How to have the student debt talk with your child

If you’re like me, you wish someone would’ve sat you down when you were finishing high school (and after your undergrad degree, too, before going for your masters) and had a straight talk with you about college debt.

I imagine someone having the debt talk with me before grad school. Let’s say they told me point-blank the reality of what after-grad-school life with an arts degree would be like: “Like writing and film? Get this degree and never be able to do any of those again.”

“But why?” my younger self would have asked.

“Because it’s really hard to make ends meet in cities that have good film jobs when you are making $80/day or interning or working a combination of two or three jobs.”

“Yeah but that won’t be me,” I would’ve replied. “I’m smart. I got into this top school, didn’t I? So, I’ll be more likely to succeed, more likely to be the one out of five art students who actually makes money doing art.”

I wish at 34, I could go back and talk to that 24-year-old me. I would tell her: “You are certainly brilliant. Unfortunately, a lot art schools are dominated by kids whose family have a lot of money and connections. They will push their kids in front of the people who you should be standing in front of. They will hand them a hundred grand to make their thesis films, and they will pull strings among their social circles to connect their children to money and jobs. They will also pay their kid’s studio apartment in Manhattan while he interns and shops work around indefinitely.

“I can’t do any of those things for you, and I don’t want you to have your dreams crushed by the fact that you will have to borrow $100K++ and you will have to pay it back. I want you to have a house and a nice wedding. I want you to travel and see the world and buy beautiful things when you want to treat yourself. This two to four year study program could hinder all of those goals.”

I didn’t get “the talk”, and so I had to learn the hard way. When I finished college I was offered a job at an art gallery for a whopping $27,500 per year. It sounded like a lot of money at the time. It seemed like I should easily be able to afford a $600 per month room in my small San Francisco apartment and get around the city and have fun once in awhile.

Two years and $15,000 in credit card debt later, I learned that it wasn’t. Read more of my story here. I made poor financial decisions most of my young-adult life, and it’s highly likely nobody could have convinced me to do anything differently.

So, parents, this then is your challenge. And you must rise to it. How do you talk to kids who won’t listen to you about a debt that could haunt them the rest of their lives? It’s a different world you’re child is going off into. Student debt is a different beast from what most of you, as parents, encountered.

And to top it all off, the smarter your kid is the more debt he or she will probably end up with. Why? Because they will get into top schools which offer less scholarship money, or they’ll want to pursue higher degrees (like MFA, MBA, med school, law school), which at any good school are astronomically expensive.

So, if your 19-year-old or your post-undergrad 20-something starts making the wrong financial decisions now, the effects could snowball, and the next four to eight years could mean they’re debt-ridden until they’re middle aged.

Your kid won’t be the only one affected. The debt they’re about to take on could affect the grandchildren you want, but they cannot afford to have. They may need to borrow money from you to live, to buy a car to get to work. It could affect where they live (can your daughter and her boyfriend crash in your basement for a few years?). It could affect whether your offspring can even find someone to marry. Who wants to wed someone in six-figure student loan debt?

So have “the talk”. I’ve put together a few ideas on what to say. Throughout this process, be creative, brainstorm. Have fun with it. We’re in a world of exorbitant student loans and ultra-tight job markets, and we need to be thinking way outside the box here. If your kid feels that you don’t understand the way to his or her goals, the reality is, you probably don’t. But this is 2017. The internet is great for such things. Don’t rely too heavily on your own voice to be the lightning bolt of reason. Lay the path out in a loving and understanding way, and use other resources, too. Whether your student will listen to your advice, well that’s another story.

  1. If someone lovingly had sat me down and painted out a budget that included  living where I wanted to live and doing what I wanted to do and they’d used a simple black-and-white Excel spreadsheet, and if they invited me to have an open (non-judgmental, non-know-it-all) conversation about it, I might have listened. I might not have even needed to go to grad school.
  2. Or if they had looked carefully at what I wanted to study, delved with me into what I loved about it, and explored whether we could find a degree that promised both to fulfill my dreams, and provide a high return on investment, I might have heard them.
  3. Had I had more role models or examples of people who had achieved success in a way I could replicate without going into dire financial straits, I would’ve listened to them. I literally did not know how to go about my goals any other way than going to school; and most young people don’t.
  4. Had someone investigated various options with me, I would’ve been excited. What about an overseas program? Merit-based apprenticeships? Experiences I could’ve had that weren’t college, but far more exciting?  Free knowledge that I could’ve obtained. The internet is a well of information. If someone would’ve brainstormed such options, I know I would’ve really heard them.
  5. I know when I went to grad school, I didn’t even think about how much I was borrowing. If they were offering it, I was taking it. If someone had been super clear about how much to take out, if we’d looked at earning potential, and translated all of that into how much my monthly payments would be, and how I wouldn’t have had money for things like food and tampons, let alone any sort of fun, I might have listened.

The talk, however intense or annoying to your 18 year old, or your 24 year old, would mean a lot less stress for them not only after graduation, but during college. Studies show high student debt negatively impact students well before they leave school.

Isn’t the idea of going off to university to have fun, experience life, and grow? The student debt crisis is this massive wet blanket on this amazing rite of passage into adulthood. Your kid has a right to enjoy this phase of their lives. Help them do that. Have the talk.