“This is how much I have.” I scribbled down numbers on an old piece of graph paper and tried to add up all of my life’s savings into one cognitive figure. “This is how much it costs to go to school for four years” – I wrote down a number that seemed overwhelming to my eighteen year old perception of money – “and this is how much I need to make.” I could feel my heart sinking into my stomach. So this is what growing up feels like, I thought. It sucks.
I was like a lot of high school Seniors, I guess. Still growing up, still figuring life out, still a kid in many ways. As a home schooler, I had a different high school experience than most people. But the concept is still the same. For a while, high school seems like it will last forever. Then suddenly, you begin to feel pressure. Not just the pressure of keeping up with the latest styles, or being the most popular, or acing the next Chemistry test – I mean the pressure to make big, important, grown-up decisions. Decisions that will impact your life not just today, or the next month, but for the rest of your life.
When your parents’ friends try to make conversation with you now, they don’t just ask things like, “what’s your favorite subject?” or “do you have any summer plans?”. They start asking things like, “have you decided where you’re going to college?”, and “so what do you want to major in?”. It seems unfair, really. I mean, it’s okay to be in lala land up until about your Junior year of high school, and then – BAM – you’re expected to have your whole life planned out. If you’re like me, you begin to consider carrying flashcards with the canned answers you’ve come up with so you can stop hearing yourself have the same conversation you’ve already had five times that week, while also having a silent panic attack and wishing your parents’ friends would come up with more original questions.
Many of us grow up with the expectation of going to college. It’s just what you do. You graduate High School, and then you go to college. That’s how it works. But as that time draws close, you begin to realize that it’s not that simple.
First of all, you have to make decent grades to graduate, and then to get into college – preferably one you really want to go to. Secondly, you have to decide what you want to do. Sure, we’ve grown up dreaming about and planning our future careers, but when it comes to crunch time, most high schoolers have no idea, or a vague one at best. And thirdly – probably the most challenging – you have to pay for it.
More and more these days, we hear about problems with debt. As college tuition continues to go up, so does the dependency on the loans so many people take out without a second thought. Modern thinking is that taking out a loan is a get out of jail free card, or college, in this case. Can’t afford college? No problem! Just take out a loan. Graduate, get the job you went to school for, and pay it off in a couple of years. Sounds great, except that reality is so often a far cry from our expectations. As we all know, good jobs aren’t easy to find these days. In addition, a lot of people end up having careers vastly different from their major in college. I know people in their forties who are still paying off college debt, and I know college students who are blindly putting themselves into debt with the far off vision of a nice house and a cushy job and not a financial worry to be seen. As someone who grew up in a middle class family, I could easily have been in this position. Since my parents aren’t in a position to pay for such a huge investment, that leaves paying for most of my college up to me.
My parents are practical people. They believe in being smart with your money and living within your means. They love Dave Ramsey, if that tells you anything. So I grew up with pretty practical ideas about money too. I got my first job and started saving money when I was sixteen. I didn’t save much – it was a crappy job. But I got the experience I needed to get a better job, which is what I wanted all along.
Anyway, when it was time for me to make decisions about college, I was overwhelmed and scared. I had a few options, but going into massive debt was never one of them for me. My first option was to go to a four year university and work my way through, probably taking breaks as needed to work full time. I quickly shot this one down. If possible, I reasoned, I want to get my four years done all at once, not broken up into little bits throughout the rest of my miserable life. My second option was to go to community college for two years, and then transfer to a four year school. I still think this is a smart option, and the only reason I’m not doing it now is that I’m ready to get out of my parents’ house, and this town, and this state – even though I love all of the above dearly. So, I eventually settled on my third option: take a year off, work my behind off, and then go to a four year school. I also planned to work holidays, summers, and possibly during school to pay for tuition. A few people warned me against taking a year off. “If you take time off, you’ll never go back,” they said. “And good luck paying for school without loans.”
But that’s what I did. I took a year off, that is. I chose to take a year off for several reasons. First of all (yeah, I have a lot of lists. Deal with it.), I reject the idea that someone like me can’t go to college without taking out loans. Okay, I know, we covered that. Secondly, I also reject the idea that all high school students should go to college right out of high school. Many are unprepared not only financially, but emotionally and developmentally. I know that was the case for me. And last of all, working in the real world can not only help to decide on a career, but it helps give one a valuable understanding of hard work and the cost of money, if you will. Yes, I realize that I sound like a self-righteous eighty year old.
Guess what! We’re finally coming to the whole point of this blog post: why I’m glad I took a year off.
This has been a memorable year, to say the least. In June of 2012, I started two new jobs: cleaning houses and serving at a sports bar type restaurant, Carolina Ale House. “This schedule is going to be crazy,” I remember telling my mom.
Up until June of 2013, I worked forty to sixty hours a week. When I started getting closing shifts at the restaurant, I tried to get used to working a fourteen-hour day, sleeping for three hours, and working another fourteen-hour day. It was the most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life.
This year has been one of the best years of my life so far, in many ways. I stayed on track with my academic plan – I leave for school in about two weeks. I set out clear financial goals for myself, and I met those goals. I worked myself to the point of exhaustion, sure. But I understand money and work in a way I never did before. Money is finite. It is tangible. Credit cards and loans give us the idea that money is something abstract, like it’s floating around out there at our disposal. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not reality.
I learned about the world, and other people, and about myself, some good and some bad. I made some good friends, and I learned how to love people who are different from me. I don’t have it all figured out. Heck, I’ve only finished step one of my plan. I don’t even know for sure that I’ll be successful in the end. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ll make more. But the year I took off taught me valuable lessons and skills, and I would do it all over again, exhaustion and all.
I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But right now, I’m okay with that.