Taxing the Frugal Future

I was sitting on a bench in Cambridge on a fabulously sunny April day, watching awkward but happy kids rush by with important things to do.  In my hand was a bottle of spring water, handed out to old folks like me to give us the impression that someone cared deeply about us without adding too much to the cost of the weekend. The industry of Cambridge, Massachusetts is education.

After attending a handful of lectures and panel discussions, where serious but empathetic people used every Latin variation of supporting and nurturing in each sentence, I had wandered around until I heard a young man ask for a second copy of the weekend’s itinerary. His was gone, whether lost or swiped, and he had no idea what to do.

In a voice dripping with empathy, an official woman explained that they only had one copy of the booklet per student, and couldn’t possibly provide him with another. With puppy dog eyes and a tone usually reserved to gush at ugly babies, she told him how deeply sorry she was, and suggested that he retrieve the itinerary via a smart phone.  He didn’t have a smart phone. His parents failed him by not earning enough money to arm him with a technological alternative. 

Hearing this, and being the sort of guy who can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business, I asked the official woman whether the young man was supposed to wander aimlessly for the next few days, and didn’t they anticipate that a few young people, through no fault of their own, would end up without the vital itinerary?

She explained to me, in the patient voice one uses when speaking with someone intellectually challenged, that they simply didn’t have enough to hand out seconds.  I explained that when his parents got their tuition bill, the last concern they would have was the school’s poor planning and its consequent refusal to provide any help to a lost kid.  I also gave her the evil eye.  She gave the young man a second itinerary.  Apparently, they had a few extras.

I sat on the northerly side of the bench, when a woman with eyeglasses and two young children in tow sat down next to me, exhausted.  We started chatting, because that’s what parents do at these things. She told me her daughter was the first of four to leave the nest. She had 17 more years of college to pay for. I softly mentioned something about weddings, but decided not to talk about ice sculptures. It would have been cruel.

After exchanging vital statistics, the woman asked me if we had heard yet from financial aid. She told me she was asking everyone, as it was killing her and her husband.  They got squat.

“They say that they offer very generous financial aid. What a load of crap.”  This was clearly weighing heavily on her, which is understandable as I watched her two young’uns run around.  She explained that she and her husband both worked, decent jobs but not quite hedge fund managers. Realizing that they had children from the constant demand for food, they scrimped and saved. She had no smart phone either, like the young man who lost his booklet. She chose to clip coupons so that she wouldn’t have to fear a bad day at work leaving her children hungry.  This was they way she lived her life.

Other people don’t worry as much. They have more fashionable clothes and shinier toys. We see all the people who have stuff. I often wonder how they afford it, but others wonder where they got it so they can get it too. 

The worried woman next to me explained that because she had saved her pennies by depriving (though she would never describe it as deprivation) herself of this things that others had, she found herself in an awkward position.  Her family earned no more than others, but because they didn’t squander their earnings, received essentially no financial aid. They had to pay full freight, though it would be impossible on their income and would require them to use their life savings. 

By the time the tuition for their first child was paid, they would be destitute. The years of savings, of self-denial, leading to this point would be disappear with a poof.  It would disappear just as surely as if they had bought new cars every three years. Expensive, cool new cars. The good news was once they were rendered indigent, their remaining children would be given a need-based free ride.  The joys of poverty. It was all she could see in her future.

She explained that they had lived their lives according to core values of never spending more than they could afford, saving for a rainy day, being self-sufficient and living within their means.  She told me that she never went on fancy vacations or wore the latest fashions.  And yet, they would be as broke as the family that pissed away every dime they had, and then some, when the tuition bills came due. Other people, the ones with nice cars, cool clothing, smart phones, would receive substantial financial aid to make college affordable.  She had to pay until there wasn’t a dime left.

She asked me if I understood.  I told her I did.

Her youngest was tugging at her sleeve, asking if she could get something to eat.  She said it was nice talking, and wished me the best of luck.  I wished her the same, knowing that luck had nothing to do with it. As she walked away, I sucked down the last of my free bottled water, and watched the young people going by, so wonderfully happy, carefree and filled with the promise of their future.

13 comments on “Taxing the Frugal Future

  1. Luke Gardner

    Scott: That’s what I love about you. Always straight from the hip with no sugar coat, but with an underlying compassion that is invariably missing from the DNA of officials academic or otherwise. I know the type well. I grew up in Cambridge.

  2. Alice harris

    It sounds as if my financially struggling daughter who chose to have several children and who is always out of money, with no savings, but with an iphone and a house full of electronics may be wiser than her mom. Enjoy your poverty, dear. Your children may qualify for financial if you remain broke enough!

  3. SHG

    Thanks, Luke. I was torn between anger and boredom sitting in the lectures and panel discussions, knowing that cheap talk is the official person’s stock in trade as they bring mindless misery to people they talk at.

  4. SHG

    What a great incentive system we’re created, where squandering everything on crap is rewarded. It makes me feel like a complete fool.  And I don’t have an iPhone.

  5. Jordan

    Plus, consider this…

    Students graduate now with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. Between my wife and I, we do pretty well financially. However, a huge chunk of that goes into repaying for our educations. We live as though we make $30k a year combined.

    Who is going to have disposable income in the future? What is that going to do for the economy?

  6. SHG

    The issue of student debt is a related but tangential one. There are two separate questions involved in educational costs; whether it’s worth it on an absolute basis and whether it’s worth it on a cost-benefit basis. I have serious doubts about both, particularly when it comes to law school, but the cost-benefit seems to clearly suggest that anyone who goes to law school is nuts or lacks the capacity to grasp basic economics.

    As for what this means for the future of the economy, it’s just one small part of the problem. What about the prevalence of autism? What about the aging of the population? What about the entitlement of the Slackoisie? Smart money is cashing out now, because we can’t sustain a society where there are a dozen people working hard to finance the rest.

  7. SHG

    Feel free to stop by and pick out any of my old ties. If you don’t mind wearing shirts with my monogram, you can have the ones that don’t fit me any more. I think they shrunk from the heavy starch.

  8. Frank

    “Financial Aid” is a misnomer, as any government program or grant results in an immediate increase in tuition across the board in the amount of said aid or grant.

    That is how we got to this place.

  9. JMS

    It’s a dilemma that all families have to confront. My girlfriend and decided we’d rather have iPhones than children. No regrets so far, though I’m hoping that in 35 years’ time iTunes will have an app that mows my grass, listens to my tedious anecdotes about the 1990’s, and takes care of me when I’m doddering. While Steve Jobs was still alive, this seemed like a winning strategy, but now maybe we should go back to having sex.

  10. Dan

    Our first child was born 11 months ago and we gave up our smart phones a few months later. We both drive cars that are over 12 years old and my wife has a master’s degree in education. We still owe $18,000 for her degree and there are no jobs here in Hartford VT for me and hers pays 25% below market in an area that has a 20% above average cost of living. I’m unemployed and over qualified for 90% of the positions and for the other 10% I lack the proper degree despite my massive experience. I have to believe that this is not all there is! I can see a connection between the profitization of education and the value of an employee getting tied to degrees. I think we’re really in a pickle when hiring managers hire degrees rather than people.

    To be truly free, we must use our ability to imagine a better future and choose ways of living that work towards it. If all we can imagine is that new iPhone, we have truly lost our freedom. Thoughtful imagination is DIRECTLY linked to FREEDOM. I refuse to allow my own dreams to be replaced by the instant gratification commercialized dreams of the media.

    I WANT to think for myself. Do you?

    Don’t buy it, it can’t make you happy, only you can do that!

  11. SHG

    What do you mean by “thoughtful imagination,” and why do you end with a question? Are you seeking validation? If so, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.

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