Drugs, Sex, and Debt: It’s Time to Revamp “The Talk”

Let’s remove the shame from the conversation and help the next generation avoid the debilitating amounts of debt that keep us from buying houses or taking vacations.
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YES! illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

There are certain topics that parents are supposed to discuss with their kids: manners (easy), drugs (awkward), and sex (totally mortifying). Somehow, though, the all-important talk about financial planning and the consequences of student loans never happened for many of us, leaving an entire generation standing at the brink of adulthood with degrees and a crippling amount of debt.

“It's critical that we teach children and young adults about all financial matters”

It’s not that parents should be blamed for the student debt crisis in the United States; if you’re looking for culprits, start with the plenty of for-profit colleges, universities with skyrocketing tuition, and student loan lenders that have about as much heart as Darth Vader. Yet many millennials say that their parents never talked to them about student loan debt when they were starting college or grad school. They may have been warned that debt was dangerous, but that’s about as far as it went. That could be because for baby boomers, student loan debt wasn’t such a huge issue. Going to college wasn’t always a “must,” and the pressure to excel in high school and get into an Ivy League university wasn’t nearly as intense.

J.R. Hardman, a senior tour manager for Campus MovieFest, a student film and music festival, studied at the University of Southern California and graduated with debt despite her parents talking to her beforehand. “They did make debt seem scary, like it was one of the absolute last things that you'd want in your life,” she says. Still, she wishes she’d calculated what her monthly payments would have been before deciding on USC over Arizona State, where she would have had a full scholarship. “I wish the talks I'd had with my parents had been less theoretical and more clearly applied to my actual situation,” Hardman says.

The issue is that knowing what your actual situation will be after graduation is tough if not impossible to predict. It’s hard to get straight answers from lenders (good luck with that one), and the job market is a fickle thing. I wound up landing a solid job after grad school, only to find myself laid off and babysitting my friend’s toddler for cash two years later. There weren’t any charts and graphs that could have predicted that sunny outcome. I vaguely recall a brief conversation with my dad about the consequences of going into debt, but he didn’t want to stifle my passion by warning me of a bleak future. He also doesn’t remember hearing about student loan debt when he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. It existed, but it was nowhere near the $1.2 trillion mark it’s at today.

Ashleigh M., a therapist in Southern California, says her dad brought up the topic of student loans “casually” one night at dinner. He laid out a plan for her and told her to only take out subsidized loans (which were more readily available at the time). The conversation helped her finish school without the crushing debt and insecurity that student loans so often bring. “It's critical that we teach children and young adults about all financial matters,” she says. But maybe your parents aren’t financial gurus. Maybe they have debt of their own. Maybe they’re ashamed to talk about money. What then?

A 2014 study conducted by Citizens Financial Group found that 77 percent of former college students between the ages of 18 and 40 wish they had planned better for paying off their student debt, while 46 percent of former students only remember having “brief” conversations about debt, if at all. Money is personal, and talking about finances can feel shameful and embarrassing, whether you’re a blood relative or a total stranger. I asked several people with student loan debt whether their parents had discussed it with them before attending school, and the most common response I got was: “HA!” Their parents didn’t understand the intricacies and dangers of the student loan system, so how in the world could they have a serious sit-down about it?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a mandatory class called Student Debt: How to Avoid It for every college freshman in the country. Many of us have to figure it out for ourselves, which can be overwhelming when you uproot your life, start school, and struggle to balance work, internships, and studying. The people in their twenties and thirties I spoke to say that they are much more likely to sit down and discuss finances and debt with their kids than their parents’ generation was.

It’s time to remove the shame from the conversation and help the next generation avoid the debilitating amounts of debt that keep us from buying houses or taking vacations. It’s time to talk about debt and get that $1.2 trillion number down. If parents can talk to their kids about sex, then they can talk to them about money. It should be way less mortifying.