An open letter to high school students about debt
Dear High School Students,
It’s me again. Jana, your friendly neighborhood personal finance blogger. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes at me (which is fine. I spent a good deal of my teenage years rolling my eyes at adults) but trust me, you’re going to want to pay attention to what I have to say. Because when I’m done, I will hopefully save you thousands of dollars as well of years of paying down debt (which is not fine. Paying down debt sucks more than first period math).
Remember how we talked about money skills you need to acquire and practice before you leave home to go to college? Those still stand and I still recommend them. But I also want to talk to you about a few things that will creep into your life and, if you’re not careful, can get very, very expensive. And not expensive in a good, iPad kind of way. No, this is expensive in a “I finally have a job and now all of my paycheck is going towards these things and I have no money left to do what I want so I’ll use credit cards again” kind of way.
What am I talking about? Alright, I’ll stop rambling and get to it:
Credit cards. Credit cards are a funny thing. People either love them or hate them; there’s very little indifference. For those who are in the love them camp, they feel that they are a great tool for using your money. For those that hate them, they feel that credit cards are evil and do nothing but cause debt. Here’s the thing: both sides are right. Credit cards do both. The difference is in how you choose to use them. If you get a credit card (and before you do so, talk to your parents or an adult you respect), read the terms of the offer very, very carefully. More specifically, scrutinize the interest rates, any yearly fees, late payment penalties, and how long it takes a payment to process. Also remember this: credit cards are not free money, although it may feel like it. If you use that card to pay for something, you will have to pay it back. If you don’t have a job or any way to pay it off, don’t get a card. Or, if you really feel like you need to have one in your wallet, get a very small limit and don’t use the damn thing. Using a credit card when you have no means to pay it back is a slippery slope that can cause more damage to your finances than you can imagine at this moment. Please trust me on that one.
Student loans. I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most appropriate person to give advice on this subject. But I’m going to do it anyway. Really, I just caution against taking out more than you need. I know many students see their loans not only as tuition assistance but as a way to afford room and board and have living money (my husband did this. As did a number of our friends), and while that’s your choice, I don’t think it’s the smartest choice. Like credit cards, you’re going to have to pay most, if not all, of that money back and having a high total will have a significant impact on your finances later on. If you can, try to find ways to supplement your loans: get a part-time job on or off campus; try a community college first and then transfer to a 4 year school (my husband did this, too); look into scholarships and grants (if you live in one of these 15 states, check out the Southern Regional Education Board); or, if you need to, attend school part-time. If none of those are possible, make sure you have a fantastic repayment plan for your loans (and explore all possible options) and you know exactly what you are getting yourself into.
Car loans. After spending your college years driving either a piece of crap car or not having a car at all, you’re going to want to buy a car of your very own. And you’re going to want it to be new and fancy and shiny and impressive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with all of those wants. The problem is that they cost a shit load of money. And your paycheck might not be able to keep up with the payments and the insurance costs (and the maintenance costs. And gas. And anything else). You might also need a co-signer for the car if your income isn’t enough to afford the car you want (even if it’s not the most expensive car in the world. My little sister bought a Toyota and needed a co-signer because her income was low); if you default on those payments, it’ll fall back on your co-signer and that’s not fair. So please, I implore you to pick a practical, new-to-you car that’ll be easy to pay off and, when you’re driving that car into the ground, you can set aside money for your dream car. Oh, right. If your friends make fun of you for your car, get rid of them as friends. Real friends don’t give a shit what kind of car you drive.
So that’s what I have for your today. I promise not to lecture you any more on your finances. I think I’ve given you enough to think about and consider. Now, please understand I’m not forcing you to do anything I’m talking about. How you choose to approach your money is your business. But before you make some expensive choices, think about it carefully. Because there’s a lot of life to live after you graduate and you don’t want your money tied up in debt.
P.S. Readers, if you have any advice to give to high school students, please leave it in the comments.