Dear Generation Z,

I’m here to tell you some things you probably don’t want to hear.  I am not your parent.  I’m not going to tell you that “you can be anything you want to be”, that you should follow your dreams, or that working hard in school is the key to a bright future.

Much of what you have been told for your entire life is a lie.  You do not need a four year degree.  You do not have to take out student loans.  You do need to major in a practical subject (if you decide to go to college). Here is my open letter to Generation Z:

The truth is, your future may not be as rosy as you think it is, no matter how intelligent you are or how hard you study.  Your generation will graduate from college with more student loan debt than any other generation has ever faced.  You may find yourself, a college graduate, burdened with massive debt and unable to find a job.  The economy has been in a recession for eight years, and job growth is still slow.

The truth is, you’ve been dealt a shitty hand.  But you have something that millennials, the generation before you, didn’t have: foresight.  You have older brothers and sisters who can show you how to make better choices than the ones that we made.

When you see us living with our parents after we finish college, when you see us putting off life events like marriage and having children, when you see us trying to hide how depressed and helpless we feel, please take this as a cautionary tale.

You do not have to live the way we are living.  You can do better.

I know that you want to, but you probably don’t know how.  Here’s how.

Do NOT take out student loans.

It is possible.  Really.  I know you don’t believe me, but it is.  Apply for every scholarship you can find.  Live at home with your parents for a couple of years and work full-time.  Once you have enough money saved up, then go to college.  Start with a two year degree at a community college, and then take a break to work full-time for a while.

Maybe at that point you’ll be done with school – if so, that’s okay.  There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require four year degrees.  If a four year degree is necessary for advancement in your field, go back for your bachelor’s (at an affordable school) after you’ve saved enough money to pay cash for it.

If you must take out loans, limit the amount as much as possible.

If you take on student loans, only take out a minimal amount – use that money for tuition only.  Do not use it to pay for apartment rent or a dorm room.  That could easily add $10,000+ per year to the amount of your debt.  When you’re taking on high amounts of debt, you may say “what’s another $10,000 at this point?”

It matters.  Trust me.  If your monthly payments are $400 instead of $600, that might be the difference between getting by and not getting by.  Think of all the things you could get with that extra $200/month.  That $200 could be a car payment, a couple weeks’ worth of groceries, or a month of gas.  That $200 could be an extra payment you make on your loans so that you can pay them off early and save yourself a fortune in interest.

Choose a practical major.

There are a lot of people who will try to tell you that liberal arts degrees are awesome – they make you well-rounded, give you analytical thinking skills, and teach you communication skills.  That’s great, but you know who else has those skills?  Every liberal arts graduate.  When you have 100 liberal arts majors applying for the same job, why should XYZ company hire you?  The short answer is that they won’t.  Major in something practical (like engineering, a STEM field, accounting, or finance) and you will be MUCH more likely to find a job that pays more than the liberal arts grads are making at Pizza Hut.

Yes, I know, you probably know someone who majored in something ridiculous like philosophy or underwater basket weaving and somehow they landed an awesome gig in marketing.  There are exceptions to every rule.  Are you really willing to gamble tens of thousands of dollars on an impractical major?

Work more.

Parents often do their kids a disservice by discouraging them from working long hours or from working at all during college.  I’m not saying you need to work full-time during school.  But if you’re not using student loans to pay for food, gas, and other bills, you need to earn enough to pay for those things yourself.  Working five hours per week at a job that pays minimum wage isn’t going to cut it.  Increase your hours as much as you possibly can without getting too overwhelmed.

But if you work too much, your grades will suffer, right?  Here’s a little secret: your GPA doesn’t matter.  Yes, if you’re planning to go to grad school, then it does.  But if you’re only getting a bachelor’s, your GPA isn’t important.  As long as you pass your classes and manage to graduate in four years (so you don’t have to spend extra money on a 5th year), that’s all that matters.  Employers rarely look at your GPA.  They care much more about your relevant work experience.

Learn how to manage money.

I don’t believe that working hard in school is the key to “success”.  I believe that learning how to manage money is much more important.  If you major in engineering, ace all of your classes, and land a high-paying job right out of college, you still won’t be well off financially if you can’t manage your money and you blow through all of it the second you earn it.

Unfortunately, high schools often don’t teach personal finance classes and many kids learn from their parents instead.  If your parents are great with money, that’s fine, but many parents aren’t.  Many parents teach kids that debt is “normal”, that student loans are “good debt”, that credit cards are for emergencies, and that keeping up with the Joneses is “what everyone does”.

Instead of repeating the same mistakes that your parents and older siblings made, take the time to learn about personal finance.  Listen to podcasts, read books (I highly recommend Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover), follow blogs, and learn as much as you can.

This will pay off in the future – literally.

So, Generation Z,

Please, please, please, don’t make the same mistakes that we made.  We want you to have a better life.

Sincerely,

A Frustrated Millennial

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