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Letters: Your reactions to Money Through the Ages

NYT's Ron Lieber.

Tess Vigeland: Last week, we aired a special co-production with the New York Times called Money Through the Ages.

We profiled people from their teens to their 70s and explored the financial issues facing each of those decades. The response was overwhelming. So we asked Ron Lieber of the New York Times to join us again to talk about some of the reaction. Hey Ron, glad to have you back.

Ron Lieber: Good to be back.

Vigeland: So certainly, this series seems to have touched a nerve with quite a few readers and listeners. And for the most part, what I gathered was that a lot of people had epiphanies that said, "Oh my goodness, my finances are not in really great shape."

Lieber: Right. Well, part of the point of the exercise here was to try and help people recognize themselves in sort of the case studies of others and then hopefully, to listen to some of the advice that the gurus were offering to try and put them on the straight narrow again.

Vigeland: And certainly, that was the case even just beginning with our teenager who you profiled. And a lot of folks saying, "You know what, I'm either in that same situation or I am now looking back at a decision that I made that has saddled me with a whole lot of debt."

Lieber: It's true. Let me tell you about Jim from Chicago, who mentioned this in a comment on our Bucks blog. He said he graduated with nearly $70,000 in debt and he has a $36,000 salary. And he's wondering now if he'll ever be able to save enough to purchase property. That gets to two things: The first one is a ratio. There's a kind of evolving rule of thumb that says don't end up with more debt than the salary you expect to earn in your first year. He has basically doubled his salary in debt, it's making things very tough for him. The other thing that he gets at -- and this is very sad -- is that when you saddle yourself with a fair bit of student debt, it closes off other financial options to you or it delays them until much later on, i.e. after when everyone around you is doing it. And he's worried whether he'll ever be able to set enough money aside to have a down payment, to be a home owner if he so chooses.

Vigeland: And we also got quite a bit of reaction to the gay couple that we profiled in their 30s. David Kent wrote to us from Worcester, Mass. thanking us for featuring a gay couple who's raising children and for talking about what he called the "unfair financial hardships that many couples like them face, because of legalized discrimination against them."

Lieber: To my mind, this is one of the great civil rights issues of our time. And one way to frame it -- and it doesn't get framed this way very often -- is to think about it just in terms of the things that you can or cannot do economically. The things that you can or cannot do personal finance-wise or the things that get complicated because you don't have the right to marry or your marriage is not recognized by the federal government. And it turns out, on the whole, it often costs you more and sometimes it's much more over a lifetime.

Vigeland: I also noticed that there was quite a bit of tut-tutting that went on, as people heard these stories and said, "Look, they shoulda been a little more responsible and they should've thought about their futures. I did."

Lieber: Yup. Laura from Philadelphia: "It is striking that so many of these people have lived beyond their means and spent money they didn't have. If we feel sorry for these people and bail them out, we punish the prudent to benefit the profligate."

Vigeland: And that's something we've been hearing a lot over the last couple of years.

Lieber: I guess the flip side is, it's true that there are many people who had too much access to credit and took too much advantage of it than they probably should have. But what we are not hearing about is the people who are happy that they took on $40,000 or $50,000 in student loan debt, because it got them to a school that made a difference in their life. Or the people who were able to use the credit card to stave off a personal bankruptcy, because they had a medical issue and they had no coverage. And they're sure glad they had that available to them. You know, that's not to say that there aren't all sorts of people who were irresponsible, but we don't hear as much about how loans made people's lives better, and they do in fact work that way sometimes.

Vigeland: Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for the New York Times and we've been talking about our Money Through the Ages series that we presented about a week ago. Ron, thanks so much for coming in again.

Lieber: Always good to be here.

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