I have always felt guilty about money matters in my family. It’s not that I’m a wild spender. I don’t constantly ask my parents for money. I haven’t racked up huge bills with any medical problems or anything. I actually think of myself as frugal. I usually ask, “Do I need this? Can I find this cheaper somewhere else? Can I imagine myself using this?” before buying anything. What weighs me down is my ignorance towards anything finance-related.
As of now, I am a 19 year-old sophomore in college. I’ve never worked a day in my life (I’m not proud of it, but circumstances just didn’t allow for me to get a job). I didn’t get my own debit card until about a month ago, and I still have no idea how to use it. I don’t know how much my tuition costs. I am absolutely oblivious as to how much my parents are spending for me to eat, sleep, and shower (oh, and get an education) at The College of New Jersey.
When I started the college application process, I knew the FAFSA existed. I knew it was something that could help me pay for school. From the many internet memes I had seen while scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard, I also knew it was a source of frustration for students and parents alike. But I don’t even know what it stood for and it wasn’t until December 31, 2013 (three semesters into my college career) that I realized it wasn’t just a one-time deal.
My cousins are 17 years old (twins) and are both in the process of applying to colleges right now. At our family New Year’s Eve party, I heard one of them sarcastically ask, “So, who’s ready to fill out the FAFSA tomorrow?!” My 21-year-old Seton Hall senior cousin responded, “Oh yeah, I always forget I have to do that.” At that point, my face dropped. You do that every year? Why do I not know this? I thought it’s freshman year, one and done! I saved myself the embarrassment and kept those thoughts to myself, nodding and rolling my eyes at the appropriate moments when other cousins chimed in with their financial aid frustrations.
I suppose it’s always been like this. My parents never explained the FAFSA to me. They never talked to me about how we budget our lives. I never knew our household income. I don’t know what our bank accounts are looking like. I don’t know if we’re living comfortably or just scraping by, and this is terrifying. I’m scared to ask my parents for a new winter jacket or boots because I don’t know if it fits in the mystery budget. It’s scary not knowing your family’s financial status, especially when you’re in college, your older sister is studying abroad across the globe next semester and your younger brother is four short years away from thinking about a college of his own.
I urge students to take an active role in their family’s finances (at least those related to college) and especially students still in high school. Start early and start now. I understand some parents like keep these things private, not wanting their children to worry. But parents also need to understand that, for children who are about to need tens of thousands of dollars to further their lives, it can be comforting knowing where the money’s coming from, be it the bank accounts or the bank loans.
Fill out the FAFSA together. Apply for scholarships together. Talk about tuition. Go through the college process with your parents (Your interest will also show them you’re mature and growing up to be a responsible adult). Also, learn how to use a debit card before embarrassing yourself at the campus bookstore, fumbling over the buttons on the credit card reader just to buy more hair conditioner.
Maybe the title of this article should have been “Not knowing about financial aid,” instead of “Not worrying,” because I’m surely worrying, but it’s because of not knowing. Don’t be like me!