Do student loans build character? Or is debt in our fucked-up society suffering without meaning?
Who’s worse: the parents who give their kids every advantage in life even at their own expense? Or parents who withhold crucial help in order to teach toughness and independence? Truly, this is the weightiest question in the American experience since Jubilee asked if “a mall babe eats chili fries.” (The previous record-holder? Eh, probably Socrates?)
Here it is, Bitch Nation: the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The moment we’ve been teasing for months. It’s time for SEASON THREE OF THE BITCHES GET RICHES PODCAST!!!
Yeah, yeah, I know it took a while. But there were extenuating circumstances (see: coronavirus resulting in general ennui). But since we recently won the Plutus Award for Podcast of the Year (#stopthesteal), we figured we should get off our shapely butts and actually put out an episode of said podcast.
So here it is! And it’s a good one, if we do say so ourselves. In this episode we demonstrate our extensive parenting expertise (none) and experience with student loans (lots). We also wax philosophical about the future costs of higher education. Will little Timmy eventually have to fight in the Thunderdome to get into Princeton? Only time will tell!
But first… podcast news!
This season, all of our episodes will not only be available on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and all the usual auditory platforms… it’ll be on YouTube! That’s right, bitchlings: WE’VE GOT A YOUTUBE CHANNEL.
We’ve also finally, finally got a system for releasing transcripts simultaneously with each episode. Thank you so much to everyone who has requested transcripts and waited so patiently for us to get our acts together. We love you. Thank you for helping us to do better.
And as always, we want to thank our Patreon donors for making this and every season of the Bitches Get Riches podcast possible. Truly… you are the wind beneath our wings.
This week’s question
This question comes to us from beloved reader Emily. Emily asks:
My spouse and I are disagreeing about paying for college for our children, ages 4 and 1. I paid my own way through college and scraped by without loans through scholarships, choosing an affordable institution, working countless part-time jobs, and eating a lot of Kraft mac & cheese. My partner’s college and housing expenses were paid for by his parents entirely, although he did have a small job for spending money.
I know that I worked harder in college because I was paying for it than I would’ve if my parents were footing the bill. As such, I don’t want to pay for my kids’ expenses. My partner vehemently disagrees and says we’d be cruel not to, especially since we’re in a financial position to do so and still fully fund our retirement accounts and live a comfortable lifestyle.
Also, as middle-class white (presenting) folks, aren’t we perpetuating the education and income gap by giving our kids a leg up? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!– Emily
For more on the topic of paying for college, student loans, and our Expert Parenting Advice™:
- How to Pay for College without Selling Your Soul to the Devil
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Loans
- When (and How) to Try Refinancing or Consolidating Student Loans
- I Paid off My Student Loans Ahead of Schedule. Here’s How.
- Your College Major May Not Prepare You for Your Job—but It Can Prepare You for Life
- Ask the Bitches: “The Government Put My Student Loans in Forbearance. Can I Really Stop Paying—or Is This a Trap?”
Episode transcript (click to reveal)
There is a video game called Mass Effect.
Yes, I am familiar.
And there’s a bunch of characters who were designed for the ladies who were p-laying as a lady to find to be sexy and great romantic partners who you can romance in the game.
I know where this is going.
And everyone was like that one, I want that one! Are they pointing at the handsome, generic boy that we made who’s like a space marine? No. No, they’re pointing at the big, socially awkward dinosaur man who joins your team.
And immediately like all of the women were like that’s the one I want! So he’s not a romance option in the first game. You have to wait until at least the second before they were like are you guys sure about this? And everyone who played as fem!Shep was like yes, I am sure about this.
I’ve never been more certain.
Theme Song 1:40
If you need some dough
You don’t know where to go
In this patriarchal capitalist hellscape
Well here’s the ‘sitch
We’re gonna help you, sis
Because bitches get riches
Bitches get riches
Bitches get riches
Bitches get riches
And so can you
Listen, girls just wanna fuck monsters, am I right? I’m Piggy.
And we’re the bitches in Bitches Get Riches.
We’re a pair of old-timey ne’er-do-wells
And we’re here to fleece this two-horse town for all it’s worth!
But our time on this planet is limited.
So let’s get started.
Today’s question comes to us from beloved reader Emily. Emily writes: My spouse and I are disagreeing about paying for college for our children, ages 4 and 1. I paid my own way through college and scraped by without loans through scholarships, choosing an affordable institution, working countless part-time jobs, and eating a lot of Kraft mac & cheese. (Same.) My partner’s college and housing expenses were paid for by his parents entirely. I know that I worked harder in college because I was paying for it, more than I would have if my parents were footing the bill. As such, I don’t want to pay for my kids’ expenses. My partner vehemently disagrees and says we would be cruel not to, especially since we’re in a financial position to do so and still fully fund our retirement accounts and live a comfortable lifestyle. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
And boy do we have ‘em! I do want to say first of all, just to get this out of the way: I reject several of the premises that darling Emily is putting forth here. One, I reject the premise that there are only two ways to slice it. Either you pay for your kids’ college completely or you don’t pay for any of it, like I reject that premise. And I reject the premise that there is one way to make your kid a spoiled asshole who won’t work hard and one way to make them ‘gritty,’ to use an Angela Duckworth term.
You are picking up on the exact same thing that I thought of, which is that given the age of these children, 1 and 4, this is really more of a general parenting philosophy clash that I think is representing itself in how to pay for college but it’s more about both of you operating from a base of what are your greatest fears about having children. Sorry to get just so deep and philosophical.
And frankly, we know a lot about parenting because we’ve judged a lot of other people’s parenting over the years without actually having children ourselves.
Listen, each of our precious readers counts as a full child. I am claiming them all on my taxes.
This is true. We are mothers of thousands.
I think that basically, if I could get to the root of both of their fears, right. I’m going to say Emily’s partner’s name is Steve.
Sure, Steve and Emily.
Emily’s major concern is she does not want to raise children who are spoiled. And the sort of underlaying fear there is that I don’t want to contribute to the population of the world the kind of people who I actually think make the world a worse place. And that’s a very valid fear. And I think Steve’s concern is that I don’t want to have my children grow to resent me or hate me because I had the opportunity to help them and I didn’t take it. And I think although this conflict is being framed around going to college, how do we pay for that, I think you should be aware, Emily, this is going to come up in your co-parenting. So I think talking through those core fears and really identifying them is going to help both of you a lot just in general to make these decisions.
That is a really important thing to establish. And you can trust us, because again we are parenting experts. This is a wider parenting question, and not a how do I pay for college question. With that said, I do think we should dive into the options for paying for college.
Let’s do it.
So I paid for college through– and first of all, we both went to an expensive private school in a large American city. So we already were spending quite a lot of dollars.
I paid for college through a mixture of scholarships and student loans, that I had to pay back myself, and family help. My grandparents are incredibly generous people and they decided that they wanted to help me pay for a portion of college, debt-free, I didn’t owe them anything. So they did that and I am eternally grateful. On top of that, I graduated with all the loans, so that was how I handled it.
I am sort of similar to you, but probably ended up paying more overall. The majority of schooling I paid for, including– I had my mother committed to paying for a certain portion and then backed out of that, which meant I had 12,000 more dollars in loans than I had originally planned to. Which was not very fun and not very good for our relationship.
Yeah. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your mom saying I can’t help you pay for college or your mom saying yes, I can help you pay for college. It’s the bait and switch that is the problem.
So I think Emily is right to be concerned that this sort of potential, this hypothetical future business arrangement between yourself and your future child, it can be very sticky. And I think it’s right for you to be thinking about it early on, although I think maybe 1 and 4 is just a little premature. But we’re leaning into it!
I love that. So I think whatever Emily and the fictional Steve decide, they should stick to it and be really clear with their children, probably once they reach high school, and be like this is what we’re willing to commit so factor this into your college plans.
Yeah, I have a very good relationship with my grandfather. My paternal grandfather and I are very close. He actually saved $10,000 for each of his grandchildren to go to college. Which, when he made that plan, would have been enough for them to go to college anywhere that they wanted. He had no way of knowing the way that the cost of secondary education would explode. And so he saved this money for us, but I never heard a word about it until I was in late high school and starting to think about colleges. Which I think is actually very important, to choose the timing of that.
Because you and I graduated around ‘09 and a lot of families built a plan for their children based around an assumption of steady gains in whatever accounts they had invested in, only for those accounts to take a big hit and so suddenly the sibling who’s 2 or 3 years younger now has much less money than they had originally anticipated.
Again, I think don’t share that amount until your child is old enough to take a pretty close guess at what your mortgage payment might be. If they can’t do that, they are too young to hear about any of this.
I will say, to go back to the resentment issue, whatever you decide, make it universal. Or make sure the kids are on board with that. I would hate for you to make one decision regarding the 4 year old and another regarding the 1 year old and have them grow up to not only resent you for that decision but to be in competition with each other. Sibling rivalry is not actually fun.
I also want to touch on how cultural differences play into this. My grandparents are immigrants and I’m sure any 1st or 2nd generations Americans can relate to this. Going to college: extremely fucking important to immigrant families! So when I say my grandparents helped pay for college, that was extremely important to them. And I appreciated it, because college was absolutely the right move for me. I’m a professional nerd and I’ve made great use of my college education, but my younger cousin and my brother, college? Not necessarily the right choices for them. And I imagine that’s even more challenging for the children of immigrants rather than the grandchildren of immigrants. So I do understand that in some families the pressure to go to college is extremely intense and I don’t want to discount that.
Let me show my cards here. This is really how I feel about this question. I don’t think you should be saving for your children’s college. At all. Firm stop. Now here’s why. There are many paths that life can take in terms of what an individual chooses to do with their life. Additionally, there is so much that can happen in the world in the next 20 odd years. When your child is 1 year old, you don’t know a thing about that child!
The last thing you know is whether or not they’ll even want to go to college.
Or if they’re going to, I don’t know, go to Annapolis, or start a music career at 16 and go on tour, or get an athletic scholarship. You don’t know what their future holds
Other than that you’re going to love them.
And I think even though you have really good intentions, maybe this 4 year old is going to become a crazy country music prodigy and go–
Take her show on the road starting at age 16. And maybe the other one grows up to have learning disabilities where higher education is going to be challenging.
Or college is just not a practical thing for their situation. Yeah.
So my feeling is, no matter how good your intentions are in setting up a really early college fund, if that’s something that your child knows about, you are putting a lot of unspoken pressure on that child to have one kind of life. And to achieve in one kind of way. In fact, I would say you’re setting your children up for a lot of anxiety if they know oh, we’re not going on vacation together as a family and enjoying the life that we have together right now because we need to set aside money for you to go to college.
That’s a lot of pressure on a kid!
That means that achievement looks like one thing, that the course of their life is already determined, and it makes getting into the right college this Mount Everest that they have to climb to the top. And most people who climb Everest don’t ever come back. And they don’t die on the way up, most of them die after they’ve summited and they’re coming back down.
That is…a terrifying statistic. And a great metaphor!
Thank you. So what I would do instead is– Emily and Steve have this beautiful impulse to make sure that their children have the best possible start in life. Love it. I think saving for college is not the right way to do that. I think it sets a lot of expectations onto your children’s shoulders to be academic high achievers which they may or may not be able or happy while trying to reach. So instead, what I would think about doing is setting aside money that will give your future selves the greatest number of options to support your children financially.
So here’s what I’m thinking. If my parents had come to me when I was 16, 17, 18 and said we’ve got $20,000 set aside that we saved up for you to enter adulthood. Tell us how we can help you. We can send you to college for however long, you can choose a really expensive college and that might only cover a year or you can choose a state school and it might cover the whole thing. That’s probably enough for a down payment on a house, you can take it and use it that way. If you wanted to start your own business, you could take this and buy equipment and rent spaces and do whatever you want to do. If you want to use it to take a gap year and travel the world and get in touch with yourself and what you want out of life, do that. I think that would have been a much more empowering decision to entrust a younger me with than to just say we will cover college but we don’t want you to participate in the decision to go to college.
Absolutely. And I do want to take a second to acknowledge 529 plans. A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged account that you can set up for a child to pay for education. And it is extremely limited in the ways that you can use it. So you can use it for a trade school, you can use it for a traditional 4 year university. You can use it for some specific gap year programs, like Outward Bound. But you cannot just cash it out without losing a significant amount of it to penalties.
So I know a lot of people recommend oh start a 529 education plan for your child or your niece or your nephew.
It’s like such a wonderful thing. And we actually considered, when my nephew was born, starting one for him. And then basically we ran through in our heads everything we’ve been talking about here, which is like we don’t even know if he’s going to want to go to college. Or we don’t know the cost that college will be when he’s 18, or if he’s going to have a scholarship or anything. So instead we have just committed to apportioning a percentage of our regular savings that we can gift to him at that age and say whatever you want, kid, just don’t blow it!
We went through the exact same thing with my nephew, who is the same age, he’s 1. Do we set aside something in his name? Do we set up a 529? And we went through all the different investment options, and what we ended up arriving at as the best possible thing to do is to just give his parents money. Because they can spend that money the way that they know he needs support now. And what I want Emily and Steve to take away is life is so short and so uncertain. If you’re setting aside money for your child’s college education, truly I really think, when they’re 1 year old, I think you should really think about should we be using this money to take them to Disneyland? I think you should show your child, not just tell them, but show them, that life is lived to be enjoyed, not to be won or achieved through. That happiness is something you can reach out and grasp at any time, at any age, at any achievement level. And it’s not something that’s reserved for people who worked hard enough to be able to deserve it. I think those are emotional feelings, right, that Piggy, you and I think about all the time.
We’re adults, we’re financially stable and we still struggle with that feeling of like can I spend this $40 on something that I want that would make me so happy, but like have I done enough work to deserve it? Don’t curse your children with that.
Don’t give money the power to tie down your children with anxiety. That is the greatest gift you can give, is not allowing money to take that power in their lives. Absolutely.
Go to Disney, that’s our official advice.
Damn, that’s wise.
Except no, not Disney.
Disney is terrible.
Yeah, don’t go to fucking Disney. Take your kids to Yellowstone, that’s my advice.
There you go! Yellowstone, perfect.
Listen, a National Parks Pass is $80 a year and you will get so much value out of it, and you’ll see elk. I also feel like we need to address the uncertainty of the future and–
How much things cost now, how much things will cost then, we don’t really know because our parents are Baby Boomers. And they went to college for 2 wooden nickels and a Long Island Iced Tea, which coincidentally is the going rate to hire us for speaking engagements, just fyi.
Yeah, exactly. Please reach out email@example.com. We’re available.
Available for elegant parties and wakes. But our parents went to school for so little, and my parents both joined the military to pay for school, so school was free for them. So they had no idea the kind of price tags that would be coming. The point being, Emily and the fictional Steve have no idea what the price tag of college for their 1 and 4 year olds will be. It could be, in 20 or so years, that college is only available to multi-millionaires, to the most privileged population. Or college and higher education in general is free to the general population. You don’t know either way.
And who knows? We may already be in Mad Max land by then.
Exactly! Your children may need to fight in the Thunderdome to even get into Princeton or whatever. Which, can you imagine?
So I think what we’re doing is giving Emily and Steve permission to invest in themselves rather than in their children directly.
Investing in yourselves is how you invest in your children. If you invest in your present selves, you are giving your future selves so many more options to adapt to who your children are and what the world is like and what education is like 2 decades from now. And options, we’ve said this so many times, options are what give you the sense of freedom, of choice.
Yes, options, options, options.
And so don’t lock yourself into 529 plans that say you have to spend it in this particular way at this particular time, otherwise you’re going to pay huge tax penalties. And don’t weigh this question of do we give them a free ride and they never know what anything costs; like it’s a banana, Michael, what could it cost, $10? That’s your children. Or you make your children sweep the floors for minimum wage in your own home.
Yeah, let’s close out on that premise of you’re not going to make your children insufferable assholes by helping to pay for their future. And you’re also not going to build character successfully by not helping pay them pay for their future.
Correct. They seem like they’re correlated.
It would be cool if they were correlated. They’re not.
They are not.
There are so many people who are well-adjusted–
Look how I turned out!
My husband, my partner, his parents paid for everything. I asked him before we recorded, how much did your school cost? And he looked me dead in the eye and said I still don’t know. Despite that–
He’s also the nicest person.
He’s the kindest human on the planet.
He’s the best person I know.
And he’s very financially responsible, very frugal, really knows the value of a dollar. It’s just that college wasn’t the way he learned that.
And so you can’t think that you will raise financially responsible children if you make them pay for their own college, and you can’t think that you will spoil children if you pay for their college. All of that stuff is going to be already set in stone by the time they’re 16, I’m sorry. Day to day life is how they’re going to learn those lessons. They’re not going to hold off on deciding if they’re going to be a jerk or a great person based on where they go to college and how that college is paid for. You teach them that every day. So use the money you have right now to teach them those lessons.
Absolutely. Instill those lessons earlier on in life. There are ways to encourage good habits and good behavior and fucking empathy in people before they reach the age of majority. So work on that stuff, invest in that stuff, and take it one lesson at a time from these parenting experts you are listening to right now, but mostly college education payment experts. Your kids are gonna be alright because you are considering these things now. If this was not a concern of yours, if you were not worried about how to raise your children, then maybe the world at large should be worried about how they’ll turn out. But the fact that you are even dedicated to these questions now and you are making thoughtful decisions about their future, that bodes really well. I think Emily and Steve’s kids are gonna be just fucking fine.
I think they’re gonna be great. And I’m very excited for you to write back in 17 years and tell us how little Daphne and–
Chartreuse are doing.
Yeah. Little Daphne and Chartreuse. I’m sure they’ll be fine. One will be starting her career as a country music star at age 16 and the other one will be starting his business in lieu of going to college. We’re all going to laugh at this later.
I honestly think that both of you, again, to play marriage and parenting counselor, I think if both of you sat down and said what would put a huge smile on our faces 20 years from now to learn that our children had done? If one of you honestly answers I would be sad if our children didn’t go to college, that is a problem you guys have that you have to work through and come to a point where you’re like I don’t know anything about this child, I am so excited to get to know them and to get to figure out how I as their parent can support them rather than saying I need to set you on this path that I was raised to think is the one and only correct one. And I think if you do that, y’all are going to be just fine.
Are you good with that?
I’m good with that.
Listeners, if you want us to answer your question, go to BitchesGetRiches.com and click “Ask the Bitches.” This podcast is listener-supported. We are committed to never ever putting our best content behind a paywall. So if you like what we do and you want us to keep doing it, you can support the podcast by joining our Patreon at patreon.com/bitchesgetriches. And if you need even more Bitches in your life, you can read our articles or follow us on social media at BitchesGetRiches.com.
Hey, is there anything else they should know?
Yes. The only true way and light of grilled vegetables is button mushrooms and cauliflower.
Good to know.
Piggy & Kitty 26:06
2 thoughts to “Season 3, Episode 1: “I Worry Paying for My Kids’ College Will Spoil Them. Don’t Student Loans Build Character?””
This topic touches on what I think is a human tendency to project, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. It seems like each parent had their own experience in life that taught them the value of money, and they want to share that experience with their children in the interest of imparting their values.
But it’s the VALUES themselves that need to be imparted, not the experiences that led to them. And while large purchases like tuition and homes and even cars are many people’s first wake-up call to the financial world as young adults, that doesn’t have to be the case for their children. Financial values can be taught early, throughout childhood and adolescence, and those have a better chance of providing a sturdy grounding in the principles of finance than just tossing a child out the next at 18 and letting them figure it out on their own.
There are plenty of well-adjusted, gracious, humble adults who either had to pay for their own college or had someone else pay for it for them. This question isn’t the make-or-break decision that determines how your child will turn out; by that age, they have already matured greatly. It’s the foundation you set early on that determines how they will turn out.
I think the podcast episode hits on the most important concept: options equal freedom. This principle applies to pretty much everything in personal finance. The reason most people want to learn about personal finance is to achieve freedom, to have the ability to do whatever it is they want to do. What it is they want when their free? That’s the true reflection of character, and there’s more than one way to build it.
You managed to put it way better than we did in a 20-minute podcast episode. Thank you so much! Yes, the problem definitely stems from projection… and this in a nutshell: “But it’s the VALUES themselves that need to be imparted, not the experiences that led to them.”