I was nearly 19, on a summer vacation with my family, curled up in bed in this cute cabin in the Hood River Valley: and I was scouring the internet for articles about student loans. This research was a constant throughout my summer; I was contemplating taking out loans so that I could live in a dorm my sophomore year of college, instead of commuting two to three hours a day to and from my parents’ residence.
I looked at the technical details of how federal loans work. I read horror stories about individuals who spent their entire lives crippled by debt. I looked at articles that pointed out that small amounts of “necessary” debt could be managed through planning and responsible financial decisions.
What I didn’t find was an article that told me what I really wanted to hear.
I wanted someone on the internet, someone with “authority” in financial matters, to tell me that taking out student loans was the best decision for my academic, emotional, and financial well-being.
My parents were morally, economically, and personally against my decision to move into on-campus housing. My tuition (thanks to a couple very good academic scholarships and a small educational trust fund, gifted to me by my frugal great-grandfather) had been taken care of since my enrollment. With that burden off my shoulders, my parents were confident that I could get through my four years of University without taking on any debt. All I had to do was live at home all four years and work part-time to pay for personal expenses.
In the eyes of my parents, this situation was ideal. The thought of their youngest child moving out of the house greatly concerned them. The idea that I would have to take out student loans to live on-campus was nearly unthinkable for them.
My decision to move out was based partially on a desire to cut down on my commute time, and partially on my goal to invest more time in building relationships with peers and professors on my campus. But my decision was also influenced by a need to start developing a sense of my own self, apart from my parents and their household. When I lived at home, I felt like my decisions and day-to-day activities were closely tied to the needs and opinions of my family. There weren’t a lot of boundaries; I needed the space to make my own decisions and become my own person.
That isn’t to say that I felt confident in my decision at the time. I was raised to believe that taking on student loans was one of the most financially ruinous, foolish decisions I could ever make. And I couldn’t find anyone on the internet to validate my exact situation or make me feel completely comfortable with my choice.
Still, I had the lingering, gut feeling that it was the right thing to do.
Not everyone agreed with my logic. My parents certainly didn’t. They reminded me that I was an English major, after all. I wasn’t exactly counting on landing an immediately-gratifying, financially-secure, entry-level job straight out of college. When I finally told them that I had made the decision to take out loans, and that I felt good about the decision, my mom asked me: “How can you feel comfortable making that decision when you don’t know how you’re going to pay that money back?”
My answer? “I’ll work really hard, Mom. I know it will be tough, but this feels like the right thing to do right now.”
Why did I finally feel confident? Because I had figured out that taking on student loans, like so many financial quandaries, was not a black and white problem.
Everyone on the internet has a different opinion about student loans. Parents, college counselors, and (don’t we all know it) admissions officials working at universities all cling to different vantage points. And, in my experience, they all like to think that they know better than everyone else.
For so long, I put pressure on myself to find The Right Answer. That’s why I dug through so many finance articles and asked for the advice of so many people. I wanted someone to validate my desire to take out loans and tell me that I was making the “right” decision.
But I did not find a single person who could really do that.
No one could analyze my motivations or look into my future to make an informed, ideal decision on my behalf. A “finance pro” on the internet didn’t know my exact circumstances. My parents didn’t even seem to be interested in seeing the situation from my perspective. In the end, no one — other than my naive, unconfident 19-year-old self — could make that choice for me.
Online research was an important step in my decision-making process. Reading opinion pieces helped me understand how student loans would change my financial future. And I really do believe that finance articles are an amazing way for individuals of disparate backgrounds to share their thoughts about the way we, as a society, manage our money.
But the next time I am freaking out about a financial decision (I freak out a lot, so it’ll probably be soon), I’m going to remember:
No one on the internet knows what decision will be best for my future.
Yes, I’ll do my research. That’s prudent and wise. But, after I’ve considered all the facts, I will check in with myself and make the choice that I truly feel will be best for me. No matter what the internet is telling me.
Last time I checked, the principal balance on my student loans was around $13,000. By the time I graduate, I expect it to be around $20,000. Yes, I’m an English major, hoping to spend the next few years getting a freelance writing career off the ground. I’m not planning on being rich, and I certainly understand that paying off my debt will take time and effort. But the thought of working to pay off my student loans doesn’t freak me out as much as it did two years ago. I’m tough. I’ll figure it out.
Looking back, I still believe I reached the best conclusion I could have. And I think it will work out for the best.
Amanda Ake is one of those college seniors who is completely clueless about how she will get her dream career off the ground in the next year. She’s an English major who has always HATED managing money, but is slowly realizing that, if she wants to be a successful freelancer, she has to learn to do the stuff she hates doing. TFD has helped. But mostly, she’s still learning. A lot.
Image via Flickr