By ZAC BISSONNETTE
When Felipe Matos enrolled in the New York Institute of Technology to study graphic design, he never thought that degree would be the very thing that prevented him from pursuing his dream career.
But more than $50,000 in student debt later, he has found himself working as an assistant building manager in New York City — with half his salary going toward debt repayment.
“In order to get into my field, I’d have to intern,” says Mr. Matos, adding that his dream job would be at Pixar, the cutting-edge animation studio. But in order to avoid defaulting on his loans, he has had to defer his dreams. “I often get depressed because I always wanted to make cartoons and 3D animations for a living but can’t,” he says. His debt load also is affecting his life plans beyond his career: “I have a very loving and serious girlfriend, but I’m afraid we can’t have kids or get married until we are in our late 30s.”
Managing your finances isn’t just about compound interest or credit cards, individual retirement plans or 401(k) plans. It’s really about the kind of life you want to have.
There are tons of guides for what you should do with your money, but few draw the deeply rooted connection between how you manage money and how you manage your dreams.
It’s not easy to do both well, but if you want to make a good financial start, here are five things every high-school graduate should try to remember:
1. Debt is slavery: “The borrower is slave to the lender,” says the Bible. When you have monthly payments to make, your life choices are greatly reduced. You can end up chained to a job you don’t like — unable to take the low-paying, entry-level job in your dream field or pursue further education to gain the qualifications for the career you really want.
“Constrained after College,” a study by researchers from Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, found that graduates who borrowed heavily to pay for college were less likely to take public-service jobs than those who didn’t borrow.
A survey conducted by Nellie Mae, a subsidiary of student-loan behemoth Sallie Mae, found that high debt from undergraduate degrees is one of the leading reasons people don’t attend graduate school.
2. College debt takes its toll: Going deeply into debt to pay for a prestigious college degree rarely pays off in the long run. Not only does it saddle you with a large, pressing debt that limits your options upon graduation, you’re not likely to be any more successful either.
A recent study by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that, once you control for aptitude, career earnings don’t vary based on the college attended: if you’re smart enough to get into a brand-name private university, you’ll do just fine going to a state college. What will determine your success will be your aptitude and your work ethic, not the name on your diploma.
Alli Mulder graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University four years ago — debt-free. “After graduation I did not have to worry about finding any old job immediately just to pay my student-loan bill,” she says. “The freedom of not having those payments has allowed me to put my money and my attention toward my dreams.” She now works as an enrollment counselor at her alma mater.
Thinking about the huge lifestyle benefits of a life without monthly payments might help inspire you to pick an affordable college instead of, in effect, borrowing $50,000 for a sweatshirt to impress the crowd at the coffeehouse.
3. Rich friends may be broke: When I was in high school, I hung out with a girl whose parents lived modestly and drove a beat-up station wagon that you could hear coming from a mile away. Our other friend drove a BMW Z3 — and made fun of the junky cars we drove. That upset the girl. “Look,” I said to her, “you have no idea whether his dad’s actually richer than yours. The car’s probably a lease, and their houses are probably leveraged to the hilt.”
And four years, a real-estate crisis and a few foreclosures later, the Z3′s gone. My friend’s parents who drove the station wagon sidestepped the crisis; they owned their home outright.
The dangers of conspicuous consumption are best learned vicariously, and here are a couple of factoids that might get you thinking. According to Thomas J. Stanley, author of “The Millionaire Next Door,” the most popular car among millionaires is the Toyota Camry, and only 7.3% of millionaires own a bottle of wine that cost more than $100.
4. Materialism is misery: Lives of thrift and conscientiousness lead to less stress, greater enjoyment of the things we do have and a lighter carbon footprint. But most of our societal associations with wealth are deeply connected with materialism: luxury goods, power and status.
“The more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished,” says Knox College psychologist Tim Kasser, author of “The High Price of Materialism.”
Recognize the real benefits of wealth — freedom and flexibility — and don’t let the pursuit of its illusory trappings interfere with your ability to reap those rewards.
5. TV makes you feel poor: One of the fastest ways to make yourself better with money is to smash your television — or just watch it less.
A 1997 study by researchers Thomas O’Guinn and L.J. Shrum found that people who watch more TV believe that a higher percentage of Americans have tennis courts, luxury cars, maids and swimming pools.
And that perception can lead to feelings of inadequacy when you don’t have those goodies — and a willingness to stretch beyond your means as the Real Housewives become your social reference group.
A Merck Family Fund poll found that 56% of people who reported that they were “heavily in debt” also copped to watching “too much TV.”