I finally came to see that my inability to continue paying his way was the best gift I could give my son.
If I hadn’t listened to my support network, the outcome would have been disastrous. I would have ended up unable to live within my means, and my son wouldn’t have had the opportunity to step up to the plate. This experience was a turning point in his journey toward adulthood — and I could not be more proud of the man he has become.
This post originally appeared on The Billfold.