Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Some years back, a law student came into our office seeking an emergency loan. Like many law schools, we had a fund available to help students weather financial exigencies caused by situations beyond their control like unexpected medical expenses. Rather than having unexpected emergency expenses, it turned out that this student couldn't make ends meet, even with the maximum possible financial aid package. As we talked, it turned out that the student couldn't possibly do anything about the expenses that burdened him each month. He and his spouse needed to rent a large house because they needed the space. They needed the most expensive cable package because they needed to be able to access all the TV channels as well as internet at home. They couldn't cut rental expenses by taking in roommates because they needed their privacy. The law student couldn't pick up a part-time job because he needed to concentrate on only law school and family. The spouse needed to stay unemployed and not tied down to a job because they expected to start a family within the next few years. They needed to keep their both their late-model SUVs. They needed to eat out at least twice a week. And so on, and so on. We didn't hand the student an emergency loan, but instead referred him to Consumer Credit Counseling. Not surprisingly, this student graduated with an enormous amount of student loan debt, debt which limited his career opportunities not only at graduation but for years afterwards.
Since student success is affected by anything that creates stress, it behooves academic support faculty to address financial issues openly. Most law students now have access to useful financial education tools, such as those offered by AccessLex Max, with great tools, calculators, and advice on financial management. But all the tools in the world can't help if students aren't empowered to say "No" to the consumerism that surrounds them, whether that consists of the pressure to join classmates in the bars every weekend or the expectation that everyone will have the newest smartphone. Like the "It's OK Not to Drink" movement, we can help create a positive "It's OK Not to Spend" culture in which frugality is supported and even commended.
We can help create this culture in at least three ways. First, we can tell stories and model good financial decision-making by being open about the financial choices we and others have made and continue to make. In my experience, students on a budget appreciate hearing a teacher say, "I can't afford spending my money on ____; I'm saving it for ____." The punch is even more powerful when they hear fellow students talk openly about their frugal lifestyles. Second, we can be open in asking questions about financial matters without prying into personal details. For instance, I routinely ask students who contemplate taking one of our summer courses whether it's a better choice for them to tighten their belt and pay out-of-pocket or to take extra credits so they are eligible for financial aid. Finally, we can connect frugality to their goals in attending law school. How many law students have abandoned their goal for attending law school because they needed a higher-paying job to pay off their student loans? Especially as we work with those motivated by public service and helping underserved communities, we can emphasize that the lower their debt, the wider their range of practice choices will be. (Nancy Luebbert)