A few weeks ago when the Mega Million dollar lottery jackpot was getting close to a zillion dollars, my office decided to go in on a shared ticket pool. One of my colleagues came around to ask for $5 from each person who wanted in on the road to financial freedom. Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity to retire early, I reached for my wallet to pull out some cash and was instantly embarrassed that there was not a single dollar bill inside. I did hear the jingling of two pennies and button in the change compartment, but that wasn’t going to get me my piece of the lottery ticket.
Why would a successful professional woman have an empty wallet you might ask? Well, those of you out there with children can appreciate that this is an all-too-often occurrence. Like most mornings in the Nealon household, there’s always a flurry of last-minute drama that ensues seconds before each of the kids needs to leave the house for school.
“Mom, the class trip money is due today!”
“Mom, I need more lunch money!”
“Mom, the wrapping paper forms were supposed to be turned in last Friday!”
You get the idea. What little cash I managed to fill my wallet with the night before was sucked dry before the day had even officially begun.
When my kids were little, my husband and I used to think about all the money we would save once they got out of formula and diapers. Of course, then they quickly switched over to baseball leagues, dance lessons, book order forms and school supplies. And again, we dreamed about how much money we’d save once they outgrew the elementary years. Naturally, we hadn’t anticipated the cost of video games, computers, the sneakers that everyone is wearing, allowance and gas money for the car.
Well, we’re done with that silly fantasizing game because the cost of financing my son’s college education has hit us like a ton of bricks. People, as I mentioned in my first blog, I do this for a living!! I counsel people about the high cost of a college education, the need to carefully save, the limited federal and state funding that’s available out there and the notion that paying a higher tuition does not necessarily guarantee a better education.
And yet, when I filed my Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received my Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), I had to hold on to the kitchen counter for support so I wouldn’t fall down. The EFC isn’t the minimum amount we’d have to pay; it isn’t the maximum amount we’d have to pay. It’s simply the minimum amount that the federal government believes we can afford to pay toward my son’s college education.
Now, I live a relatively modest life. I have a nice house that I’ve turned into a home, I drive a dented Kia minivan with the windows rolled down and the stereo-blasting, I put in an honest week’s work both outside my home at the college I work for and inside my home as a I raise my three kids. But there is absolutely no way, no how that I can comfortably contribute what the federal government thinks I can pay toward my son’s education. Not if I want to keep up with the nasty habits I’ve developed like three square meals a day and electricity. And keep in mind, this is just the first of my three kids to head off to college. I can’t raise the bar for one only to lower it as the younger ones come down the pike.
So here’s where I’ve been forced to practice what I’ve been preaching all these years.
- When choosing the colleges my son was going to apply to, he was encouraged to not only identify schools that were safety, realistic and reach schools from an academic perspective, but also from a financial perspective. We made sure that he had a healthy mix of lower priced schools, as well as schools that had a history of offering merit awards to deserving students.
- I submitted my FAFSA forms, and all other forms required by the colleges before the deadlines. This gave me and the colleges a long lead time to review what I had submitted, check for errors, engage in conversations and make decisions that weren’t pressured by time.
- Just like I’d prefer to wear only designer clothing and carry a ‘how on earth did you afford that’ kind of handbag, I wish that money were no object when it came to sending my son off to school. Reality is I wear clothes that don’t always have fancy labels in them and sometimes carry a knock-off bag. But I get tons of compliments and frankly, I feel downright amazing in them. We had to make some choices as a family about what could comfortably afford and what we couldn’t. And he’s going to be downright amazing at the school he chose while I still have enough money in my pocket to be able to afford the gas to go visit him.
- Never, ever compare myself to the “Joneses”…no good can come from it. I heard story after story about people who had figured out how to scam the system…to hide their money and look needier on the forms. I heard about the woman who had not one, but two Lexus (Lexi?) in her driveway, but managed to get a ‘full financial need’ package from a college. Whatever. At the end of the day, I have to look myself in the mirror and know I was truthful without bragging and that I set an example for my son to choose to live within his means.
So, maybe I’ll never be ‘rolling in the dough’ without a financial care in the world. But I will know that because my son worked hard throughout his school years and because my husband and I worked hard to save and make sacrifices over our lifetime, my son knows that a college education is important to his success and we know that we are going to help him realize that dream.