My Parents Said Money Didn’t Matter, But It Did

by C.L.

I grew up in a medium-sized Southern city. Both of my parents worked jobs that didn’t require college degrees, although my mom did graduate from a good state school. (My dad had dropped out, and actually finished his college degree my junior year of high school by taking night classes). Growing up, my parents told me that I could go to any college I wanted — that I should attend the very best school I could get into — and that they would pay for it. It was always the agreement; it was motivation to reach for the stars.

My senior year I chose a small, expensive, private liberal arts college close to home. I received a 65 percent scholarship on merit, and my parents took out loans to cover the rest. I wasn’t happy at the college, and my parents (and everyone else in my life) strongly encouraged me to to transfer schools. I applied to several schools, including an incredible dream school in New York City. I found out that I had been accepted to said dream school the summer after my sophomore year, while studying abroad in Italy. When I read the email from the school, I ran out of the internet cafe, out into the cobblestone streets, and wept for joy.

My parents hadn’t yet told me, but they charged the entire summer in Italy onto a credit card.

I went to school at the dream school for three years — I had to add an extra year when credits didn’t transfer. My parents charged another summer in Italy after my junior year. And then, about three months before graduation in the spring of 2009, my parents started to talk about my loans differently. They said that I might have to contribute, that my brother (who is disabled) might need more intensive and expensive care than they thought. It was just hints, vague references to “helping out.” They made it clear that after I graduated I would be completely financially independent. Because my career is entirely dependent on being in New York City, I had to stay, and make it work — I couldn’t move across the country and live at home.

I graduated in May of 2009, the height of the recession. I had already started a low-paying job in retail, which covered my $725/month rent and a little more. Then one night that summer, my dad called, and told me that my student loans would be kicking in in January after a six-month grace period, and that I would be responsible for paying the entire balance. It would cost me $800 a month, and since they were private loans, I could not defer, I could not do income-based repayment, I couldn’t turn my 10-year note into a 30-year note — all I could do was find a way to pay $800 a month. I needed to start making twice the amount of money that I currently was.

I was hurt, I was furious, and I was terrified. I felt abandoned by my parents. I felt like a fool. I had always worked summer jobs and done work-study at my (expensive) dream school, but that money had always been treated like pocket money. I felt like an idiot for not saving any. My parents never encouraged me to save. (They themselves have no savings or retirement funds set aside.)

But at the same time, I couldn’t be too hard on myself — I had no guidance, and I had never had any reason to doubt my parents’ promise. I have always had a wonderful relationship with my parents, so this was shocking on a personal level. My parents felt powerless, like the loans had just snuck up on them — as if this was something they hadn’t foreseen either, as if it was somehow unintentional and out of their control. But they weren’t particularly apologetic, and they never have been. I think they always believed that I would give up and move home.

But I didn’t.

I have paid my student loans (and my rent!), in full and on time, every single month for the last three years. I have seven years to go. I managed to luck my way into a better paying job, and I have been steadily moving up in my field. I’m lucky to have a very supportive domestic partner, whose degrees were underwritten entirely by well-off family.

I have never regretted attending my dream school, because it changed my life. It made me smarter, I met incredible people (including said partner!) and there is no way I’d be doing as well in my field if I had gone anywhere else. I am becoming the person I want to be because of this school. So I have no regrets about spending this money. I just wish I’d known that I’d be footing the bill a little sooner.

I have forgiven my parents about this, but it has changed our relationship — I think I’m wiser now. They want me and my domestic partner to get married, but we won’t until we can pay for it (or at least most of it) ourselves. (I know better than to trust them when they say that they’ll pay for it.) And of course, I am a whiz with money now. There’s always a bright side!

C.L. lives in New York.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.