When we got married, my husband and I were still in graduate school. We were poor—the kind of poor I call “ramen noodle poor.” For our marriage ceremony, we hired a random biker dude in a bandana to unite us amidst a circle of friends, one of them holding up her cell phone so that my mom could listen in from Florida. We couldn’t afford a flight for her to be there in person. The biker charged us $80, and I remember how it physically pained me to write a check for such an exorbitant amount.
During our student years, my husband and I suffered through Cincinnati winters with no heat in our tiny studio apartment because, even though we both worked part-time in addition to attending school, we could not afford the gas bill. We managed without a car, tramping through the snow (uphill both ways, har har) to get to class, and rode the bus when we needed to travel longer distances. Our refrigerator was nearly always empty.
We were on our own, funding our educations as best we could with little to no help from our parents.
Now I have children of my own, ages 10 and 6. My husband and I have college savings accounts for each of them, opened during my respective pregnancies and to which we contribute monthly. The account balances have advanced and declined along with the S&P, and according to my projections and as long as we don’t have another terrible recession, these accounts will likely cover a year or two of each child’s education—if they attend a state school. There most certainly will not be enough to cover an entire four-year education for either one of them. God forbid they want to attend a private university.
One might think, given the struggles of my college years, that I would be eager to make up the difference. I don’t plan to, though. As I did during my own college years, my children will have to figure out the rest. I want them to. I know many people think it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure their children attend the very best—and most expensive—school possible, no matter the cost, but I disagree.
Part of my thinking is purely selfish. My husband and I could afford to pay for our kids’ college; we could tap into our retirement accounts, stretch, and sacrifice. But for what? So we can spend the golden years of our lives—those precious few years between when the kids leave the nest and decrepitude sets in—hemorrhaging money for an education our children may or may not put to use? No. I want to keep that money so my husband and I can retire in comfort. I used to work for a financial advisor; I am woefully informed of what it takes to retire comfortably. Not to mention, footing our kids’ entire education bill would likely set us up to be financially dependent on them during our old age—probably right around the time they will be faced with paying for their own children’s education. I’d rather they be saddled with student loan debt than nursing home bills.
But more important than my desire to hoard savings for my own future is my wish for my children to learn independence. I want them to scrape and claw to get the education they desire. I want them to earn scholarships. Research ahead of time and find out where the money is, then chase it. Take out loans. Work. Start at a community or state college and then transfer the credits to a four-year school. Whatever it takes.
I majored in music performance and paid for my entire education with scholarships and a small amount of loans. Granted, I was foolish in the specific major I chose; I should have at least double-majored since music is such a niche profession, but the point is that the money was there, and I took it. And now I have a master’s degree, and I work as a writer/freelancer and social media manager, jobs I love and which, quite frankly, no degree at that time could have prepared me for anyway. The greatest lessons I learned from financing my own education were acquired outside of the lecture hall.
I’ve never been resentful of living hand-to-mouth during college, rather quite the contrary—I’m proud that I managed on my own, even if it meant I had to endure a small amount of hardship. It is and always has been a comfort to me that I know how to count pennies, that I am capable of living with so little if I have to. I want my children to cultivate that same sense of competency, even if they have to suffer a little in order to do so.
Because if a bit of struggling means my kids will learn fortitude, resourcefulness, and independence alongside algebra II and microeconomics, as I did, then I will consider it money wisely (not) spent.