College Connect: College plans survive family’s financial storm

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By Benjamin Dashley, Ball State University

All too quickly it was gone. Years of money set aside for my education – tucked away into supposedly safe investments, mutual funds, bank accounts. Gone.

My family, like so many others during the Great Recession, lost half a lifetime’s worth of savings as the market shuddered and investments collapsed.

For 18 years my folks had stashed away savings in a college fund. It was money they could have spent on cars and vacations, but the savings evaporated when the market tanked.

I needed nearly $20,000 a year for school and got a bad feeling when my dad asked me to sit down for a chat.

“We need to talk,” he said. One look at his face said this wasn’t going to be good.

My stepmom and I walked into the living room, the place in our house where guests are entertained or – in this case – where really bad news is delivered.

He got right to it: “I’m not sure how we can pay for your school.”

There was more. An explanation of investments, of tough times. The bottom line, well, he’d just said it.

I listened to the numbers, and tried not to cry. All those years of planning.

In any crisis response there has to be a plan.

Luckily, my folks, if they couldn’t avoid a financial wipeout, had at least followed the first rule of investing – diversify.

They still had a pretty healthy savings account, and my dad made pretty good money as general manager of a cemetery.

But this was still tough – for them as well as me. They had just bought a property for their retirement in Kentucky, a dream my dad has held since we took our family vacations down in what he calls “America’s best-kept secret.”

Also in consideration was our recent move to California. With a house that cost almost five times what our house in Indiana cost to build, it was not exactly the best time to lose thousands of dollars put away for “safe” keeping.

On top of all that, just after I moved to school my dad lost his job. Another income source had disappeared, leaving my future as a student in a haze of uncertainty.

So the hits just kept coming. Time and again, money had slipped right out from underneath my feet. I don’t qualify for grants or most other financial aid due to my dad’s income (he found another job, but doesn’t earn nearly as much as he used to).

So, again, what now?

I fell back on what we had practiced in our family: You don’t spend what you don’t have.

To make the college numbers work I applied to be a resident assistant, which cuts my college expenses in half.

And trips to the bars are fun, but not necessary. So I only go out every few weeks.

My parents were able to use some of their other savings to keep me in school. I’ve had to take out a loan, but I’m going to graduate next fall in pretty good shape.

“Pretty good” is relative in these days of rising tuition. I’ll owe $10,000, which seems like a lot considering the debt-free college experience we had saved for.

But then I checked finaid.org, the noted financial aid and college planning site. If you want to feel better, think about the people who are feeling worse.

The $10,000 debt is bad news compared with where we were. But when I looked at where I could be – the $24,651 average in loans for graduates in this country, the pain eased up a little bit.

Yeah, I wish the financial tsunami hadn’t happened to us. But when we picked ourselves up and dried off, I learned the best lesson you can get – in college or out: Save for a rainy day. And when it rains, don’t be surprised.

Benjamin Dashley is a Ball State University senior and forum and assistant news editor of the Ball State Daily News. He became interested in finance after he was a part of his high school’s Academy of Finance.

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