Lately, I've been paying attention to things we pay too much for. And since it's spring and I have a senior in high school, one of the things I am thinking about is college. I am all for a college education - I think EVERYONE should have one, but hearing/reading about the process/essays/payments people have made to get into "the best" college or their "first choice" as opposed to "safety schools" (that term alone conjures up images of smug confidence) is really off-putting. And mostly because I believe the college process is one of the most stressful experiences a young adult can go through. It's hard enough just being a senior with all the "final" requirements to graduate, plus keeping up on grades, extracurricular activities, chores at home, social life, etc. But being required to apply to numerous schools, write lengthy essays, and attend intimidating interviews is a lot to ask of a young adult. I'm not knocking it - I think it's a wonderful experience and part of "real life" that will come shockingly close on the heels of graduation. But I wonder, at what price? Depending on where you live, a college education can be had at a bargain-basement price considering some of the fine community college programs out there. An in-state school can also save money. Perhaps one won't have a "prestigious" name embossed on their college degree but what does that really matter? I attended the University of Washington and I couldn't even tell you right now WHERE my certificate is. Or if it has a gold seal. Or any other fancy embellishment. I know I have it somewhere, but the truth is, it really doesn't matter much to me. I graduated from college. And I'm 43 years old and I'm pretty sure no one cares when or where I did that. My own high school senior applied to only one college - Central Washington University. Now, this bothered me for a long time. Why only that school? What if other schools offered her a better "financial package"? What if she, by merely not applying, eliminated her chances of getting into a "prestigious school"? And then I asked myself - why do I care? What do I really want for her? Certainly not a piece of paper, earned after four years of hard work and a cost so staggeringly high it pains me to think about. I want her to go to college, get an education, some "real world" experience and come out of it responsible and educated and mature enough to get a job and a life of her own. And, sure, have some fun while doing it. And meet new people, and join some groups, and do some volunteer work, and work hard at a job, and budget her own money. Basically, I want her to grow up and become a responsible adult and no college degree will guarantee that. I just wish more kids felt secure in knowing that their parents supported their decisions, whether it be Ivy League, community college or a trade. I see so much stress and strife amongst high school seniors and much of it comes from parents pushing their kids into making a decision that may not be the best for THEM. Of course, as a parent, you need to push. Push away! You started this adolescent's life by pushing and you won't stop pushing for a long, long time. But I would implore all parents of high school seniors to take a long, hard look at your child and ask them what THEY want. What's important to them? And then combine that with a little of your own pushing (because, after all, you are the more experienced one) and come up with a nice, middle of the road compromise that will leave you both feeling like you're getting what you want at a price you can afford.
Also on my mind is prom dresses. I've had plenty of years to think about this one, and I've just never understood how one could spend hundreds of dollars on a dress worn only once, for a few hours. Similar to a wedding dress. Even when I first was married, I had sticker shock at the idea of a wedding dress. I'll only wear it for several hours! ONCE! I immediately headed to the sale rack and after only a few "try ons", found a dress for $650 which still sent me over the edge (and my parents paid for it!). And guess what? I didn't wear it again, but I paid $100 to have it nicely dry-cleaned and preserved in a huge box that I don't have space for. Oh, and I got divorced. So, now I have this lovely dress that I doubt my daughters will want to wear, ever, and I have no idea what to do with it. So, I just keep it stored on a shelf. How silly is that? When I got married the second time, I bought a dress at Macy's for $200. It's beautiful, ivory, beaded and something I could easily wear again as an evening/cocktail dress. But have I? Will I? Probably not. So, when it comes to shopping for a prom dress, I have a hard time thinking about spending hundreds of dollars for a dress that will make my daughter look like a princess for a few hours. And yet.......I WANT her to have that princess dream! But I'm determined I can make it happen without the hefty price tag. Just log on to Craig's List and see the plethora of dresses "worn only once" for sale! Hundreds! Will I find just the perfect dress? Perhaps not, but I will try! And we'll go to fancy stores and try on fancy dresses. And somehow, it will happen. We'll find just the right dress at the right price, and we won't pay "too much".
Recently my high school senior spent what little money she has on a $48 zip up hoodie sweatshirt from American Apparel. Because all the cool kids have one. And I looked at these sweatshirts, and while they are cute and certainly functional, I am certain a similar version could have been had for about half the price. But she insisted it be from that particular store, and it was her money so........never mind she needs to put gas in her car and pay her car insurance. I'm guessing when she's in college, and working, a $48 sweatshirt will seem like the extravagance it is, and she'll be perfectly happy to outfit herself from Target and Old Navy, as I have been doing for her all her life. And sure, sometimes we pay a little more for something we'll wear "all the time" or is a good, basic piece that will last years. This hoodie could even qualify for that. So, it's not a crime to pay $48 for a hoodie, but in the greater scheme of things, I could think of a lot of other things to spend $48 on. Like groceries. And car insurance.
When my daughter was in 9th grade, her class had an opportunity to go on a trip to Europe. I would have loved for her to go, but it was around $5000 and I don't know about you, but we seem to be lacking in jars of change around here that amount to that much. We certainly don't have vacation savings set aside for such an excursion. So, the idea was immediately "out" but I was surprised by how many of her friends were able to go. I don't know their particular finances, but all I could think was that I was 40 years old and had never been to Europe, and my daughter had a lot of years and opportunities to make that happen, while for me, it might never happen. Or at least I had less time. So, while I felt bad for a while that I wasn't able to provide her with this experience, I also realized that she had plenty of time and chances to get to Europe and if she never made it, that would be ok too. She may not have seen the Eiffel Tower, but she's spent one memorable night in a TravelLodge that she'll never forget! Our "vacation" experiences may not rival those of a family able to hit up Disneyland every year or take cruises at whim, but they are no less chock-full of memories.
It's all about a balance between what you CAN afford, what you're willing to spend, how able you are to "splurge" and still recover, and the value of what you're putting your money into. Ask yourself what you value - is it the "name" or the experience? Is it the place or the memory? And maybe you'll find that you can still have great experiences and things for a smaller price tag. And a little left over for a "rainy day"!