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Why I’m Glad My Parents Didn’t Pay for My College Education

by Melanie on June 13, 2014 · 34 comments

in career, education

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pay for college education

The following article is from Melanie, our new staff writer. Melanie is in the beginning phase of her journey to Financial Freedom and she’ll offer a refreshing point of view for us. For instance, I’m investing in the state’s 529 plan to help pay for my kid’s college education, but she has a different take on it. Let’s see what she has to say.

As a Millennial, I am a walking statistic. I carry a large student loan balance that will take me years to pay back. I chose to pursue higher education, as I thought it was the right thing to do, the appropriate next step after immersing myself in the working world. 

When all is said and done, I will have paid over $81,000 in student loan debt. Much of my generation is saddled with student loans, and the news doesn’t make it any better. Every day we see tuition rising, more young people burdened by large student loans looming over their heads, and the post graduate job market continues to be dismal for many. Currently, I have paid off $40,000 of my $81,000 balance. About $30,000 of that was paid off in the past three years after I got serious about getting out of debt. During this time, I faced bouts of unemployment and seasonal work, making between $16k-30k. It has not been an easy road, but I’m determined to get out of debt.

Some days, I dream of what it would be like to be debt free. By my standards, I’d be rich, much more carefree, and able to fulfill some of my dreams that are currently on hold.  However, as I began whittling down my debt,  I started to realize how much I have grown as a person and am appreciating my journey. And I’ve realized that I wouldn’t change a thing.

 Here is why I’m glad my parents didn’t pay for my college education:

They Didn’t Compromise Their Retirement

I always knew that getting a college degree was something that I wanted to do, and my parents always emphasized the importance of going to college. My parents also made it pretty clear they were unable to assist me with my college tuition. You better believe I asked for help. They assisted me in the ways they could, but paying for tuition was my responsibility.

When I decided to go to graduate school in 2010, I asked for a help again. The answer was still the same. Although it hurt at the time, I’m glad my parents set boundaries. I’m glad they understood that by paying my tuition, they would be compromising their own dreams of retirement. Although my parents make a good salary, for most of my life they have been a single-income household, with my mother being the breadwinner. To pay for my college would mean compromising their situation. Remember, you can borrow money to go to school, but you can’t borrow money to retire.

I Have A Strong Work Ethic

I have always been a hard worker, but once I realized that no one was going to bail me out of debt, I really kicked it into high gear. For the past several years, I’ve taken on many side hustles as: a pet sitter, house cleaner, brand ambassador, event assistant, and more. I’ve even worked an overnight rave selling water to sweaty dancers… I’ve made between minimum wage and up to $20/hour for these side hustles. There is (almost) nothing I won’t do.

Before, I used to think that I was too good to do certain things, or that I was “above” doing a certain kind of work. Then I realized that work is work. You have to be responsible for your own financial well-being, and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes. It doesn’t mean it will be like that forever. It is temporary, but you have to take the first steps. Being in debt has taught me the value of hard work. It has taught me patience and resilience. Those are qualities you cannot teach; you only learn it from experience. To me, learning those qualities and knowing I can bounce back from hard times is priceless.

I Was Forced to Learn About Finance

When I graduated college, I knew very little about personal finance. I had a vague idea of what a budget was, knew that saving was important, but didn’t really understand how everything worked together. Upon graduation, while dealing with my student loans and having found a low-paying job, I knew I had to get smart quick in order to take care of myself. Although it’s been a journey filled with ups and downs, false starts, and quick turnarounds, I’ve learned a lot. In order to get out of this mess, I was forced to learn about finances. And so I did. I have an emergency fund, started saving for retirement, and put over 50% of my income towards debt. I still have a long way to go, but sometimes you can only take baby steps. I had to learn the hard way, but I learned many lessons – lessons that came gift wrapped in a very complex package.

I’m glad for the journey

Would I be more financially stable, richer, and better off if my parents paid for my college? Probably, but purely from a financial aspect. I am choosing to see the silver lining and appreciate the other areas of my life that I am rich including love, health, experiences and hard work.

If you are thinking about compromising your retirement to help your child, you don’t have to. Do what you can, make your boundaries clear, but realize it’s not all bad news out there.

About Melanie

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.
Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master.
Photo credit: flickr Herkie
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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

papadad June 13, 2014 at 1:57 am

Work ethic is fundamental to success. nothing like “no plan b” to keep you motivated. Well done.

Being totally, entirely, 100% debt free is awesome. Totally awesome. Highly recommended !!!

I am curious what field you chose to get your degree(s) in, and knowing the employment and income prospects of those fields, i you would have chosen different schools (cheaper..perhaps community college first and then university)? or chosen a different field that could have landed you in similar paying positions but with a much lower debt burden?

I think many college students today fail to realize that education is not bundled with a guaranteed return. The ROI on spending $100K for a college degree only to come out with job prospects earning 35K/year is fairly dismal and will take a long LONG time to pay back. Most kids fail to see that. That;s where parents need to take a more active role in their kids lives guiding them toward wise/sound financial decisions.

As a parent of a high school senior (and a high school freshman) i am worried because my own son has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up, and thus i worry he will throw money toward a worth less (not worthless) degree in a field where job prospects are mediocre at best. He is not a STEM type kid…. i’m encouraging him to explore being a pediatric nurse as he is great with kids. Plus, grade school teachers make less than gas station attendants in Oregon so not a bright future in that career field (unless you do that as a second / encore career) …. He has a good deal of world experience (he has lived abroad most of his childhood, speaks a couple of languages, is well liked) but even that is no guarantee.

We’re saving for (and have agreed to fund) as much of a college degree as we can, but, like your parents I am not going to jeopardize retirement plans for the sake of overpriced college education. I dont blame the education system entirely – for every over priced college degree being offered, there is a sucker born every minute handing their money over to “earn” a degree. Again, parents need to play a role here to guide our children.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 7:41 am

I have both of my degrees in the arts, related to theater and arts management. When I chose to go to graduate school, I was working in arts management. Essentially, I had a great career already, but got lured by a good school, and felt it was the right next step. Getting a master’s degree was one of my life goals, so I am happy to say I have accomplished that. However, the price has been huge. I knew what debt load I was taking on before I went to NYU, but I figured that I’d find an even better job to pay it back. That didn’t happen. I think parents can play an active role in helping their kids see what path they are going down — but sometimes kids have to make their own mistakes too. I was so stubborn and certain about going to grad school. I can’t really say I regret it either, because I had a lot of great experiences come from it.

I think that’s great that you are saving for your child, but also not jeopardizing your retirement! Nice work!

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Nicoleandmaggie June 13, 2014 at 4:47 am

I’m glad my parents paid for college. They didn’t make much, but they put their retirement and our education first. That meant I got frugality lessons while growing up and learned how to live on very little and not care about consumer products. I also learned about the power of investing. These lessons put us on very good footing when we had to pay my husband’s college debt on very little income.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 7:46 am

That’s fantastic! You got the best of both worlds! I know very well what it’s like to pay off college debt on a small income. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences.

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Jon June 13, 2014 at 5:06 am

I agree with all of your points. My parents helped me out a little with college as did my grandfather. But I still had to take out loans. As much as I disliked paying them off after college, they taught be some valuable lessons.

My wife and I have already agreed that we will save what we can for our kids educations, but that they will be taking out student loans. Her experience was just like mine and feels that having loans helps you be more responsible.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:34 pm

It can be a very valuable learning lesson! I find it to be a part of my financial education.

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Elliott June 13, 2014 at 6:44 am

Good article and not a criticism, but curiosity. It’s great that your mother was the breadwinner, etc., but did/does your father not work at all? Are there other kids he is taking care of or was he homeschooling you if not working?

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Thank you! My dad lost his job when I was 14 and has not worked since. I’m now almost 30 :). So at no time was he really homeschooling me (I’m also an only child), but in high school he did pick me up, cook, etc. It’s a sensitive subject for me, but suffice it to say my parents are okay with the situation. I’ve realized that each couple has their own situation to deal with — I may have my own opinions, but if it works for them, that’s all that matters. I realized a while ago that if they were happy, then I should be too.

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kammi June 13, 2014 at 6:45 am

I’m glad I went to school via scholarships and working three jobs and came out with no debt. The schools helped (of course), but I was also able to quantify the money I earned working in terms of hours, which helped me to budget. Working hard (and smart) has also made money show up in my life unexpectedly all the time. The lowest I’ve ever been financially was having a roommate, because we did not have the same value system, and she would want to bring home bills that “we” should pay for (she was unemployed for quite a while). As soon as I could, I got out of that situation, and I’ve never looked back since (and she’s still ‘always broke’ even though she wanted to fully furnish our apartment right out of college. I just had a mattress for years; that’s all I needed). Now I’m not only working (and getting cheques on the side; I got five this week alone), but also going to school for cheap (as in, $40 a credit) or for free (via state grants) at nights. I think we often confuse knowledge and skill-set with academia. I met a guy years ago who said he did “everything” and basically would work only when he needed to financially, and was happy just doing the things he wanted to do whenever. I really like that idea…a lot.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 7:51 am

Hi Kammi, wow you are inspiring! I have also worked jobs while in school and I think it’s so important to offset the cost, and still have real world experience while in school. I’m glad you got out of that roommate situation! Nothing like a bad roommate situation to bust your budget! I think it’s a goal for a lot of us to work smarter, not harder and work becomes something you want to do, rather than have to do.

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Frugal Pediatrician June 13, 2014 at 6:45 am

Melanie’s story is to be commended. Parents should do what they can, and it sounds like her parents did not have the resources. For those that do, I think it is a stickier situation. We are saving for full college tuition for 2 kids, but my 6 year old says she wants to be a pediatrician. Our old medical school (typical for private but also high quality schools) is now 75K a year! Tuition and fees about 55K and living expenses in the med school dorm about 20K. Even UC system medical schools are not cheap. The ROI is high. If I have the resources and the ability to earn, how do I not help her pay? My parents paid for private college, and I paid for medical school but the tuition is ridiculous now. My husband was also on scholarship for all his education and we are lucky he has no loans. Its tricky.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 7:57 am

Thank you! That means a lot to me. I think paying for your child’s college education is a personal decision. If you have the resources, then definitely it makes sense. But medical school is so expensive! I can’t imagine what the price will be when your child is 18. I do think tuition has gotten out of control and hope to see some reform for students in the future.

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retirebyforty June 13, 2014 at 10:08 am

My dad wants our kid to be a doctor, but I’m afraid of medical school. Our goal is to pay for an undergrad degree from a public university and he’ll have to pay for graduate school. He’d have to borrow a huge amount to pay for medical school… You have to be really passionate about the job to invest that much time and money in it. Good luck!

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Chris June 13, 2014 at 7:18 am

That’s an interesting perspective Melanie. We are deluged with articles about the periles of student loans, but you write about how they have made you more responsible and frugal. I think that’s a great attitude to have. I was horribly afraid of debt when I was in college. I worked 2 to 3 jobs at a time to avoid it. Looking back, I sometimes wish I had taken a few loans. Working so much stressed me out, and probably impacted my grades. I don’t think student loans are as evil as the media makes them out to be, especially if the end result is a high paying career.

Everything in moderation – Including moderation.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:45 pm

I understand where you are coming from! I worked three jobs in graduate school while in NYC to prevent me from having over 100k in debt. I’m glad that I saved myself from being in 20k+ more debt, but sometimes I think I would have enjoyed grad school and NYC more if I wasn’t working all the time. There’s always a trade off. And yes, moderation is key! I’m not so good at the balance thing, but as I get older, I’m trying to find it.

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aB June 13, 2014 at 7:21 am

“When I graduated college, I knew very little about personal finance.”
This is usually true whether the parents pay for college or not. Work ethic is also independent of paying for college specifically, but is taught by parents.

Melanie’s story is quite inspirational. Taking whatever hand you are dealt and making it a better situation is always something to commend. Too many people just take it and complain about outside factors, and not willing to change themselves.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:49 pm

It’s been a perspective shift for me too. I used to want to blame others, and the system. While I do think there should be student loan reform, I realized that the government, or anyone for that matter wasn’t going to bail me out. I had to figure it out myself. I got myself in this situation, I had to get myself out too. It’s been quite a learning lesson, but I’m really happy with my current perspective.

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John June 13, 2014 at 9:05 am

Great perspective Melanie! I love that you’ve used the student loans as a way to grow and while you may have had some of the same opportunities if your parents had paid for school, you’ve been able to learn some invaluable lessons. We want to be able to help our kids out as we can and do save some for them, but I’m of the belief that it shouldn’t take priority over retirement. Both can be done in my opinion, but as you said there are no loans for retirement. That said, I think there is a ton that can be done from a parents perspective beyond just straight financial help. You can help them decide what direction is going to be the best for them in terms of a degree, location and so forth that all can help mitigate cost as well.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Thanks, John! It’s been refreshing for me to think about all the things I’ve learned. Although my parents didn’t help directly with financing my education, I’d be very remiss if I didn’t mention that I lived with them all throughout undergrad. That was a huge savings for me! They have also been very supportive in so many other ways. That’s fantastic that you are preparing for retirement and your child’s education.

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Michelle June 13, 2014 at 9:55 am

I am with you on this! I actually read a research study online that said that those who pay for their own college usually receive better grades and learn more from their studies because they have to work harder to attain it.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm

That’s really interesting! I believe it.

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Aldo June 13, 2014 at 11:15 am

I agree with you. Although I highly recommend 529 plans for those parents who want to pay for their children’s education, Kate and I decided that we won’t. Okay we might help a little, but we won’t pay for all of it. Yes, we have student loans but we believe that a little financial responsibility is not a bad thing. We’re going to teach – or at least try -our children how to save and how to work hard so they can pay for their own school. I’ll let you know how that turn out in 20 years.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Nice! I dig it. Yes, keep us posted. :)

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Smith June 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Wow. Verrrrry impressive!

And you’re not taking baby steps — you’re taking gigantic steps and taking responsibility for your future. Very few people do that just a couple of years after graduating from college. Good for you!

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Thank you! I realized long ago that having your head in the sand doesn’t really cut it!

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Squirrelers June 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm

You make some really good points. Having parents not compromise their own retirement, while making sure that the kid learns to survive and manage money responsibly, are good outcomes of this scenario. That being said, I think that if those two outcomes can happen while the kid’s college is also paid for, that’s really what we’re shooting for! I’m glad my undergrad was paid for, years ago. But that can be a challenge for many people, no doubt – especially in an age of increasing tuition.

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Melanie June 13, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Definitely! I think it’s ideal to have both outcomes, but it’s not necessarily easy.

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Kenny June 14, 2014 at 12:21 am

I definitely disagree with parents paying or not paying as a general rule.

In my case, I am a STRONG believer in paying for kids college education and their living expenses for the first 4 years. In fact, it is VERY crucial to fund it cause this allows the kids to focus their young minds to education, allowing them not to digress to how quickly they can collect dollars with low-end-jobs, and finally allows them to focus on doing high end internships that will lead them to a professional path. In my case, my kids will become professionals (90% probability) and I am going to fund their 1st four years. This path and choice, if planned early, can be easy and will allow the kids to know that they will NOT have to be challenged at an early age, or carry a huge loan amount, to be paid over the following 10 years.

Now, for parents who are not able to do it due to their own financial situation, all of the things mentioned in your article makes sense, and it is the best path to follow.

In my case, I have two kids at the University (Sophmore and Junior years just finished), and they are sailing through college with a full dependence on parents (us) and doing well by putting themselves through 4 hard courses, and 16 hours a week of unpaid/paid internship study (doing cancer research). This beats experience at Taco Bell or McDonalds or the Library any day, and it will allow them to leverage their experiences ‘appropriately’ towards their Professional Doctor degrees (goal line).

So, if the goal line / target is set high, a good plan is made when they are born, and if the plan plays out well (God willing), then it will definitely lead to great things. Plans are plans, and they do not work out always, but I have to share a very good “Party Line” that I had never heard before:

“Work Your Plans Until You Succeed or Find a Better Way…Whose Party Is It, Anyway?

You can make all the plans in the world, but if you’re not doing something to make them happen, what’s the use? A plan is an invitation to a party. But to have any fun, you’ve got to show up and participate.”

Best Regards,

Kenny

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retirebyforty June 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Kenny, I’m with you because that’s what my parents did. I knew they sacrificed a lot to pay for my college education and I tried my best to get through school. It seems to be highly dependent on the kid and family. Many kids just don’t appreciate the effort and they don’t give it their best shot. I guess it depends on expectation too.

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Frugal Pediatrician June 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I agree. I remember helping out at my dad’s various businesses when we were younger (simple stuff like stuffing envelopes, filling drink orders) I think mostly to keep us occupied after school while parents were working too and keeping an eye on us. I think that showed me the value of hard work. But after entering high school and definitely college, we were given the time and support to focus on our studies. I remember in college thinking, wow my parents are essentially back then paying $150 a day for me to be here and study. My dean of students asked me to babysit for $8 an hour? I thought to myself, that makes no sense! I should probably be studying to get an A in organic chemistry instead or do something to make sure I get into medical school.

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Marie June 14, 2014 at 2:37 am

College payment is really high! I hope we had student loan here in our country. It is really useful to all who wants to go to College. Not all of here are given the opportunity to finish College because of Financial Problems. So, mostly, after graduating High School, they work to save for their College.

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Pat June 14, 2014 at 5:39 pm

While I agree with you on many point but I do believe that any adult who want to have children should plan to help out their children college education especially now a day. 529 plan is really easy to set up start it as soon as a first day of his/ her ‘s life as a birthday present make more sense than those cute clothes and those expensive strollers.

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jerryk June 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I am torn whether it is a good idea to pay for a child’s education. We have two kids. One is very focused and had their college and graduate school mapped out. She is now working on her PhD. The other is more typical. She is in her 3rd year of college and still trying to find herself. This seems like a waste of money to me, especially if she ends up going to private college for 50K a year. She is looking at a career in a tech related field, so she will probably end up making good money, but who knows if she will change her mind in a year.

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retirebyforty June 16, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Oh man. That’s tough. I would be hesitant to pay 50k/year if my kid is undecided too. I’d probably encourage him to go to public school or even take a few years off to figure out what he wants to do.

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