In myriad ways, the economics of being 30 have changed for the worse. A college degree is now the minimum required to find a place in the working world that affords some job satisfaction and material comfort. But it doesn't offer protection against turmoil in the labor market, as it once did. Nor does it guarantee such things as health insurance or a retirement plan. And real earnings for college graduates without an advanced degree have fallen four years in a row, for the first time since the 1970s.
The cost of higher education, however, has increased so dramatically in the past decade and a half -- up by 63% at public schools and 47% at private -- that more students have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend, ensuring that many of them are paying off those loans well into their 40s. The median debt-to-income ratio now is about 8%. But fully one-quarter of graduates are paying more than 12% of their income, a level many financial experts regard as worryingly high. That burden will only grow: Interest rates on student loans are going up for the first time in five years.
I'm 35, but I don't quite fit the pattern BW's onto: I got married young--just 21 years old (wow!)--shortly before (wow!) graduating from college. My undergraduate debt of about $10K was significant for the time. A year later, I started law school. I figured the added debt from law school (another $40K) would be justified by the significant jump in earning potential, and it's worked out well for us: we were able to buy our first house in 1999, a couple years after I got out of law school. We've decided not to have kids, which has made things even easier for us, money-wise.
The wrinkle for us, though, is my illness. I was given a "probable multiple sclerosis" diagnosis in my last year of college, and it's had a significant influence on the economic choices I've made ever since. First off, it was a significant factor in deciding to get married. Without getting too far into it, I think I felt like, OK, time to grow up and get with it. Same thing with law school: my undergraduate degree was in philosophy, mostly because I didn't have any particular vocational plans, and philosophy was the major that required the fewest credits. After getting sick, law school was a pragmatic decision aimed at getting employed, having health benefits, making a decent salary. And since law school, my job choices have had a similar focus.
I feel like I've (we've) more or less done everything right, from a planning perspective. I gave up fantasies about being a rock star, poet, artist, iconoclast, or drifter at an early age. And yet, because of MS, I (we) are never too far from financial disaster. Sure, I've got disability coverage, but as a lawyer, I know that it isn't a great fit for someone with a degenerative illness, for someone who may be slowly losing the ability to work. Disability coverage works much better for somebody who falls off a roof, for someone with a sudden injury. For me, the question will always be, Is it time? And my answer to that question will have to factor in my best guess about how my employer and my employer's lawyers will answer that question.
So at 35, I'm contributing to a retirement plan, trying to make intelligent decisions about long-term finances. I use the Internet calculator gizmos to determine whether we're saving enough, and I plug in a retirement age of 65, but in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, What if I have to "retire" next month? I feel like crap this morning. Is there a calculator that factors that in?