My Biggest Financial Lesson

Ron Lieber on the lessons of paying for college

Ron Lieber Mar 25, 2015

When it came time to apply for college in the fall of 1988, my parents and I didn’t know the first thing about the financial-aid process. But my mother, a veteran personal shopper who has always had a knack for figuring out just who to call to solve consumer mysteries of all sorts, knew someone who knew someone. A guy. The guy.

So we went to see him. He was an associate director of financial aid at Northwestern University, eight miles north of where we lived in Chicago. And on certain weekday afternoons, after his colleagues had gone home, he’d usher a local family into his inner sanctum, collect $45 and pull back the curtain on how the system worked.

We had a lot to learn about which numbers to put where on the federal financial aid form and how to arrange things so that we would appear as needy as possible, without breaking any rules. But the guy taught us what we needed to know, and it worked. My aid from Amherst was generous (for ethical reasons, he wouldn’t have worked with us if I had been appealing to him and his Northwestern colleagues for grant money), and I finished college with a manageable amount of student loan debt.

I didn’t think about him much until recently, when I had cause to reflect on some of the most important things I had learned about money before I became an adult. But that meeting now sticks out for a couple of reasons.

First, the encounter taught me that the grown-up world was filled with complex systems involving money and that they were made to be hacked. Legally, of course. Moreover, if you look hard enough, quite often there’s an expert around somewhere who will explain everything to you for a reasonable price, or even for free. It’s probably not a coincidence that I grew up to be the person whose beat in journalism is beating the system.

But there was something else that was even more important about that meeting: The mere fact that I was in the office with my mother in the first place. Not every parent would have taken a 17-year-old along for that particular encounter. It would have been natural for my mother to try to shield me from worry or complication or shut me out from examining her income and other data that many parents might deem to be none of my business.

Except it was my business — my future, my debt — that was at issue. So of course I should have been in the room, just as parents should be including teenagers in all sorts of discussions about ever-larger amounts of money as they prepare them to make six-figure decisions about college and the five-figure debt they will probably have to take on to graduate.

As for that guy, we had long since forgotten his name. All I remembered was that he had left Northwestern for the Colorado School of Mines. My mother thought that his first name started with the letter R. Northwestern and the Colorado school came up with the same name, but Google was useless for this particular search and New York Times librarians could not locate a listed phone number for him or his immediate family members.

So I sent an email, which the human resources department at the college in Colorado printed out and dropped in the mailbox, care of his last known address. I crossed my fingers, since he had retired in 2009. But a week or so later, Roger Koester sent me an email from his home in Golden, Colo.

He remembered me, though only slightly; his side business had never grown very big, so he hadn’t had that many clients. He was similar to me too, in that he had also taken an interest in money early on. His parents had helped him get a passbook savings account for his allowance, and he had a job shoveling snow.

So was he surprised that I tagged along to his office that day in 1988? Not really. While he didn’t require the students to show up, he was always a little surprised when clients called and asked if it was O.K. to bring their high school students to the meetings. “‘By all means,’ I would say,” he recalled. “If part of this is going to be their investment in their own education, then they sure as hell better know what’s going on.”

Thanks to him, I did learn what was going on. But if my mother hadn’t taken me along, I’m not sure I would have started down the career path of teaching others what’s going on, too.

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