Coffee is Not Why My Kids are Broke
“If you didn’t all go out for those fancy lattes.”
“Well, if a super mocha what’s-its-name wasn’t eight dollars.”
“It’s these kids and their super duper whipped mocha. That’s where their money goes.”
I roll my eyes every time someone in the generation before mine utters this about the generation after mine. And it’s a lot. My mom said it. My mother in law has said it. And since I’m a macchiato-lover, I’ve heard it as I exit the building with my daughter near me enough times to make my nerves fray.
Listen up, grandparents. It’s not the lattes.
A four-dollar coffee once a week is not what is keeping my recently graduated from college daughter from buying her first home at 24. What’s preventing that is the pure truth that the two bedroom house near mine in Baltimore City, the one that needs some work and is still 10 blocks from the harbor, only has on-street parking and is definitely not near public transportation is currently on the market for just a smidge under $300k. Oh, and the other truth — she’s more than $70k in debt for that college degree she’s got. Oh, and one more thing? She’s still having trouble finding a full time job in her field, so instead she works two-and-a-half part time jobs to earn a stable income.
That. That is what is holding her back. Her and nearly all of her post-millennial pals.
My daughter went to a great college. An expensive one, yes, but she got scholarships, work-study, and she was an RA for 3 out of her 4 years, and she worked all summer, too. Not only that, but thanks to a dual enrollment program, she started with 6 credits, so she graduated right on time, no delays, which is fairly uncommon for most undergrads today. She got all of the financial aid she could, and her father and I helped to the extent we were able, given that she has both an older and a younger brother. She didn’t get a semester abroad or any of the other “luxury” things some kids do, but she had a fine college experience.
She is now two years out of school and working hard. The pandemic is doing no one any favors, but the housing market is strong when it comes to mortgage rates. She pays her bills on time, is excited about being on her own. But she’s also lagging behind what grandparents think she should be. She and her peers are all behind what all of their grandparents envision, because they were all setting up house, starting families, getting on with their lives.
But the truth is, she and her peers simply can’t. They are stuck in a rut so deep that to dig out feels like digging deeper. The average student loan debt per graduate in America hovers between $25,000 and $50,000. But more than half a million graduates owe over $200,000 and that number is on a steady increase.
For years, we’ve told children throughout elementary and high school that the path to wealth and stability was through college. We’ve gotten them thinking through aptitude tests and messaging about college choices early on, and continued to drive that message home. Not only that, through wage suppression, the economy in the Unites States has worked to devalue those jobs held by workers without a college degree. And yet through that timespan, college tuition rose at a far more rapid pace than salaries could match.
So what we’ve arrived at is a culture where for my daughter to buy an occasional $4 cup of cappuccino seems to her grandparents to be an extravagance of such measure as to keep her out of a reasonable home or advancing lifestyle. When my own mother visited my home a few years ago, she was struck by the idea that I had a flat screen TV, a Netflix subscription, and a laptop, all at the same time. To her, this seemed a life of real extravagance, and yet she couldn’t have factored in that I did not have cable, my job provided the laptop, and the television was going on 4 years old. (Fortunately, I made her coffee at home, even if the grounds were Pike’s.)
I’m not sure exactly how to explain to our parents and others that no, it isn’t an iPhone or a laptop or a trip to Starbucks that is choking our children and their ability to move financially forward, that instead it is a throttling effect of the very education we told them would do the opposite. There may be some relief in economic reform, but likely not until it’s too late. By then, our gen Z’ers and beyond may have settled for tiny houses in our own back yards — where they can enjoy a Frappuccino in peace.