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

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. 


56 Comments / Post A Comment

oiseau (#1,830)

Oh, my god. This was painful to read, but I am so impressed that you were able to pull it off. That seems like SO much money, and I would feel so betrayed & hurt by my parents if they’d done that to me. You are amazing.

Also out of curiosity, I am wondering what field you work in and how your career has developed? I want to know more!

@oiseau Yeah I was wondering if there was any way the writer could discuss her dream school/field/career? (for some reason this reads as a she to me, could be wrong though)

CLhere (#2,548)

@oiseau Howdy, it’s me. Thank you for your kind words!

I actually went to school for classical music. So, yeah…not exactly a friendly job market. I’ve transitioned into more pop/musical theatre/writing stuff (where the money is) and I’m much happier with that. (Not just because of the money, but money helps!)

I make some of my income in the music/theatre/writing fields, but I still make most of my money from day jobs. Because of my loans, I can’t do what other aspiring musicians/writers do and work as a barista – I have to find real, serious employment. That’s hard because 1. jobs are hard to get! and 2. it makes it difficult for me to have the flexibility I need to do my show biz stuff. However, I am REALLY lucky and have managed to cobble together a living with one flexible full time job and one super flexible part time job. Long story short: I work a lot. But it’s worth it, because every month I’m progressing toward doing what I truly love full-time.

@CLhere Hi CL! Does your flexible full time job have to do with music as well, or is it in a different field entirely?

@CLhere would that school happen to one in the middle of manhattan which robin williams said was like a prison with cellos? I only ask because I am also an alum and am HIGHLY impressed that you managed to pay off all your loans while living in NY and because I know how hard it is to find a job in our field. Damn girl. (And what years were you if you did go to the same school? Do we know each other? Ahhhh).

CLhere (#2,548)

@polka dots vs stripes No, the full time one doesn’t – it’s in real estate – but the part time one does.

CLhere (#2,548)

@oatmealshrapnel Prison with cellos!?!? Omg I’ve never heard that one – I was back there last week and I seriously started getting PTSD.

@CLhere Haha it was the big saying around 2003/4 I think. Yea, I moved pretty far away so I don’t have to be around the place anymore, although I did have to be back for an audition last year and, not gonna lie, the practice rooms still freak me out. I remember when everyone was auditioning for grad school and not understanding WHY my classmates would choose to stay.

@CLhere Just a gentle reminder that work is work is work, & many baristas do in fact consider their jobs to be “real, serious employment”. If you do occasionally pay to have other people make your coffee for you, please tip; money probably matters to them, too.

CLhere (#2,548)

@Tyler Brewington@facebook Lemme rephrase: I needed to get a job that would cover my expenses, which being a barista would not. (Been there, done that, didn’t pay enough.) However, if you know of a coffee joint that’s hiring positions at 40K a year, do let me know.

wearitcounts (#772)

yeah you are pretty much my hero.

yankeepeach (#276)

I am so proud of you. I also think your parents might have been the irresponsible,unprepared ones in this scenario and the fact you made lemonade out of their lemons (so to speak) is something you have a right to be proud of.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

At first reading this I was like “hey, me too!” – my parents always told me I could go to any school I wanted, they refused to talk about money when I was looking at colleges and told me money shouldn’t factor into the decision – but they wised up when they saw how much it would actually cost and I ended up going to my public state school which I actively hated for four years. I never considered transferring, because I knew I couldn’t afford anything else. I knew I would have loans right away, but (thankfully!) these were public.

So yeah, not like me at all.

I’m surprised you agreed to pay the entirety of the loan on such short notice. I would have lost it with my parents if they had taken out private loans and then asked me to immediately pay them back without my having been part of the decision and it being in their name.

(they were the ones who took out the loan, right? that’s what it sounds like)

Oh wow, that’s so fucked up.

mbmargarita (#781)

My parents and I also never had a conversation about my student loans, how much I was taking on, and who would pay them. Fortunately in my case it wasn’t much, and I was eased into paying them with some initial help from my parents, but this article just made me realize how little discussion there was and how much more screwed I could have been. I feel so fortunate that my parents never pressured me to let money be a factor in choosing my college, but the flip side of that is that we never talked about what exactly that would mean for me after I graduated. Parents– talk to your kids about loans!

bgprincipessa (#699)

@mbmargarita This is exactly how I felt as well. It was never really discussed, and they wanted me to go wherever I wanted. I think they were depending on me getting good scholarships – which I did, for sure, on merit. And they paid for much and more of what it didn’t cover, and that was well and happy. But – I had no idea that loans had even been taken out in my name. I honestly didn’t realize! Until senior year, when I had to do the exit interview things. But like you, it was thankfully a modest amount (in the range of $7000) so I am sucking it up and slowly paying it off.

It is so, so, so important for both parents/guardians AND their children to take a loan literacy class before they apply to college. What your options are with private versus public loans, repayment schedules versus actual salaries – seriously, show them what repayment looks like if you can’t get a job and you’re a barista or something for awhile. No sugarcoating.

Should be a high school graduation requirement.

CL I’m incredibly impressed with you – I think this is one of those stories that is going to stick with me and remind me, if she can do it, so can I.

I am curious – is this one private loan that has a 10 year repayment plan, and you have more government ones too? Or were all your loans private?

CLhere (#2,548)

@polka dots vs stripes Thanks for your encouragement! I completely agree with you about needing to actually show kids what repayment looks like – to put it in perspective. My parents actually told me, “oh, you’ll have 30 years to pay these off.” Wrong! Haha…God, it makes me laugh sometimes how naive I was.

I have two government loans, but they didn’t cover enough, which is where the evil private loans come in. I three separate private loans – I don’t know what my parents’ logic was on that, but that’s what I got.

@CLhere Thanks so much for responding! Given our terrible economy, I’ve become more and more interested in how people “do money” (or, “do college”) so I appreciate you putting yourself out there on the ‘net, when so many people still treat these topics as taboo.

probs (#296)

Sounds like you handled it with aplomb, good job.

aetataureate (#1,310)

This is my favorite one of these so far. Can’t even say how impressive it is that you managed to find a way out of this hole and also forgive your parents. Good god.

Very impressed. I had a similar sort of situation but I did not handle it nearly as well as you did.

jfruh (#161)

One thing I’m learning reading these are that there are so many wildly different things that fall under the umbrella term “student loans,” from the formal, federally backed loans that students get through a school’s student aid office to private bank loans that parents take out that just happen to be for paying for their kid’s college. I feel lucky that I at least was aware that my student loans existed when I went to college, and that it was clear in my mind that I would be the one paying them when I graduated. But I’m also very lucky that the amount I accrued was relatively low ($14K, $165/month payment). Honestly I would have signed off on anything to go to college, and could very well have ended up with an unrealistic debt burden upon graduation. I think it would probably be a very, very good idea for schools to very explicitly tell students how much their loan payment would be every year they take out loans, though for the sort of private loans that are under discussion here that probably wouldnt’ work.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@jfruh The unifying thread seems to be that there is virtually always at least one person in the dark about the loans in some way. Whether about rates, repayment, whose name they’re in, etc. It’s terrifying.

This is prompted more by this series in general, rather than this particular author’s experience (although I am deeply, deeply impressed by her ability to make this all work), but are most schools not need-blind anymore? Were you all not getting financial aid? Is it being calculated differently now?

When I was in college, back in the dark ages, basically the FAFSA calculated how much your family could afford. All the colleges I applied to said they’d meet the difference. So, my family’s contributions was calculated at, say, $5,000 a year. Tuition, fees, etc. was $25,000. My financial aid made up the difference, mostly in grants, a bit of work-study, and loans only in the amount of the max of the Federal subsidized Stafford loans. For a 4-year school that ultimately cost $100,000, my parents kicked in around $20,000, I had a little over $10,000 in loans, and the rest was grants from the college itself.

Is this not how it works anymore? It was cheaper for me to go to fancy East Coast school than big state U. These days, at Harvard for example, financial aid is all grant money if the family income is under $60,000 (or $100,000?), so Harvard is cheaper than state schools for many people. You’ve got to get admitted, of course, but my understanding has always been that for top schools, if you were smart enough to get in, the money thing tended to get sorted out for those from the lower-middle and middle-middle class.

Is everyone’s parents just making so much money that they can technically afford the price tag, and I was just really poor? I’m honestly confused.

@angry little raincloud The FAFSA can really screw over some families; for example, my boyfriend got no financial aid (not that he really needed it, but still) because the FAFSA took into account his parent’s retirement accounts, which were quite healthy. So a family that didn’t make a ton of money, but was really great at saving for retirement, might get screwed. Or a family that has 2 other kids in high school. This is in line with your last question – “technically afford” the price tag doesn’t mean you actually have that cash on hand (or were planning on spending it on college). The FASFA does some weeeeeird calculations sometimes.

Most colleges are also changing the ways they “meet your need.” It used to be they threw in more grants, scholarships, etc, but now they suggest loans because (for state schools especially) the government has been cutting more and more support to schools. There are private schools that work harder to get a diverse student body and continue to give out non-loan aid, but then there are others that are just cash cows.

I know very few people for whom it was actually cheaper to go to fancy East Coast school or out of state big state U (and I lived on the east coast so they didn’t need to think about flying etc) than in state big state U. People still went though.

highjump (#39)

@angry little raincloud Very few schools are need blind anymore. It genuinely is expensive because (yay, progress!) more lower income teens are getting into truly fantastic schools. Even Grinell, which has a huge endowment, is phasing out their need-blind policy:

You really cannot use Harvard as a comparison because they have literally the best financial aid in the country, not to mention the biggest endowment.

@polka dots vs stripes @highjump Thanks to you both. That makes me very sad that someplace like Grinnell is phasing out need-blind admission (it’s colleges of the ilk of Grinnell I was thinking about: the Grinnells, Amhersts, Wellesleys, etc., as well as Ivies). I need to check if my own alma mater still has need-blind admission. Need-blind admission is truly one of the fantastic things about this country’s system of elite, selective schools. It’s what got a country bumpkin like me into the world I am today. There is no fucking way I would be doing what I’m doing if I had attended Midwestern State.

Yeah, the FAFSA can screw people over and be interpreted selectively. I didn’t attend my first choice because that one school thought my deadbeat, absentee dad would be kicking in dough. (Hello! He didn’t pay child support. You think he’s paying for college?!?) Anyway.

And, yes, the Harvard example probably isn’t the best. I guess it just ruffles my feathers when someone instantly assumes on the basis of my (not-Harvard, but fancy-sounding to some school) undergrad that I must be some trust fund princess. It truly was cheaper for me to go there than to Big State U. I used to teach at another Big State U., and it horrified me that my students were paying so much to attend. I paid far, far less to attend my fancy school and got such a better education (and, I was teaching there, so by that comment, yes, I know I’m saying something bad about my own contribution to higher education).

CLhere (#2,548)

@angry little raincloud My school was need-blind as far as admissions went, but has basically zero endowment. VERY few people got scholarships, and there was essentially no need-based aid, just merit aid. I went to school for classical music, so that mostly meant they used their scholarships to recruit tenors, violists – whatever they needed to fill out the program. My school helped me “cover the difference” by hooking me up with Citibank.

@angry little raincloud @highjump as a recent Grinnell alum, I feel obligated to clarify that Grinnell is not actually phasing out need-blind admission at this point. Nobody wants it to go away – administrators, trustees, alumni, faculty, none of us want it go away. It’s just that the current financial situation is not sustainable over the long-term, and the administration is looking into different options, and becoming non-need-blind/not covering full demonstrated need is the very last resort.

But yeah, I started there almost the last year that tuition was substantially lower than comparable schools and was exempt from later tuition hikes, had a substantial merit-based scholarship that ended up making the net cost cheaper than in-state universities, and the FAFSA still claimed my parents should have been able to contribute quite a bit more than was actually workable for them, due to a combination of retirement savings and other family circumstances. The college has some kind of deal worked out with a loan provider so I got a really low interest rate on the private loan that made up the difference, and my total amount of debt is pretty reasonable, but I definitely had classmates with less well-off parents who have hefty loan totals, because things like Pell Grants and federal work-study that give people non-loan options have been disappearing for years, even before the recession.

etc etc (#1,913)

@Lorelei@twitter Heyo, another Grinnell alum here! I was just about to write my own comment about Grinnell still offering need-blind admissions before I read yours! I wonder how many of us frequent The Billfold and other Awl sites.

Megoon (#328)

@angry little raincloud I think part of it is that college is just so, so much more expensive, that the FAFSA now assumes that your family will have to fork over a much larger percentage of their assets to the school. My mom was PISSED that they wanted her to consider equity in her house as part of our finances; you can’t give the college your living room. Oh! And I believe the FAFSA took into account my mom, stepdad, and dad’s $$, even though my dad was not willing to contribute anything above his child support payments. My stepdad, fortunately, considers me his daughter and contributed, but I thought it was utter BS that his income was considered part of my package when he and I aren’t legally family.

DarlingMagpie (#1,695)

I don’t know… I understand the punched-in-the-gut feeling you must have had when they told you how MUCH your loans would be initially, but I still shake my head at the naïveté of the situation. A summer in Italy? A “dream school”? (read: expensive Ivy maybe?) Those things obviously add up, and they definitely made it clear that your loan was YOURS to repay. Despite the financial-sheltering by your parents, it seems you ignored giant FLASHING, not just fleeting hints here or there.

I don’t mean to sound so negative, I’m glad you were able to pull up your socks to do it, that really is the important and inspiring part in the end.

MelNotMissy (#968)

@DarlingMagpie She wrote in the article that initially, her parents said they would pay for it. It was not until after they took out these loans that they told her they would not pay for it. I don’t think it’s naive to assume your parents are telling you the truth.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@MelNotMissy word.

CLhere (#2,548)

@DarlingMagpie I wish more than anything that I had been more curious about the loans. But, as @MelNotMissy said, I trusted my parents. It wasn’t until right before I graduated that they changed their story.

selenana (#673)

@DarlingMagpie I agree just a tiny little bit about the naivete, but I probably would have done the same things. I think the author was a little naive if her family’s situation is what I think it sounds like from the story – two parents in probably working-class jobs (not that those don’t make money – my friends’ parents who did dry wall and house painting were more well off than my social worker mom) and a brother who probably needed a lot of care and perhaps needed more financially. As an adult who has to deal with bills this is very clear and I would take a hard look at whether it was truly affordable. My parents would also try to give me things they couldn’t afford. But money stuff is pretty hard to wrap your head around when you’re a kid who’s never really had to deal with it.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

You are a badass. Thanks for sharing this.

Beans (#1,111)

Wait, I’m confused. If the parents took out the loans in their names, aren’t they the ones legally responsible for them? How is this legal for them to force their child into paying them off?

@Beans I am absolutely guessing here, but perhaps the parents would’ve been forced into bankruptcy, and with a child who has disabilities to take care of that may have been catastrophic.

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

@Beans I believe these loans are Parent Plus loans. The parents are the primary and are legally responsible. However, many parents guilt the child into paying since it was for the child’s education.

melis (#42)

Ohhh my God you are a majestic zen-beast for forgiving them. I would have a series of REVENGE GRANDCHILDREN and refuse to let my parents meet them in your shoes.


(that really only makes sense if you happen to watch Revenge and then read the AV Club….so hopefully you do?)

Marzipan (#1,194)

I think parents (also, everyone) should stop, stop, stop saying and/or believing that “money should not be a factor” for picking a school. What on earth should be, then? I mean, it doesn’t have to be the cheapest, but, hey, VALUE! When is it EVER not important to try and make sure you are getting a good value for your dollar?

I mean, I am in maybe literally the best possible position paying-for-school-wise and I very much enjoyed my experience and think it was in many ways life-changing and responsible for where I am now (which I like), BUT I would still go back in time and REALLY, REALLY think about it. AND I picked my school because it was the cheapest of the schools I applied to, after financial aid. But I would definitely look at cheaper schools, apply differently, and focus on different things. I just had no idea what I was doing! It was all very difficult and confusing and seemed like such a big decision, I had no idea how to go about it. Teenagers are idiots! Help them!

smack (#307)

It is insane, and I mean really insane that we don’t figure out some sort of tuition schedule commensurate with what people might earn in their chosen field. I mean the fact that you can charge these ridiculous 100k plus tuitions for 4 years majoring in like French lit at a liberal arts school is insane.

Or fine arts! I was a fine arts major and let’s be honest, while it’s really awesome, and great, nobody, or at least a TINY TINY TEENSY TINY PERCENTAGE ever makes a real decent living off of like, theater acting. It just seems unfair that kids who want to do art wind up paying out the ass the same way that like, aeronautical engineers do or whatever.

That being said, are we also going to see a stronger culture shift where kids don’t expect their parents to do anything for college? I don’t have any kids but if I did I’d be telling them from the age of like, 9, that they were on their own with that shit.

bacon (#1,500)

Student loan debt is now apparently higher than all credit card debt in the US, not far off $1 trillion. And it’s one of the few kinds of debt, they say, that you can’t get out of by filing bankruptcy, thanks to the ironically labeled Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, or Bush bankruptcy bill. Sallie Mae, which used to make lots of money as a middleman between government and student (taking fees and interest income on government-guaranteed loans) has now been taken out of that side of the market, thanks to our Prez. So now they’re focusing their efforts on getting parents to co-sign instead of the govt. What happens when former students now working as baristos can’t pay? DON’T WORRY! Compassionate conservatives like MITT ROMNEY WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU! For instance, put you in a nice, maybe privatized, Debtor’s Jail”

Honestly, you should consider yourself lucky. I went to a Private College last year on loan money I got myself, no fancy trips to Italy or fancy schools in NYC. I went to the bank and got a loan, thinking I would receive the Cal Grant the following year, thus making school virtually free. But the government thought my family( who don’t spend a dime on my education) were too well off so I got nothing but a fat debt and no degree to show and was forced to go to an impacted JC. Consider yourself lucky to have parents that were able to get the loans for you to go to your dream school and go to Italy and expirence such great life changing events. Oh how I envy you. Don’t blame them for making you pay for your own education, thank them for making it possible for you to pay for it. Your plight doesn’t register with me, because it wasn’t a plight at all, it was a privilege.

CLhere (#2,548)

@Troy Kent@facebook Dude, amen. I do feel lucky. And as I said, I regret nothing about going to my school – because it was an amazing school. I just wish my parents had been honest with me about what the deal was – it was still a deal I would have gladly taken. Just wish I had known what I was in for.

Best of luck to you.

@Troy Kent@facebook agreed.

Anarcissie (#1,703)

What I found very surprising about this story is that C.L. thinks she received value for the money. So many people I talk to have gone into huge debts because they believe they can never get a job unless they have the otherwise worthless degree. I myself dropped out in order to preserve a modest inheritance and never looked back, and I have done fairly well, but maybe that’s just luck. In general, though, I don’t believe in making any money investment where you can’t see exactly how you’re going to profit from it. Unfortunately we live in, and consent to live in, a society where our lives are dominated by irrationality and prejudice, including that promulgated by the education industry.

Earnest Prole (#2,574)

I’ve read that this is an increasing problem — punk-ass parents refusing to pay for the things their adult children demand. Fortunately there’s a government program that will make up the difference — just dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT to enroll.

CLhere (#2,548)

@Earnest Prole Haha! You’re so rude, wow. I hear there’s a “government program” for that: 1-800-this insult died in 7th grade, along with your reading comprehension skills.

Your privilege and sense of entitlement are equally fascinating.

CLhere (#2,548)

@Christine Cooke@facebook Sounds like you have a chip on your shoulders.

bibliostitute (#285)

I was really glad to read this, because regardless of whether or not it says anything about privileged, it says a lot about what do we do when our parents make promises they aren’t able to keep.

To say that CL has a sense of entitlement, or is silly for feeling like there was value received from this degree is missing the point. The point is at every step of the way, CL’s parents were encouraging, and deceptively so. This is really fascinating. If my parents told me to go wherever I wanted, study abroad several times, and not worry about it, and we had never talked finances before, I would have believed them. It’s a privilege to be able to believe one’s parents about these things, I suppose, but it’s also not so wretched that CL explains that those were the circumstances.

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