To take or not to take on college debt?

Benjamin "Mino" Caulton

Tess Vigeland: This week, we're dedicating the hour to your birthdays -- the ones you mark as you pass through each decade of your life. In a special partnership with the New York Times, we fanned out across the country to talk with folks from their teens through their 70s about the money issues they face as they age. And then we paired them with a financial adviser around their same age and in similar circumstances.

Starting us off today, Ron Lieber, the Your Money columnist for The Times and the lead on our special report called "Money Through the Ages." Ron, what age is your money?

Ron Lieber: Well some of my money is young and some of my money is slightly older. But I, myself, is 39 years old.

Vigeland: Excellent, excellent. So, you're dealing with money issues in your 30s and I'm dealing with them in my early 40s. But you know, what I really found interesting in this project was how layers our money issues become over the years. I thought there would be more and greater differences as you entered your 30s, your 40s, your 50s. But what really happens is that these issues start to compound, kinda like interest.

Lieber: Well, here's what ends up happening: One of the points of the exercise here is to show people how, while there are different issues for people in different age or different demographic groups -- like spending too much, or saving too little or taking on too much debt -- and these things can happen during any age, but they may impact you in different ways depending on how old you are and when you start going down that road.

Vigeland: First, you are going to kick us off with a teenager from Amherst, Mass. Let's listen to his story:

Benjamin "Mino" Caulton: My name is Benjamin Caulton, but I go by Mino. I'm a senior at Amherst High School and I'm 18 years old. I was actually quite the lemonade stand entrepreneur. On one day, on Mother's Day, I raised $6 and that was in a span of three hours, so that awesome.

The earliest memory of money that I have is of not having enough. I don't remember my parents fighting about it; I remember them talking about it and being concerned and worried like you do when you don't have enough money. But, you know, it something that we were all really aware of.

I have a 10-second memory of using a lot less toothpaste than I used to. And it's just something that my dad said once -- "Hey Mino, you gotta use, less toothpaste. We've gotta make this last."

The money that I spend comes... I don't really spend money, now that I think about it. The money that I spend is always money that I earned, or that my parents will pay for and then I'll pay them back. Because I don't have a substantially paying job until soccer season when I can ref. So for instance, they paid for my gym membership for this part of the winter. The moment I had the money from reffing, I'm going to hand it right back to them.

I'm not uncomfortable around money; I'm uncomfortable having people's money, if I'm afraid that I'm going to use it and not be able to give it back. So, I give it back, because I know that the money in our family, it's a communal fund.

We had a meeting with my school's college guidance counselor and at our first meeting, she asked us, "How much can you pay for?" And my parents said, "You know, none. We've gotta get scholarships and financial aid and merit-based." The bottom line is that I'm looking for about $10,000 a year in scholarships, like external scholarships. At the same time, they won't be able to help very much, I'm also not expecting them to. In some ways, it's my education and I'm going to be using the education that I've received to earn money back to pay for it. So at the same time, I don't feel like it's their responsibility. Although, if they want to throw me a couple thousands, that's not something I'd complain about, you know?

Vigeland: Ron Lieber, you know, one of the things that we tried to do with this project is to find people who typified their generation, and I have to tell you, he sounds awfully sophisticated about money as a teenager!

Lieber: Mino is incredibly earnest and utterly responsible. And yet he is tortured almost by this decision that he has to make. And it's this: It's the question of how much debt should we go into, how much should we sacrifice for a private school, when a perfectly good community college or public university is right down the road that might not require so much sacrifice of us?

Vigeland: Tell us who we brought in to talk to Mino about his financial situation.

Lieber: We brought in a young man named Zac Bissonnette, who's actually a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 22 years old. Already the author of an excellent book called "Debt-Free U," which encourages families not to take on too much debt or any at all in pursuit of undergraduate education. And Zac actually came to meet with me in person. Zac was practically foaming at the mouth with frustration, while looking over Mino's financial aid award letters.

Zac Bissonnette: I think it's sleazy to send a letter to a student suggesting that their parents borrow $10,180. If you're gonna suggest that someone borrow $10,000, you should send a letter to them.

Lieber: The other thing that Zac found wanting was that a passage in one of the letters that said the $10,000 in parent loans could "reduce your expenses for next year." He said that's not how loans work. Loans don't reduce expenses; loans increase expenses, because you have to pay interest.

Vigeland: Well, other than the kind of immediate paying for college issue, is Mino optimistic about his future?

Lieber: I think he is optimistic. He is sort of public minded, and he just wants to be careful now about now putting himself in a position later where he has to sacrifice some of his ideals or some of his career goals in order to take on a job, an occupation that would serve only to re-pay his debts.

Vigeland: Ron Lieber of the New York Times, starting us off with a teenager as we look at money through the ages throughout this program. Ron, thanks so much.

Lieber: Thanks for having me.

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