Live Your Life on Your Own Terms

I’m graduating from college this December with likely about $15,000 in student loans. I transferred schools after my junior year, and I owe an additional $17,000 to my other school (although I have been advised to just save up as much as I can, even as low as $7,000, and offer to repay it as a lump sum — which looks appealing because a debt collector has been hounding me on and off since I arrived at my new school, and at this point she’ll likely accept less). I am still working on figuring out exactly how much I owe, because my dad was the one who took care of all the financial arrangements when I went away to school, and has been reluctant to share the full details with me because he doesn’t want me to stress out. I wish I had been more independent and forward-thinking as an 18-year-old, but I knew nothing about finances and figured I’d just let him take care of it.

Flash forward a bit. My mom lost her job in the Recession, and I found out about three years late that my dad did, too (he worked from home so we couldn’t tell the difference, except that money was progressively tighter until we finally figured it out). For a while, we lived off the money my grandparents left my dad, but it ran out right around the time when my mom found another job. For the past few years I have been helping my dad out financially when he’s asked, from as little as $50 to as much as $2,000 (sometimes directly from my paychecks, sometimes from the reimbursement I get from my student loans).

It’s always been really stressful for me when he does this, because I have always had a full course load and work as much as I can at my campus jobs. I don’t have a lot of money to spare to give to him but he needs the help. This last year, I’ve been trying to save up money to fulfill a dream of moving to South America to live with and help out my ailing grandmother in 2014, but every time I started to make a dent in my savings, he asks for money, and I’m back at square one.

My dad still isn’t employed, but is working on a company that has investors lined up and looks to be promising. The people who helped put it together have faith in its prospects and are accepting partial ownership in lieu of payment, but the website designer will only accept $2,500 in cash. The project has been stuck in development hell for the last year, with just this final bit to finish up before the company and website can be launched, and it will likely begin turning a profit shortly after.

Our family really needs him to start making an income again, and I’m starting to stress about what will happen if he can’t turn things around. He has no savings, and no plan for retirement. He keeps insisting he’ll take care of the bulk of my and my brothers’ student loans (I don’t believe it), and he and my mom occasionally splurge on things they really could do without (they both got the new iPhone 5S, 32g, for $300 apiece). They’re not good savers, and they have a lot of expenses, because they refuse to move away from Silicon Valley (which is ludicrously expensive) until my youngest brother graduates high school in three years. We’re living in extremely small quarters and doing the best we can, but expenses add up.

Here’s my problem. I am graduating soon, and trying to move to another country (where I’ll be working, won’t have to pay rent, and the cost of living is lower, but so is the value of the currency) next year. I am currently working two jobs and starting a third next week, while taking six classes and a lab. My savings are not close to recovering from the last time I lent my dad money this summer. I’m going to have to start paying back my student debt soon. I know my family is struggling to get things under control, but what it really comes down to is that my dad NEEDS to go back to work. There’s not really another option. But he has no source of income except for his pension checks (it terrifies me that he’s already getting them), and those go immediately to cover costs that my mom’s salary can’t, so he can’t (or maybe can and just doesn’t) save up the $2,500 to pay the designer and get the business going.

I’m torn because on the one hand, I am already working three jobs and taking all of those classes to finish my degree, and I want to actually have some fun my last semester of college because I’ve generally had too much on my plate to ever truly enjoy the past four and a half years. But I also feel the need to help my family, because everyone will be able to relax a little bit when my dad starts working again. I’ve considered taking a fourth job for the next few months (probably as a cocktail waitress at a strip club in town where the average waitress earns $100/shift, and which is the only place I could imagine is willing to be flexible about scheduling). If I took that option, I’d need to figure out how to do my own taxes, because it would probably break my parents’ hearts a little if they found out on a joint tax form that I worked at a strip club.

I don’t have any moral objections to working there myself, and I’d just be waitressing, not dancing. If I didn’t take that job, I’m not sure how long I’d need to save up to give my dad the $2,500. Right now the prospects are looking pretty bleak. I have no idea how to come up with enough money to help out my dad, save for travel, and start paying back my student loans at the same time, given all the commitments I have to deal with right now. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like I have a ton of time to think about it because my grandmother isn’t doing too hot, and my parents are pushing me to move there as soon as I can to be with her. I’d be happy to work through the summer and leave in the fall, but they don’t know how long she’ll be around so time is of the essence.

I don’t even know where to start to ask for help. I know there’s a ton of family drama to sort through with that (maybe I’ll seek out the free counseling services on campus), but when it comes to the financial stuff, I could really use an outsider’s take on it. In your expert opinion, should I just suck it up, take on the fourth job, get college over with and try to help out my family? Should I forego the fourth job and try to help out my family anyway? Or just do the best I can to support myself, try to enjoy the last few months of college, and hope my family is able to figure it out as well? — C.

C. — There is so much to unpack in this letter you sent (do take advantage of the free counseling services and talk through all of this), but the thing you need to know is that if you take care of yourself first, you’ll be in a better position to help take care of other people. It’s worth repeating: You need to take care of yourself first because then you’ll be able to help other people on your own terms.

As a person who supports his parents, I’m sympathetic to your situation, but I’ve been only able to help them by living my life on my own terms. The career I’ve built is my own, and not the one they dreamed for me. On the face of it, it’s a fairly typical story from a child of immigrant parents: They were strict and had high expectations for me when I was in school, and I was both verbally and physically admonished if I brought home less than stellar grades. They expected me to become a doctor or a lawyer and I instead moved to D.C. when I graduated from college to work as a reporter. I rebelled against their wishes, and it wasn’t easy — no child wants to hear from his or her parents that he or she is a disappointment — but I also proved to them that I was smart and independent, that I could be successful, and most importantly, that when I started sending home that money to them that it would not only be an act of filial piety, but that it would be an act of love. It would be an act that I did on my own terms. And because it’s money sent on my own terms, there is no resentment attached to it.

That money you’re sending to your dad to help him out financially? There are seeds of resentment planted all over it. It’s all there, written in your letter.

You have no idea what the full financial details are for your college education because your father says he doesn’t want you to stress out, yet he seems to have no problem stressing you out by asking you to give him as much as $2,000 (seriously, there is no reason why you shouldn’t know these details — have him show you all the paperwork so you can get that debt sorted out). He apparently needs the money because he’s unemployed, but he’s also using the money to, as you say, “splurge” on things like two new iPhones for himself and your mother. He is preventing you from saving up money to do what you want to do, which is move to South America to be with your ailing grandmother. To continue supporting your dad and to help him with his dream of launching his new company, you are considering taking on a fourth — FOURTH — job waitressing at a strip club. The seeds of resentment are abundant.

It’s time to start living your life on your own terms. Figure out what you need to save to move to South America and start saving that money for yourself. Figure out what your student loan situation is so you’ll know what you’ll have to pay back once you’ve graduated and can plan ahead for that. Run through the numbers and figure out the exact amount of money you can give away without having it interfere with any of your plans. If want to help your father, that’s the figure you can give him: “Dad, I can afford to give you [x dollars] a month, but that’s it — you’ll have to figure out the rest on your own.” If he asks for more, tell him the truth: “The only way I can afford to help you more is if I take on a fourth job at a strip club working as a waitress.” The truth isn’t pretty, but he’ll need to hear it. And then, after this, if he still asks for more money (“I know you said that all you can give me is [x dollars], but if I could just get a little more this month…”), the thing you have to say next is “no.”

Remember, your parents are capable adults. If they need money and if you don’t have the money to give to them, they’ll just have to figure out how to get that money somewhere else. And they will figure it out because they’ll have no other choice but to figure it out.

When I lost my job during the Recession, I couldn’t ask my parents for money because they had no money to give me. I was forced into a position of figuring out how to pay my rent or give up my life in New York and move in with relatives somewhere else. So: I figured it out. I went though every single contact I had looking for leads, and in a shaky economy was able to score a job driving a truck around the city for a few months delivering newspapers and other goods to businesses. I was accompanied by a dog named Louie. It was hard work, physically, and mentally — I felt humbled driving a truck while I held two advanced degrees, but I did what I had to do to pay the bills because I had no other choice. That experience proved to me how resilient I could be during the toughest of times. And then things just got better from there. Your father, when faced with few choices on how to pay the bills, will have to dig deep and figure out how to be resilient.

C., enjoy the last few months of college. Send only what you can afford to help out your parents, and do what you need to do to get yourself to South America. Start living your life on your own terms.

Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments. Photo: Neil’s Photography