I am a rare specimen; I am a person that graduated from college without receiving financial assistance from my parents and without taking out student loans. When my classmates were taking out loans to afford on-campus housing and meal plans, I was living in the sketchier area of town, wearing thrift-store clothing, and getting creative about locating free food on campus. I attended Cornell University, where my frugality was outside the norm. Most of my classmates were either from the upper middle class or the wealthy 1% and lacked the perspective of growing up without money.
Even the students that didn’t have the money to cover their costs had no compunction about taking out loans to finance their lifestyle. One of my friends, the daughter of a professor, was attending college for free as part of her father’s tuition benefit. Even so, she graduated with more than $40,000 in loans; she didn’t want to live at home, her father didn’t want to pay for housing, and she spent her summers studying abroad instead of working. When she told me about her loan situation, I stared at her in shock. I couldn’t fathom spending money you didn’t have and taking out loans you didn’t need. But this friend of mine was hardly outside the norm; I met many students who admitted that they didn’t mind taking out extra loans, if these loans ensured they had a fun college experience. “Avoid unnecessary debt” was a mantra drummed into me from both my parents and my religious up-bringing.
I was very lucky; I was accepted to a university with the financial resources to provide a generous aid package. Since my parents didn’t have a lot of money, my tuition was covered by grants. Living costs were harder to cover; I had to work during the school year and during the summer. I also had to take a couple semesters off to work as a full-time lab technician. There were a lot of times, especially towards the end of the school year, when my bank account was hovering around $0. I ate a lot of pasta and eggs, to the point that one of my roommates instituted a ban on eggs in the house out of concern for my health.
Sometimes I regret not having a more laid-back student experience. I missed out on some valuable college experiences because I was always either working or studying. But I was raised by parents that taught me to be frugal and to live within my means. My parents are examples of hard-working people that fought their hardest to keep their heads above water, all while raising a large family on a very limited income. Sometimes my parents had to get creative; for years, my parents raised cows, chickens, and pigs in order to feed the family. And there were times when my parents had to rely on public assistance and church welfare. But my parents never gave up. No matter how dire the situation got, there was always the self-assurance that we were doing everything we could to make ends meet.
I am grateful to my parents for the lessons they have taught me. Now, post-college, my husband and I are free of student loans, free of credit card debt, and we were able to afford a 20% down payment on our home. I also had the privilege of studying at a wonderful university, one that taught me how to question and to think critically. My college experience was one that I treasure, as my education taught me to push intellectual boundaries. There were times when I had to struggle to make ends meet but in the end, I discovered my own strength and resourcefulness.
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me to always live within my means.