Friday, July 27, 2012

The 'rents

Emma Koenig has an amusing, well-executed blog. But you'd never know it from that Home and Garden section (?) profile, which can be summed up as: person who isn't you has $1,200 East Village rent paid by parents who aren't yours. Koenig, as is mentioned in between parentheses, "is anomalous [for her generation] in one respect: she has very little college debt, having received three scholarships along with a loan." This suggests that her parents were not paying her tuition, or at least not much of it, although it's ambiguous. It could be that what they might have put towards tuition went instead toward some post-college rent. A year of $1,200 still adds up to a lot less than one year of private college. But overshare in NYT lifestyle articles has yet to reach the point where you're provided with the bank login info for all individuals mentioned, so that you can see for yourself and summon the appropriate amount of outrage.


Whatever the case, this - and the real-life "Girls" angle -  is what the commentariat latched onto:
To aid in their decision-making on how much to help their daughter, Ms. Bass made a spreadsheet of all her daughter’s friends who were in the performing arts. “I wanted to see who was making a living, who was making a living in their art and who was being supported by their parents,” she said. In a graph of 45 young adults, only 3 were getting no help whatsoever, and those 3, Ms. Bass said, were working full time either in a restaurant or baby-sitting, and had limited energy left over to pursue what they had studied. 
“It made me see that Emma’s social context was such that our helping with her rent was legitimate,” Ms. Bass said. “I didn’t feel like we were indulging her. I felt like it was a necessary fifth year of college where she had to stabilize herself without the structure and positive feedback of school.”
In other words, this. I'm surprised, not that 42 of 45 were getting help (more than a little, sounds like) from their parents, but that Koenig and her mother were able to get this information. One of the biggest problems with the new order of presumed parental support is the lack of transparency. Or maybe that's changed - maybe with this new micro-generation (clinging to 28 here), the post-2008 economy has made situations that were plenty common pre- more socially-acceptable to discuss.

The commenters are completely right that Koenig's story isn't representative of her generation. But the value of a profile like this is that it demystifies how these trajectories can happen. It's a warning to those whose parents can't or won't provide $1,200 a month, but also to those whose parents will gladly do so, but who might envision adulthood involving a bit more independence than that set-up allows. 

8 comments:

Flavia said...

I thought of you the minute I read this article--and especially that bit about making a spreadsheet of what the kid's friends' parents were doing.

I don't know how they got that info, but by God, I support that kind of transparency--because I'm with you on how much the subject of money gets mystified and how unhelpful that is. Virtually no one I know, even now that most of my friends are in our mid-30s--making variable amounts, but with reliable jobs and no reason to be ashamed if a parent wants to give us a chunk of change as a gift or an investment--will come out and say that, well, they were able to afford a house because their parents put down 20%; or that their in-laws paid off all their student loans as a Christmas present, so now their finances are less constricted.

I suppose money is a touchy subject, but what this means, practically, is that it's very hard to gauge whether you're being a fool with your money (or being underpaid), relative to your peers, if you can't afford their nice but by-no-means-lavish lifestyles.

Phoebe said...

Indeed, esp. the part about "nice but by-no-means-lavish lifestyles." This is become all the more the case for early-mid 20-somethings, who, if doing unpaid internships, can't afford any rent, however modest. I mean, take that $1,200 figure. Much more than I ever paid, fine, but my sense of the market is that this is what one room in a shared, not-at-all-luxurious walk-up-type building in the East Village (still not the most posh neighborhood) would cost. Given what other parents pay to subsidize doorman buildings in nicer areas, this didn't - alas - seem all that extreme. Sucks for the people trying to rent in the Village without parental support, though.

(Insert long, NY-real-estate-specific rant here.)

Transparency is definitely a good first step. As it stands, we see what seem like reasonable, modest lives, and don't realize what it costs to maintain them. We make choices when we're too young to know what different incomes mean, and when we think that because we don't care about fancy cars or designer handbags, we can follow our dreams, assuming those dreams aren't things like 'professional sonnet-writer.' We apply to grad school at an age at which the stipend sounds like so much money, far more than we made at our on-campus jobs! So we meet people who aren't in finance and seem to be living modestly, but the difference between squalor and comfortable modesty is behind-the-scenes parental support.

caryatis said...

Good points. Similarly, although we see some of our peers' consumption habits, we don't see the debt they may be amassing or the savings they may not be making.

Flavia said...

Oh, yeah. It's much worse in one's 20s. My grad school stipend was initially very low, and though I worked 12hrs a week, things were, of course, tight. So my folks sent me $200/mo, and one or twice paid a security deposit on a cheap apartment.

I was always straight about the help I got from my parents, though I was embarrassed to need it, and I assumed that all my friends were up-front about the money they got since money was tight for everyone and we all complained about it. (There were exceptions, like the woman whose parents bought her a condo, but those exceptions were both obvious and rare.) Not so, as it turns out!

It was years before it really dawned on me that there was no way that someone who had an even modestly nicer apartment than I did, who had a car--a beater, to be sure, but one that still needed insurance coverage--and who did not work part-time was absolutely not paying for all those things solely on a $12,000, 9-month stipend.

And then those people who went directly from grad school to a first tenure-track job, and bought a house! Or had nice new non-Ikea furniture for their spacious new professorial apartment! It took me forever to realize, oh, their parents must've given them $5000 or something as a starting-your-adult-life gift. That's not even that much money--but I just assumed they had somehow squirreled away that money from their stipends when foolish me could barely stay afloat with parental support, a job, and occasional use of credit cards.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

True!

Flavia,

In my experience, there's very little transparency. This is tougher to pull off in high school, when you actually go to people's parents' homes, or in college, when financial aid situations come up often enough - who has a work-study job, a non-work-study job, no job, loans vs. no loans, etc.

But post-college, who knows? Among adults, coming from a wealthy family =/= parents pay for stuff, so class markers aren't sufficient. (Plenty of 20-somethings grew up in wealthy families and have whichever tell-tale speaking voices, handbags, say, but got those long before becoming financially independent.) As per Caryatis above, lots of people are also going into debt to live whichever lifestyle - I hear this is big among law students, maybe less so among PhD students - so it's not always clear what's parents and what's not. Obviously those whose parents don't have even a hundred bucks to spare aren't putting their kids up in splendor or otherwise, but it can be the case that less-well-educated parents are more impressed that a kid is in grad school at all, and will help however much they can, whereas better-educated ones will be like, a humanities PhD, really? That's what you're going to do, after we paid for X years of fancy private schooling?

And, the rent issue. This will at some point need to be a post of its own.

Flavia said...

Re: credit cards: for sure. Guilty there, at least a bit.

Also, people's parental circumstances change. Someone who grew up with all kinds of advantages may no longer have them--either because the parents simply refuse to support them, or because the parents hit financial hard times. More often, I think, as in my own case, one's parents suddenly have more money or a greater willingness to help out their adult kids after they've achieved greater comfort--for example, after their own parents die, or college is paid for, or they've hit their retirement goals, or whatever.

I got absolutely no spending or other money from my folks when I was in college, and none when I was working post-college. But their financial circumstances changed when my grandparents died. They still weren't rich, but by the time I was in grad school they actually could spare $200/month whereas before they were pack-a-lunch-every-day coupon-clippers.

I know lots of people whose parents are like mine: careful and parsimonious when they were growing up, but who then unexpectedly declared they were going to buy them a car for their first job, or help them pay off their student loans, or give them a modest down payment on a house.

Flavia said...

(My point being basically yours, above: that it's nearly impossible to know what an adult person's familial financial circumstances are unless they tell you.)

Phoebe said...

Re: parental circumstances changing, re: parents saving, this is what I thought might have been the case with Koenig. It didn't really sound like they'd paid for her college, so maybe that - plus being further along in their careers or whichever inheritance or who knows - was what allowed them to say, look, we have this talented, artsy daughter, let her enjoy being 23 in New York. The commenters seemed to assume this rent was above and beyond paying for every little thing along the way.