We Need to Talk About Money

By Pat Brothwell - December 18, 2019

We’ve been discussing tabling the “where to go to college” conversation in lieu of “is college the right option for you?” We discussed how the middle class is increasingly being defined by their ability to pay for college versus what they used to be defined by: the ability to offer their kids better opportunities. We talked about how 51% of college students drop out for financial reasons, how 43% of college graduates are stuck in jobs that underpay, and how 1.6 trillion dollars of student debt is crippling young adults. We looked at a plethora of data extolling whether or not college was “worth it” for the middle class, and what some other options are. Despite it being the one factor tying all these together, you know what we didn’t talk about? 





How often do you talk about money? Maybe you complain about taxes or bemoan the price of your gym, but how often do you really talk about money? How often was money discussed when you were growing up? How often was it discussed in real and tangible terms? A central tenet of the middle class has always been that it’s rude to talk about money. It’s improper to ask someone how much they make. It’s out of line to bring up salary at a job interview. Polite people don’t talk about money, especially because rich people, old money rich people, never discuss it, which is well, rich, because they don’t need to. We keep laboring under the illusion that anyone who works hard enough can achieve success, that old American Dream of "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps," which is surely a notion that someone who never had to worry about paying for their own boots came up with. 


We could analyze why we don’t talk about money for days, but the bottom line is that when we don’t talk, we aren’t informed, and when we aren’t informed, we’re more apt to dig ourselves into unnecessary holes (see the aforementioned 1.6 trillion dollars of student debt), and frankly, be taken advantage of (see the scandals recently embroiling  Wells Fargo and student loan company Navient.) We need to start talking more about money. We need to start discussing finances in a meanigful way. We need to make students aware of real financial pitfalls so that they can steer clear of them. We need to start, as recently defunct The Billfold so succinctly put it, discussing, “everything about money you were too polite to ask.”


Money 100% needs to be part of the discussion families and educators are having with students when they're deciding on post-high school game plans, and not in some abstract, platitude driven way. Students can go online and find numerous examples of people they follow who "rise and grind" their way to financial success, but so often what they extoll is built on smoke and mirrors, and can be just as dangerous and misleading to students as having no discussion at all. The conversation needs to happen in a real, might-make-some people uncomfortable way that prepares students not to saddle themselves with unnecessary debt, chasing unrealistic goals. 


We need to start having conversations about salaries and the cost of living. We need to start having conversations revolving around what students can expect to earn and how that will affect the lifestyles they envision leading. We need to start having conversations regarding tuition costs, and what the process of paying back student debt looks like, and take that into consideration when coming up with a plan of attack. This is where career exploration is so key. If we’re talking on a surface level about what you want to be when you grow up, the conversation typically centers around students’ passions. It’s about doing what they love. When doing a deep dive, things like school costs, base salary, and lifestyle come up organically, and become part of the conversation.


Altruistic career paths such as teaching, social work, and anything in the mental health field, doctorates notwithstanding, are great examples of this. Teachers and social workers, both careers that require a four-year degree, are increasingly requiring professionals to get an advanced degree after a specific amount of time on the job. These are careers which require extensive schooling, yet students can expect salaries comparable to jobs that only require a high school diploma.


Let’s get more specific.  

According to Indeed.com, social workers make an average of $58,6300 a year, which is nothing to sneeze at on the surface, but bears a further breakdown. Students need to be aware that this is an average, which likely means they'll be starting at a much lower number. They also need to be made aware that this average doesn't guarantee they'll ever make that much at this career, and that many social workers are paid hourly, so if clients don't show up, social workers sometimes don't get paid (and all the other hourly vs. salary discussions this can foster).


Salaries vary depending on the type of social work and the location, which needs to be taken into account when constructing a game plan. A healthcare social worker making $73,970 annually in Los Angeles is going to have a markedly different lifestyle than a school social worker making $59,410 in New York City. Many students don't understand how widely the cost of living can vary from place to place. 


Another element to consider is student debt. Acquiring your Master's in Social Work can up your annual income by $15,000 a year, but the average MSW leaves that program with $30,000 of debt, on top of the debt incurred in undergrad. This means many new social workers are paying back upwards of $60,000 in debt on an average starting salary of $41,000 a year. This is in no way meant to dissuade individuals from pursuing these careers. We are simply saying that they should be armored with all the information when they commit to their pathway.


Students should be considering school costs in conjuncture with prospective salaries. In Pennsylvania, a public school teacher can expect to make an average of $67,535.00 (keep in mind this is average, not starting). Pennsylvania has a very strong public university system, with West Chester, East Stroudsburg, and Shippensburg Universities all having nationally recognized education departments. Yearly tuition to get an education degree at East Stroudsburg is $11,502. Bucknell would cost $58,280 for the same degree. One is public. One is private. Both have excellent education departments, but which makes more financial sense for a middle-class family worrying about college costs? Which makes more financial sense when comparing the debt they'll have to pay back with a starting salary? 


There's also the issue of how to make more money. Teachers don’t get raises by killing it on a project, staying late, or impressing their bosses. Their raises are determined by a series of steps typically set out in a contract. The same goes for most social workers or nurses, which all fall under the "learn more, earn more" payscale umbrella.


We can go over a million other examples, but you get the point. It’s easy to say, “find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” when you don’t have to worry about the job you love bankrupting you. It’s easy to say, “find your passion,” when your passion paying $20,000 a year isn’t an issue. The rest of us really need to be realistic. We need to be informed. We need to talk about money. There’s nothing impolite about that.  

Up next: one cost-effective option to help students grow up.

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