A recent CNBC article detailed how millennials continue to struggle with student loan debt in light of our government’s failure to prevent the rates from doubling. The article made the point that many young Americans cannot achieve “cultural” milestones such as owning a home due to the weight of student loan debt. Since we cannot control what our elected officials do (or refuse to do) regarding the interests of young generations, these cultural milestones, along with the farce reality that every American can afford them, are what we really should be addressing. These are simple things that we can control because we and only we choose to pursue them.
For those of us who plan to borrow money, are borrowing money, and have borrowed money for education, there are three realities we must adhere to in order to minimize our amount of debt while in school.
1. Live below your means
This is the biggest culprit when it comes to being a millennial. Most of us borrow money for school and spend it on things that have absolutely nothing to do with our academic experience. When you are an undergraduate, you have no business spending up to $1,000 in rent per month in a living space more equipped than the room you grew up in. I recently visited the campus of my alma mater, the University of Michigan, and I could not believe how much more commercialized campus had become since I graduated. Many more stores, restaurants, and posh living spaces. Individuals who are borrowing and spending thousands of dollars a year on their educations should not be engaging in this sort of lifestyle.
There is a growing demand and expectation that college should be this entitled experience where none of us act like we will have thousands of dollars of debt upon graduation. But it is always a choice to splurge on that fancy apartment, have premium cable channels, embark on those shopping sprees, eat out frequently, and make sure we have the latest gadgets. Certainly, changing these expectations about college will take some real will power and motivation. But with today’s ever-connected society through social media and how quickly trends spread, it can be done.
If fewer of us subscribed to this sort of lifestyle, it is foreseeable that our amount of debt would be reduced in areas that we and only we control. Colleges would stop building such lavish environments for us if the demand dissipated. You cannot be surprised that the cost of college keeps rising when the locations around campus rival some vacation destinations.
When you are in school, do not borrow money and stunt like your daddy. Just study.
2. The value of “trash”
No, I am not talking about what ends up in your garbage bin every evening. There are terabytes of meaningless information that we consume on a daily basis and it is damaging the quality of the individual growing up in this country. If you are in school to become an engineer, it makes sense to immerse and surround yourself with information in your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media streams that will further your learning and studies. Do not take a class where you know you will get absolutely nothing out of it besides padding your GPA (which does not matter once you really become entrenched into the workforce).
Locking down employment is becoming increasingly harder for graduates today. Each and every opportunity to make yourself marketable needs to be harnessed. In order to do this, a consistent focus should be placed on learning and practicing skills that we advance and support marketability. This means that students ideally spend their time watching and reading news networks such as Al-Jazeera and BBC to see what is really happening on planet Earth, subscribe to newsletters from organizations and attend networking events that pique their professional interests, and most importantly, spur on their peers to also engage in the same type of behavior.
Wasting time and energy learning useless information while you are a college student and having access to thousands of scholarly search engines, famous and published professors, and state-of-the-art research facilities is the same as flushing the tuition money down the toilet.
3. The American dream is a dream within a dream within a nightmare.
In Ironman 3 (SPOILER ALERT), the audience spends a good portion of the film under the assumption that the Mandarin is this badass villain who will do whatever he pleases to cause destruction and havoc. Tony Stark stumbles into the Mandarin’s residence to frightfully discover that the Mandarin is in fact a paid actor, used as a puppet to fulfill the real villain’s agenda. The whole world believes the Mandarin is a dangerous villain and lives in fear of his image. But that is all it is — an image that is based on fabrication.
The same is true of the American dream. We wish to project to the rest of the world that all of us live this abundant and happy lifestyle while the dead presidents keep on flowing. This could not be further from the truth. The majority of U.S. citizens cannot afford this fantastic lifestyle that we project to the rest of the world. And those that aspire to are living with a considerable amount of debt just to keep up the mirage. Mainstream U.S. culture is predicated on spending what we do not have to acquire what we do not truly need. Our national debt is a clear and present indicator.
As young, educated individuals prepare to enter the work force and life of taxes, mortgages, insurance, and car payments, it is crucial to realize that many of us will simply not attain the material lifestyle promised to us as youngsters. This whole notion of “work hard, stay in school, get a job, buy a house, start a family,” needs some serious rethinking when thousands of graduates are forced to move back in with their parents upon graduation. This typically delays the chance to achieve the “cultural” milestone mentioned in the CNBC article and this is a great opportunity to examine just why we believe we deserve these milestones. The American dream is predicated upon blanket spending, when it should rather be focused on saving and smartly spending.
If we as young people really want to put pressure on our elected officials to do something about the interest rates on student loans, it would behoove us greatly to live below our means, actively and consistently focus on getting the most out of our educations, and realize that stories we were told as children about what we would obtain as adults are fantasies that worked for our parents in a different time and place that no longer apply to us. Nothing negative will come from recognizing these three realities and acting accordingly.