My parents are wonderful, loving people who’ve supported every choice I’ve made as best they can. However, this does not extend to financial support. I grew up in a middle-class family and went to a top college on a 75% scholarship. My parents, who live abroad, offered to split the difference with me so I could attend. Although I still needed to take out loans and work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, their generosity ultimately paid for about $20,000 in living expenses over the four years. I’m aware that even that was a significant financial burden for them, and as a result, I haven’t felt comfortable asking for their financial help in any way since I graduated. And over the last three years since graduation, it seems like the gap between people like me, whose parents can’t (or won’t) help them financially, and people whose parents still fund their lives, keeps getting wider and wider.
I went to a notoriously wealthy university, so I’ve encountered the parentally-funded extremes; I have friends whose parents pay their rent while they glide around Manhattan in a perpetual cloud of $15 cocktails and “treat yourself” designer handbags. And then I have friends who pay their own rent, but whose parents still buy their plane tickets home for the holidays. But to my knowledge, every single one of my friends, unlike me, receives financial help in some form from their parents, even if it’s just being on the family phone plan or their parents’ health insurance. Even the little things are a consistent reminder that the safety net so many of my friends take for granted isn’t a possibility for me. And it’s unexpectedly hard to feel like I’m doing things right when I’m comparing myself to these friends. The things I view as milestones in my financially-independent life — doing my own taxes successfully or even getting my own HBOGo account — are things my friends have never had to worry about. Their parents already did it for them.
When your parents can’t support you at all financially, you’re always worried about money. I spent hours in college worrying about the most mundane expenses — how to afford to put my things in storage for the summer, how I’d pay for food over school breaks when the dorms closed, and how to pay for my cap and gown for graduation. None of my friends ever worried about these things because their parents helped them move at the end of the school year or bought them a ticket home for the holidays. On the other hand, I saw my parents once a year (at the most) because I couldn’t afford the plane fare home more often than that. My aunt and uncle came to see me graduate because my parents couldn’t afford the flight over.
I now have a job and benefits, and I’m still the friend who gets visibly agitated when someone orders appetizers for the table because I can’t afford the extra $50 tagged on to my $15 entrée. I’m the one who declines alumni events because of the $25 entrance fee. It’s not that I can’t necessarily afford these things, it’s that without the safety net of external financial support, I feel like a few extra financial indulgences will upset the delicate financial balance I’ve created for myself. Recently, an unexpected hospital stay landed me with a $1,000 co-pay because, though I tried to verify coverage prior to treatment, the anesthesiologist who treated me was out-of-network. It’s not that I couldn’t afford the payment. I could. But the whole episode was a reminder that no matter how hard I try, no matter how financially literate I am, there will always be hidden costs that trip me up. And without parents or someone else there to help me figure it out, it only takes one thing going wrong for everything to fall apart.
When your parents aren’t involved in your financial life, there are other, less tangible costs. I can’t go to my parents with questions about how to set up my 401(k), or what deductions to claim on my W-2 because they simply don’t know the answer. I can’t confide in them about how hard it is to make it on my own because they’d feel guilty that they can’t do more. I constantly worry that paying for everything myself right now — student loans, health insurance, and the occasional check to my parents or sister — is making it harder for me to become financially stable. I’m scared that all of the costs I have now are making it harder for me to afford the big purchases of adulthood, whether that’s my own apartment or my (hypothetical) future kids’ college fund. When so many of my friends are starting their adulthood from a place of financial privilege, it’s hard not to feel inadequate at times when I’m falling behind.
It’s also difficult not to let the resentment build up. My friends are able to live well without worrying about the things that keep me up at night, and they can count on their parents to bail them out if things ever get really bad. I have my fair share of friends who are ~chasing their dreams~ while their parents foot the bill for graduate school, six months in Paris, or their unpaid fashion internship. Much as I’d love to ditch my full-time job to pursue my not-so-profitable passions, it’s not an option because I’ll never have the freedom to live like them. It frustrates me that when I finally confided in a friend that no, I can’t afford to go home this Christmas because the plane ticket costs too damn much, she simply blinked at me and asked why my parents couldn’t just pay for it. Despite how open I can be with my friends about nearly anything else in my life, we can’t discuss anything financial without things getting incredibly uncomfortable.
There is a silver lining to all of this: my lack of safety net has made me get my financial shit together in a way many of my friends haven’t had to. I have a healthy 401(k), a savings account, and no credit card debt. I taught myself to invest, I’m excellent at Excel-spreadsheet-budgets and haggling with insurance providers, and will likely pay off my student loans this year. The best part is that I now know, at the age of 24, that even when things get hard, I can live my life without depending on anyone else for help. And cheesy as that may sound, that level of independence is priceless.
*Tara Howard is not her real name.
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