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Image from Pexels

Let’s face it: talking about money with your friends is really, really weird. And if you’re like me, you didn’t really do it until college application season rolled around senior year. All of a sudden, everyone is complaining about filing the FAFSA, suffering through the CSS Profile, and writing their twentieth scholarship essay. It’s pretty overwhelming, and can feel like awkward, uncharted social territory. So here’s the lowdown on how to discuss your financial aid situation with grace – before you receive aid, after your receive aid (whether you’re thrilled or devastated), and into your first semester of college.

Before You Receive Aid

The “tuition talk” you’ll be sharing with your friends before you receive aid will probably fit into three categories:

1. The FAFSA is a soul-sucking nightmare and I have no idea how to fill it out

2. My scholarship applications have replaced sleep, and

3. I’m terrified that I won’t get any aid despite all this work I’m doing.

Now, if you have general, logistical questions regarding financial aid, feel free to ask your friends. A quick, “Guys, this one part of the FAFSA is driving me up the wall – do you have any idea how I’m supposed to fill that out?” during a lunch conversation is perfectly fine. I mean, they might have no idea how to help you, since they’re not accountants, but the conversation doesn’t do anyone any harm. Same goes for griping about scholarship essays: they’re universally dreaded, so as long as you’re not monopolizing the conversation by complaining, go right ahead.

And honestly, mentioning that you’re worried about your financial aid packages is also fine; your friends are there to support you in times of worry and anxiety and nothing is more anxiety-inducing than the thought of $60,000/year tuition.

Since most of the conversations you’ll have with your friends regarding money before financial aid decisions come out are pretty speculative and general, you pretty much have free reign to discuss it however you like; however, this definitely changes once you receive your packages.

After You Receive Great Aid

First, let me say how happy I am that all your time filing paperwork and filling out forms has paid off! Whether your aid is need- or merit-based, I congratulate you on your good fortune and encourage you to celebrate it! Go out for a swanky dinner with your parents, call your grandma, dance around your room to Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Queen Bey – whatever lets you get your groove on.

However, when it comes to sharing your good fortune with others, make sure you tread carefully. You know how conversations that cover college acceptances and rejections are pretty sensitive? Conversations about financial aid are like that to the nth degree. You have to recognize that while your current financial aid situation might be fantastic, some of your peers may really be hurting in the great admissions aftermath.

If an acquaintance asks how your aid turned out, it’s more than fine to respond, “Really well!” and leave it at that; the trouble comes when you go too far into the details. Responding, “Really well! I got a $X scholarship to Columbia, a $Y scholarship to Yale, and a $Z scholarship to Stanford,” gets a little boastful. Now, if you’re talking with your best friend in the entire world and know that she won’t be made uncomfortable if you give her all the dirty financial details, go right ahead. Just be conscious of who you’re talking to, and tailor your level of detail accordingly.

In that same vein, rethink mentioning dollar amounts when plastering social media with news of your success. It’s fine to say that you’ve been accepted to, say, Kenyon College as an Honors Scholar – that’s short, classy, and to the point. Saying that you’ve been accepted to Kenyon College as an Honors Scholar which pays HALF OF YOUR TUITION OMG #BLESSED is a step too far. If you get a lot of need-based aid or if a scholarship you earn carries with it a hefty financial aid package, that’s for you to know – not your entire friends list. If they’re so inclined to find out how much an Honors Scholar receives, they can look it up themselves. As the brilliant Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet says, “Respect and empathy are the foundations of any good talk, and they are never more important than with money.” So take that advice and put yourself in the shoes of one of your peers whose college expectations were dashed by receiving poor aid. You don’t have to wallow in their suffering, but just be conscious before you post of how your status might twist the knife in their side.

After You Receive Terrible Aid

I’m so, so, so terribly sorry that the mysterious workings of the financial aid gods did not work in your favor. Almost a year ago, I was in your shoes, and I probably have some sense of how badly you’re hurting right now.

After being admitted to my dream college, Barnard, I was ecstatic. I didn’t jump up and down, flail, or scream throughout the house; instead, I calmly went up to my parents and told them “I got in!” knowing deep down that Barnard would be my home for the next four years. And in less than 24 hours, I got the little slip of paper that “regretfully” informed me that I didn’t qualify for the aid I needed to attend. It was horribly, viscerally painful, and I hate thinking back to that night.

It’s been over a year and it still hurts to think about how different my life would be right now if I could have afforded Barnard: would I be interning with a Broadway theater right now? Would I be ushering for any shows? Would I be standing in line in ten-degree weather for lottery tickets to see Hamilton? I don’t know the answers to those questions (except the third, which is an unqualified “yes”), and that frustrates me out of my mind. Which isn’t to say that I constantly wallow in misery and regret or that I silently curse every recipient of Barnard’s financial aid – but I’m still not totally over it.

So take your time to have a good good cry (or four) and don’t feel like you have to put on a thrilled face when you go to school in the morning. I mean, try not to sob through the hallways, but if anyone asks you about your aid situation, you just have to say, “Yeah, it didn’t really work out for me.” No need to dive into the painful details.

The tricky situation arises when your friends – to whom you would normally turn for comfort – are all relatively set aid-wise. You’re going to feel a little jealous and frustrated, and that’s perfectly normal. You just have to try to nip that envy in the bud and be happy for them as best as you can. If you’re going through a rough financial patch due to poor aid, it can be hard to congratulate a friend on her full ride to her first-choice school, but be the classy, respectful person I know you are and do it anyway. You’ll look back and thank yourself for not being a bitter jerk, I promise.

During Your First Semesters of College

The weirdness surrounding financial aid discussions doesn’t go away when you submit your deposit or shop for your dorm; it continues well into college.

Awareness is key. No matter your financial situation, you simply have to be aware that some of your peers are actively struggling to pay for college. You’ll know people working two jobs and babysitting on the side in order to pay for textbooks, and you’ll hear this common defense of jaywalking on a nearly daily basis: “Well, at least if one of the buses hits me, the university has to pay for some of my tuition, right?” It’s certainly morbid, but the humor comes from a place of truth. You’ll also hear students casually joke that they’re going to be a quarter of a million dollars in debt by the time they finish their fourth year, and all the uncomfortable laughter that follows. In a sense, the reality of student debt doesn’t really kick in until you’re attending the classes that are causing it.

The best advice I can possibly give you regarding “tuition talk” in college is this: don’t presume to know the details of someone’s finances based on any outward appearances. Your friend’s Barbour jacket might be a loaner from her cousin, her Kate Spade sweater might be a thrift shop find, and her Coach bag might be her mom’s from the 90s.

Don’t assume that just because your friends’ parents have a slick job title – doctor, lawyer, editor-in-chief – that they’re flush with cash, and that by extension, they’ll have no problem paying for school. If I had a dollar for every person who has said, “Beth, your parents are doctors, so you probably have, like, a second house in the Virgin Islands or something, right?” to me, I’d have no financial aid troubles whatsoever. These kinds of comments are honestly really abrasive, and can be pretty hurtful if made at the wrong time. For example, in my junior year, I was chatting about my college choices with my theology teacher – a conversation mainly consisting of me fretting about financial aid – when he cut me off with a pointed, “Well your parents are doctors, so you’ll have no trouble paying for Barnard at all.” I get snide comments like that all the time, and they’re just not true.

I also get a lot of financially-oriented flak for participating in U.Va.’s Greek life. It’s true that dues at a southern university are pricey, and I know that I seem like the absolute vision of privilege to those who don’t know the dirty details of my financial situation. But the facts are that I went to the cheapest school on my list of acceptances, and it worked out that tuition/fees AND sorority dues at U.Va. combined was still far cheaper than plain tuition at any other school to which I was accepted. Added to the fact that I’ve met some of my dearest friends and mentors through my sorority and found a niche in my sprawling university community, I think it’s pretty clear that joining Greek life – though it is expensive – was a perfectly reasonable choice for me to make.

The bottom line is: how other people manage their money is none of your business, no matter how much you want it to be. I get it, we’re all a little nosey and if I were alone inside Amy Poehlers’ house, I’d have a hard time not rifling through a few drawers, so to speak. But as Ms. Fagan says, “DON’T count other people’s money. You can’t know what someone else’s full financial story is, and even if you could, it wouldn’t affect your own. Stay in your lane.” There will be times when you want to rush to judgment, and you’re just going to have to bite back that urge.

When discussing financial aid with your friends, the most important thing to do is reserve your judgments. Though one of your friends may seem like he’s living in the lap of luxury, his financial situation might be rocky – so mentioning that you’re flush with scholarship money to his face or even on social media isn’t quite appropriate. When in doubt, keep money-centric conversations general and don’t bring in actual numbers. And keep up those habit when you head to college – the doctors’ children of the world will thank you.

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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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