Keeping Up With The Joneses

Keeping Up With The Joneses

{Author’s Note: I was asked to write a post on the college decision process for graduating seniors and parents in the Issaquah School District. While not inherently a personal finance piece, I wanted to share it with my readers. Especially in matters of financial significance, we should always make decisions for ourselves, not for what others will think. Enjoy and please share your feedback!}

Imagine you’re attending a dinner party with friends. You’re at the grocery store selecting wine for the event. While any other evening, you might choose a bottle of Trader Joe’s finest, a smooth blend known, affectionately, as 2 Buck Chuck, tonight you break your tradition and opt for a bold Cabernet, with an exotic label and a price tag exceeding 1 digit. Even if you genuinely love and prefer 2 Buck Chuck, I guarantee that you will pick the pricier Cab for a dinner party every time. Why? As human beings, we have an innate desire to fit in and to project a positive personal image. The brands we choose tell others about who we are and contribute to our social acceptance. The power that we have given brands to tell our story and to form our identity has created a constant need to “Keep Up With The Joneses” and, consequentially, the highest amount of consumer debt that our country has ever seen.

From a young age, children both notice and adapt to our obsession with brands and their ability to define who we are. As a mere second-grader, I distinctly remember the embarrassment I felt lacing up a pair of Payless knock-off tennis shoes for P.E., while the classmate next to me laced up the latest pair of Nikes. Looking back, it’s humorous and I am incredibly thankful that this was my biggest problem as a child. But, nonetheless, this story demonstrates that these feelings are real. They are ingrained in us from a young age and can be incredibly hard to ignore.

As a high school senior, my attention to brands and their ability to define me became stronger. In fact, it all but consumed me. However, this time, in part due to a strictly enforced uniform policy, my focus was not on shoes or clothing, but on colleges. Each year, as an underclassman, I had watched countless seniors before me don their college sweatshirts on “National Decision Day,” the one day we were allowed to break from our dress code. Stanford. Princeton. Stanford again. Boston College. Notre Dame. Northwestern. Eastern Washington Uni-wait, what!? Eastern? “Yikes, I wonder what went wrong there” would be the topic of our lunch conversation that day.

As a high school student with a significant amount of growing up to do, I believed, to my very core, that, when it was my turn to don the sweatshirt, it would express to every other student how smart I was and how successful I was going to be in life. Come May 1st, senior year, I wanted the best logo emblazoned across my sweatshirt and I was going to do whatever it took to get there. When it came time to apply, I was what many considered to be an ideal applicant.

I was one of four ASB officers for my class each year, winning state and national leadership awards. I was a Varsity Volleyball starter all 4 years of high school, selected as Team Captain and named to the All-League 1st Team. I worked part-time throughout high school, was a member of our Advanced Choir all four years and volunteered with countless community service organizations. You name the activity and I was not only involved, but I needed to be the best. Academically, I was a straight-A, honor roll student, every year and President of the National Honor Society. I missed just one question on the PSAT and was selected as a National Merit Scholar, one of just 15,000 students out of the total 1.6 million students that sit for the exam each year.

Looking back, it saddens me that these accomplishments alone were not enough to convince myself that I was smart, that I was worthy, that I could be successful. Indeed, I already was all of these things and much more. What was more important at the time, to me, was that others knew and believed these things to be true about me. In my eyes, the only way to do this was by attending a “brand name” university, to which I received both a significant scholarship and admission to the Honors College.

Fast forward to my first day on campus, I was, not only, miles away from home, but light years away from the peers and community that I had so desperately tried to impress and to convince that I was “Somebody” over the years. As the school year dragged on, I became increasingly unhappy. I had the sinking realization that I had chosen to put myself back into the pressure-cooker environment in which I had existed for the previous four years. I was surrounded by students who, while wonderful people, all came from the same cookie-cutter background. Very quickly, my new community, the ideal that I had worked toward for so long, began to take a toll on who I was as a person. My grades were anything but perfect. I had no desire to be involved in any campus organization or to take on any leadership roles. Socially, I did not make decisions that I was proud of.

When I arrived home for summer vacation, I knew that something needed to change. For, quite possibly, the first time in my life, I was going to make a decision without regard to what others would think or how others would perceive me as a person. I decided to transfer to Washington State University, a college that, I will admit, even after being offered a full ride scholarship in high school, I had scoffed at the thought of. A few years out of college, I can say, without a doubt, that my decision to transfer to WSU, what some may have considered the “generic brand” of universities, was by far the best decision that I have ever made. Not only did I have the chance to experience the social life that I had always dreamed of, sororities, football tailgates and so much more, I excelled academically. I was named to the Dean’s List each year of college and graduated, a semester early, Magna Cum Laude, with a degree in Finance. I made lifelong friends, whom I cherish and consider family. These are people that I deeply respect, learn from and, truly, think are much better people than I could ever dream to be. Professionally, I think I am in a pretty great place compared to most recent graduates out there. In just a few short years, I have worked as a Financial Analyst for Amazon, a Financial Planner for Nordstrom and, most recently, have been promoted to Nordstrom’s buying team. My forever dream job.

Overall, my life is pretty great and I am incredibly thankful. While I certainly have worked hard, I am humbly aware that there has been a great deal of luck, circumstance and perfect timing at play in my life.

To students and families that are beginning to make their college decisions, I hope that you can take a few things away from my journey and learn something from my, quite literally, costly decision to attend a “brand name” university. We make many life choices with the desire to Keep Up With The Joneses. Please do not let your college decision be one of them.

It matters most that you choose an environment that feels natural and comfortable to you. For four years, this will become your community and your home. Take a look around. Do the students around you seem like people that could be your forever friends? Will they challenge you? Could you look up to them? In the classroom, does the small size make you feel stifled and intimidated or does it give you the courage to speak your mind and share your opinions? Where it makes sense, try to ignore the statistics and the rankings. If a university’s atmosphere is not one that fosters your happiness and does not allow you to thrive, it doesn’t matter if it is Harvard or the local community college.

Financially, be aware of the Return on Investment. Today’s college graduates are crippled with college debt. The average student graduates with over $30,000 in loans, many with significantly more. I, alone, have several friends with well over $100,000 in loans. This drastically impacts the decisions they are able to make as recent graduates. They are forced to decline personally fulfilling jobs in favor of those with higher salaries. Long term goals, such as marriage or home ownership, are in the way distant future and can seem forever out of reach. Think beyond the four years spent on campus to the big picture of your life as a whole. Is the university’s price tag worth it in the long run?

Know that the students who can gain acceptance to America’s most prestigious and competitive colleges, will be successful no matter where they, ultimately, choose to attend. They have already demonstrated the tenacity, work ethic and talent to succeed. The caliber of the school on their diplomas won’t dictate how far they go after graduation. They already have this within them.

Nobody has a crystal ball to the future and we can never be 100% sure of our decisions, but what we can control is whether or not we make decisions for ourselves, or for what others will think of us. So, choose the 2 Buck Chuck or choose the expensive Cab, but be sure you’re buying it because you love it and it makes you happy. Come 5 o’clock, you’re the one who has to drink it.

It’s Been A While, But I’m Back.

It’s Been A While, But I’m Back.

I'm Bringing Sexy Back...

I'm Bringing Sexy Back...