Why is everyone so afraid to talk about finances? I grew up in a home that didn’t really talk about it as if it was “grown folks” business. It wasn’t until I was deemed old enough (senior year of high school) that my dad opened up to me about our family finances. The discussion we had was eye-opening because, for most of my life, I didn’t think we were bad off, financially.
I grew up living a simple life. We lived in a six bedroom, one bath, full basement, 3 story house that had belonged to my grandparents and was passed down to my dad. Our neighborhood wasn’t that bad, but as the decades went on, the neighborhood started taking on more and more negative connotations. We always had food and we always had clothing, a running car, and heating during the winter. We didn’t have central air, but that was because the house was a turn-of-the-century home and the remodeling would have cost too much. We had air conditioners and steel fans for St. Louis’ hot summer days. When I think about my childhood, I remember big Christmas celebrations, birthdays, annual trips to amusement parks and even out-of-state field trips. If I asked for something, my parents always delivered it. Luckily for me, I didn’t ask for things often, so it was never really a burden on them.
But all of this was a lie. A carefully constructed lie. My family never tried to act like we were big ballin’ or whatever, but at the same time, I was purposefully kept in the dark on financial matters. During my senior year of high school, while I was applying for colleges, my father had a frank discussion with me about our finances. We were working poor. I would say we were working class but that would imply that there was money stashed away somewhere in a 401K or we had investments or something like that when in reality, we were working poor. We didn’t live paycheck to paycheck. We lived every three paychecks to paycheck.
My dad explained it to me like this: he could miss two pay periods and everything would be fine but if he missed the third one, one of the bills wasn’t going to get paid. My father was a master saver but he was a man with a family and he was the only person working. He had three kids and a wife that couldn’t really work due to the aftermath of chemotherapy and leukemia. Don’t get me wrong, my mom can work, but working a fulltime job would destroy her body. She has an extremely weak immune system and her joints are all messed up from the chemotherapy and leukemia. That all started when she was in her early thirties and still continues to this day. So my dad shouldered the burden of everything and became the sole provider for our family. We were staying afloat until the 2008 recession hit.
After two years without work, both of my parents finally re-entered the part-time workforce. Well, my dad started off as a full-time manager but because the economy was still so shaky, he slipped into part-time work and that led to another job, and that led to another job. Things were tough. By 2012, he and I were having frank discussions about our finances. My dad was of the generation that still believed that a college education was the gateway to wealth or at least financial stability. And since a fair and good education was something that my family was denied (my parents, aunts, and uncles all grew up before or during the civil rights movement) they always encouraged me and my siblings to do well in school and pursue higher education. College was seen as a gateway out of poverty.
During my freshman year of college, my father died from cancer. His battle only lasted for three months but it depleted all of his savings and the money I’d been saving while in school. It left us paying off medical bills, property taxes, and funeral fees. My father had insurance, it just didn’t cover cancer… Isn’t life great? But that’s neither here nor there. After his death, I ended up taking out more student loans because my dad was no longer giving me money for school. After four years at a private university, I raked up $38,000 in student loan debt. I know, your eyes just kind of glazed over, right? Originally, I was on track for $32,000 in loans, which would have put me closer to the national average, but I just had to study abroad (I say sarcastically). But in all fairness, I don’t regret studying abroad, I just wish I would have planned for it, starting in my freshman year, instead of doing it as an impulse thing the summer before my senior year.
But yeah, I’m $38,000 in debt and I’m not freaking out. Mostly because all of my loans are federal loans, President Obama made sure I wouldn’t be screwed over by the interest rates (Thanks, Obama!) and I plan to get an actual job. I’m working part-time, making peanuts, but I recently went through the process of ALMOST getting my first professional job. In this case, almost really doesn’t matter but at the same time, it does. It let me know that even with my very small job history, my degree allowed me to make it to the very last hiring stage of a job that would have started me off on a salary of $35,000-$37,000 a year. I really wanted that job but the whole experience just made me grateful went to college. It let me know that my degree isn’t worthless and that it can open doors that can lead to high paying careers and that made owing $38,000 in student loans a little less scary. It also made me believe that maybe my dad was right to believe that college really can be a gateway out of poverty. It just takes time.