Heading to College Wiser but Poorer

"I feel like someone has ripped out my very soul," my eldest daughter says, flinging herself on the floor of my home office.

Lucky thing she's not too dramatic; otherwise she'd scare me.

I breathe deeply, bracing myself for an onslaught of emotion — or an unexpected expense. Soul-ripping typically costs me time or money — or both. Quickly, I take stock of what the problem might be.

A bad hair day? Possibly, though she looks fine to me and there are no jagged edges in her bangs.

An issue at the coffee shop where she works? Not likely. Working as a "barista" (read: counter girl) isn't stressful now that she has learned the lingo.

Boy trouble? Blessedly, no.

"What's the matter now?" I ask. With teenage girls it's always something, so I take the soul-wrenching with a grain of maternal skepticism.

Katie heaves a heavy sigh and drapes an arm across her face. "I just spent more than $300 buying jeans and clothes for school at Gap online." (For accuracy, imagine wailing and gnashing.)

Ah, money — a soul-wrenching subject if ever there was one.

This summer, Katie is learning that it takes time and effort to earn money but only moments to watch it sift through your fingers as you type in your debit card number and press the button for "Complete sale."

"Aren't you even remotely impressed?" she asks. "I spent hundreds of dollars to buy my own clothes."

"I suppose," I say, not looking up from my computer. "On the other hand, I'd think you might be the one who's impressed with your dad and me, now that you're learning what it costs to clothe you. And just for fun, multiply that times four."

"Good point," she says, dragging herself off the floor. "I just didn't know how quickly it would all add up."

"It" is "The List" — an incredibly comprehensive manifest of all the items we must have onboard when we depart in a few weeks to drop Katie into her first term as a college freshman. We got the list from my best friend, who has been down this road before — often enough to have created a complete inventory of supplies one might need when one's mother is about eight hours away and there is a headache or a hangnail or a hem that needs attention.

I confess that until I saw the list I was naive about how to help my daughter prepare to leave home. Thanks to my girlfriend, I will be spared the hassle of assembling countless emergency care packages and hustling myself to the post office on a regular basis. She already has thought of virtually every possible need a college student might encounter, and better still, she had the presence of mind to write it all down.

Calculator? Check.

Door stopper? Check.

Pliers? Band-Aids? Printer paper?

Check, check, check.

Duct tape, Scotch tape, masking tape, packing tape. You name it; she'll be able to tape it.

Now that we know what to buy, the only problem is paying for all of it. Not that this is my problem, mind you, but it's a problem none the less.

Up to now, Katie has lived in a blissful state of dependence, accepting the seemingly limitless largesse of her parents. Every time she needed running shoes or school supplies or an aspirin tablet, all she had to do was say so.

As a high school student, our daughter was held accountable for good grades, sports and music participation, community service, church activities and a full complement of household chores. We didn't ask her to take a part-time job because we figured it would cut into other important responsibilities, such as sleeping, eating and bathing.

Instead, she took the odd baby-sitting job to put cash in her pocket. It's been a charmed life, and she knows it.

But, as they say, those days are over. We figure the price of tuition, room, board and travel is enough for our side of the ledger; the rest is up to our daughter.

Already she's hoarding her cash and shopping sales. Her trip to the office-supply place set her back a few hundred dollars, which happened to be roughly twice what she thought she would spend, and there still is lots on the list yet to buy.

I can't help but note that it was never soul-wrenching to spend money when it came from mom's wallet. Funny how financial responsibility changes one's perspective.

Was I just a teensy bit happy to see the blood drain from my daughter's cheeks as the cashier at Staples announced the grand total for a cartful of storage crates, notebooks, desk supplies and dorm-room paraphernalia?

Okay, this may sound sadistic, but I'm not going to lie. I'm glad to see that these major shopping sprees are teaching her the value of a dollar — which is to say, not much.

To her credit, Katie has always effused her gratitude to us. However, nothing makes a new college student appreciate her parents as much as that seminal moment when she pulls out her own money to pay for all her own stuff.

It's nice to see that Katie's newfound understanding of high finance seems to include some "props" for her " 'rents." In fact, she's been so grateful lately, I may just throw in a roll of duct tape — no charge.

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  • Guest

    I am more than twice this girl's age, and I have never in my life spent that kind of money on a wardrobe for myself.

  • Guest

    Marybeth, be careful "throwing in" even a roll of duct tape: she'll come to depend on those "gifts" and take them for granted!

    So, have you done YOUR homework?????

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