Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Here's How to Say No: No.

Claudio Sanchez had a real “coffee-spitter” on NPR this morning about the high costs of sending children to college – but not for the reasons you’d think.

Oh, he mentions the regular things, like the high costs of textbooks. He delves into the stuff “students didn’t plan for – the stuff that isn’t tuition and room and board” like, you know, stuff ‘n’ thangs.

He trots out a frightening number: $43 billion, per the National Retail Federation. Forty-three billion dollars. Just this year.

I’m not to the coffee-spittin’ moments, though. To get to them, I have to take you through the looking glass of American commercial stupidity.

"These costs show up like a bad relative," says [Jim Chilton, a family financial advisor]. "In your mind, you set aside money per semester and lock that number in. You scrape and borrow and do whatever you have to, if you're middle income like most people. I can remember many times telling my kids, 'no.' Then after that, 'hell no.' "

Still, how do you say no to something your child can't live without? Like a laptop. According to the National Retail Federation's annual back-to-school report, 60 percent of college students will buy a new laptop or tablet this fall.

Our daughter, Bianca, of course insisted that her perfectly good laptop from high school was too old and too slow. The one we bought her for her freshman year set us back about $800. Then there was her smart phone, which might as well be another appendage. Count on an initial cost of $200 plus an $80 monthly fee. Even the cheapest plans these days cost about $1,000 a year.

Here’s how you say no: No. Easy.

I haven’t had a new laptop in, oh, a decade. And that appendage-like smart phone? Don’t have one of those either. I do have a Kindle Fire that connects to wi-fi and a cell phone the company pays for, but nothing to the tune of a $1,000-a-year phone.  My kids don’t, either. My wife has one, but it’s on a strictly limited plan that costs far less than the $1,000 a year Sanchez mentions – and that came after years of agonizing over the cost and at the elimination of our home landline so we could afford the new phone. If my kids want a fancy phone with a fancy plan while they’re at college, well, they can pay for it themselves. Smart phones and new laptops or tablets are definitely things to be lived without, or you make do with what you’ve got.

And Sanchez isn’t done with the coffee-spitting stupidity, either.

Half of that $43 billion, the National Retail Federation says, goes for room furnishings. Really? Room furnishings? I had a rolling desk for my desktop computer (Yeah, that was dinosaur thinking to be sure. A desktop computer? Who even USES one of those these days? And if I wanted the internet, I had to go to the computer room in the dorm basement.) I believe I also had sheets and blankets. Used ones. From my own bed at home. I lived in the dorms and had a ten meals a week plan I supplemented by attending a once-a-week function at a local church that offered free soup to those who worked in the kitchen serving it and with a minimum of other food purchases. Rarely eating out. I couldn’t afford it and meet those tuition payments.

And if that’s not enough coffee-spitting for you, Sanchez mentions the coffee:

Another big item on the NRF survey: food. Your options? A meal plan versus the grocery store around the corner. Don't forget fast food and late night snacks. And if your child is anywhere near a Starbucks, we're talking about $120 a month for venti skim lattes and caramel macchiatos.

And alcohol. Yes, your child will drink and yes, that money you put into your kid's debit card every other week is paying for it.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night, figure somewhere between $10 and $50. That may not seem like a lot of money but here's something the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants you to think about: College students spend a whopping $5.5 billion on alcohol every school year.

So glad we’re teetotalers. And also avoid coffee. But if we were coffee-drinkers, I’d say to my kid “You want coffee from Starbucks on a regular basis? Better get a job there.”

Sanchez isn’t teaching his daughter squat about real life. He’s enabling a life of having desires filled without thought to their real cost.

I know tuition costs have skyrocketed since I was a college kid, but I remember many months spent thinking buying a CD on a whim or spending $26 on a new book of fiction once a semester was an extravagant luxury, not a weekly necessity. I worked hard as a hod carrier in the summer to pay tuition and still had to work part-time jobs in the English Department office and in the dorm cafeteria to pay the bills, let alone have a little cash for anything else. Mom and Dad didn’t have any money they could put on a credit or debit card for me, and I didn’t ask. Part of battling those high tuition costs ought to include looking at those “other” expenses and figuring out how to cut down on them. New laptops, new tablets, matching lamps for the dorm room and all that coffee and booze ought to be on the top of the list of things to reconsider. I hope that’s something I can pass on to my own kids.

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