On the Lives We Could've Led
The most important decision of my life
When I was 17, my parents sat me down and laid all their cards on the table.
At the time I was trying to decide between attending college in Canada (where I could pay domestic rates) or the US where tuition was 3-4 times the price. I had gotten accepted into some pretty good schools in the States. Chicago. Berkeley. Columbia. Dream schools.
That’s when my parents broke the news: they couldn’t afford to send me to the States. They opened up about everything: how much savings they had in the bank, how much debt they were carrying, how much they still needed to save for my brother, and how much they could realistically afford for my education.
Then they gave me a choice: I could stay in Canada and have the majority of my education paid for (after scholarships) or I could go to the US and take out loans to make up the difference. More importantly, they broke down the consequences of each choice. In the first scenario, I would come out of college with zero debt. In the second, I would be like most of my peers, struggling under the burden of debt after graduation. It would be a decade or more of indentured servitude.
They asked me what price I would put on my own freedom. What was the next decade of my life worth to me?
Was I devastated by what they told me? You bet. I was furious. Who turns down Columbia? Are you fucking kidding me? But the two paths my parents laid out for me were clear. I couldn’t deny the logic.
Getting past the shame of talking about money
Looking back on it now, that level of transparency was the best thing they could’ve done for me. It couldn’t have been easy for my parents to share their financial struggles with me. Imagine the shame they must’ve felt to tell their kid they couldn’t afford to send them to their dream school. But you know what was more important to them than their own ego? Their son knowing exactly what his options were.
How can we as millennials ever learn to make good money decisions if nobody’s ever told us what our options were?
Five years later, I ended graduating from a top Canadian school with zero debt and was lucky enough to get a well paying job straight out of college. Since I knew the financial strain my parents were under, I paid for the last two years of my brother’s education so that they could start putting more towards retirement.
Isn’t that what a family is for? No secrets, no shame, and a willingness to face our problems together. To share in the burden of life.
Maybe I’m being too much of an idealist. Maybe I’m imagining a perfect world where every family can get together to sing kumbaya around the open communication campfire.
The cycle of financial dependence
Sometimes I imagine the life I could’ve had. What if I had gone down the path that most millennials were forced down? I would still be in debt today. I would’ve taken the first job offered instead of holding out for the one I wanted (or thought I wanted). I wouldn’t have quit my corporate job to pursue writing full time. I wouldn’t have been able to build my two year fuck off fund. Worse, my brother would've followed me to the U.S. and gotten into a similar amount of debt. My parents wouldn’t have enough for retirement. My brother and I wouldn’t have enough to take care of them.
And on and on goes the cycle.
It's only a shame that it's a secret
I read articles like The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans and wonder what if. What if the writer had told his daughter he would have to clean out his 401k to pay for her wedding? Would his daughter have let him do that to the family? Her family.
More so than knowledge, I think the lack of communication around money is one of the core issues facing lower to middle class families today. And it seems like the more trouble a family has, the less inclined they are to talk about them.
But how do we learn anything if everyone’s afraid to address the problem? To move past the shame towards something more constructive? The problem doesn’t go away. We’re just kicking the can further down the road.
Instead, why not take the first step and start with something we can control?
In the coming days and weeks of the new year, sit down with your families or significant other and share everything you’ve been afraid to tell them about your finances:
- What am I struggling with?
- What worries me about the future?
- What steps am I taking to address these issues?