As we approach the holiday season, millions of Americans look forward to — or dread — family gatherings. In between discussions on the year’s events, turkey, politics, and football, I’d like to suggest one other important topic of discussion: student loans.
Mixing financial discussions with family may seem inappropriate, but having the courage to discuss your hardships with student debt could be life-changing for any member of your family who might be in high school or starting college.
Why is it Important to Talk Student Debt?
While contemplating whether or not this article was appropriate for this site, I spoke with a friend from law school who was skeptical.
I pointed out that the student debt conversation may not help the person already struggling with student loans, but it could make a huge difference for someone who hasn’t yet dug that hole.
Quickly, her tone shifted from skepticism to enthusiastic support. My friend quipped, “When I was in law school, I figured it would be one year… maybe two before my student loans were paid off. I’ve been out of school for ten years, and it will be many more before my debt is gone. I wish someone had warned me before borrowing all that money.”
Many politicians and members of the media like to blame borrowers for being irresponsible with student loans. Though these accusations are demonstrably false in most cases, they do a major disservice to future students. Student loan nightmares can usually be traced back to a young student who was doing their best to improve their future. If we dismiss these borrowers as irresponsible, we make student debt less of a concern to young people who have no intention of being irresponsible with their decisions.
Hearing a firsthand account about life with student debt could be a game-changer for any teenager. A report on the news or a warning from a guidance counselor may have minimal impact. If a cousin, aunt, or uncle shares how they had to move back in with their parents because of student loans, it suddenly becomes a real danger with real consequences.
Who to talk to…
The ideal audience for the student debt discussion would be someone who is about to start college or someone who has just started college. Someone who is about to finish their undergraduate studies may also benefit if they are considering borrowing large amounts of money to attend graduate school.
Student loans might seem like a simple concept, but to a high school student, student debt can be confusing. Money might still be an abstract concept. Some parents make it look easy. Many go to college thinking they will get their degree, and everything will work out. Anyone who doesn’t understand how debt can make a difference in daily life is someone who could benefit from a student loan conversation.
Finally, don’t assume that mom and dad are having “the talk” about student loans. One recent study found that 9 out of 10 parents don’t talk with their kids about student loans.
How to have the discussion
The problem with many teenagers is that they already know everything. If you know a teen who fits this description, simply remind them that they are too smart to make the mistakes that you did.
Share your regrets. Share your triumphs. The best thing a current borrower can do for a future borrower is to shed light on life with student loans.
Telling someone what to do is unlikely to make a difference. Instead, show them. Mention how dealing with federal loans is better than dealing with private loans. Talk about how the debt made buying a house more difficult. Share stories about how the school said it would be easy to find a job, but the reality was different.
Have Some Courage
Many people don’t like discussing finances with family. Sharing financial information in the context of personal failures can be even more difficult.
It is also possible that your efforts might not make a difference.
Ultimately, none of that matters. Taking a few minutes to speak with a loved one about student debt has the potential to change a life. What better gift could there be?