A Reality Check for Young Adults

Yes, times are tough, as illustrated by the struggles of many Occupy Wall Street protestors. We're here to help with practical steps that young adults should take to maintain financial security.

One of the many news stories about Occupy Wall Street featured a young woman named Kate, 25, who had come to New York from Maryland hoping to become an actress. In the meantime, she was working in a restaurant, struggling to repay $50,000 in student loans and incurring unexpected hospital bills with no health insurance. She came to Zuccotti Park because, she said, “I just wanted some kind of hope for young people starting out, who think the deck is stacked against them.”

I’d like to take a stab at giving Kate some hope, and some practical advice, too.

Let’s start with a reality check. Generations of young people have headed to New York seeking fame and fortune on the stage. Relatively few of them have found either, regardless of the state of the economy. And trying to succeed in such a competitive business in an expensive city like New York is a double whammy.

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Kate probably doesn’t want to hear this, but she might be better off, financially and career-wise, if she headed back to Maryland or went somewhere else to try to break into regional theater. Most young people would be better off if they headed for cities with bright job prospects and affordable living costs (for ideas, see our slide show 10 Great Cities for Young Adults).

About those student loans. To her credit, Kate admits they were her own doing, calling her decision to pay out-of-state tuition “my $100,000 mistake.” But there are ways to ease the burden, including graduated payments and income-based repayment options for federal loans (see Lighten the Burden of Student Loans). Those options could be expanded under recent proposals by the White House.

But Kate hit the nail on the head when she noted that school would have cost a lot less had she remained in Maryland. I can’t stress strongly enough that the best way out of the student-debt trap is to avoid it altogether. Start by choosing a school that fits into the family budget. Attending an in-state public college or university is one alternative; another is finding a private school that gives substantial student aid (see Best Values in Private Colleges). For more ideas, see How to Limit Student-Loan Debt.

As for health insurance. I don’t know the details of Kate’s situation, but there’s no need for most 25-year-olds to be uninsured. Unfortunately, Kate is at a disadvantage living in New York, which has some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country. In most states, a healthy person in her early twenties can buy her own health insurance for less than $100 a month (see How to Keep Recent Grads Insured). If cost is an issue, or if a preexisting condition is involved, adult children can now stay on their parents’ policies until age 26 (take our quiz to learn more). Meanwhile, I’d recommend that Kate negotiate with the hospital to accept a lesser amount (see Save Thousands on Your Medical Bills).

This advice may not solve all Kate’s problems. But it would probably make her feel better if she did something proactive to improve her situation now that she’s headed home from Zuccotti Park.

Follow Janet's updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.