The New York Times published an article today about wedding planners and their finicky clients, including a great anecdote about a bride who demanded the release of live butterflies during the wedding dinner, only to watch them flock to the light fixtures, go up in smoke, and shower her guests with their crispy remains. Less funny was the statistic that the average American wedding now costs close to $30,000. That's a full year's maximum 401(k) contribution for the couple ($15,000 a piece), start-up capital for a small business, a year of living abroad and learning a new language, a nice down payment on a condo, or a year of graduate school tuition.
I don't live in a binary world — I don't expect people to pay 30K or nothing on a wedding. The same article also profiled a 28-year-old bartender who bought her dress on sale for $115 and is working with a 10K budget for a wedding that, as she describes it, sounds perfectly lovely (and more fun than some lavish weddings I've attended). Managing and saving money together can be a big challenge — ask any married couple — and your wedding is often your first big spending decision together. Treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Watch out for wedding budgets that escalate because you have to keep your parents happy and impress their friends. If your parents are willing to pay for the whole shebang, great. If not, you have the right to put your foot down and start your marriage off on solid financial footing.
Also in today's NYT: an essay in the "Modern Love" column by a writing instructor at a Connecticut college who finds herself attracted to an adult, recently divorced student. Why did the article catch my eye? Because he asked her one day how to use the semicolon, and she confessed to her readers that she "had no idea." When your writing teacher doesn't know how to use a semicolon, run. And go buy yourself a Chicago Manual of Style. What you need to get out of a college is (1) the ability to write well; (2) the ability to read well; (3) the ability to speak well; 4) the ability to think critically; and (5) a facility with numbers. You can leverage those five skills into just about any discipline or industry you want, and everything else you learn in college is just a cherry on the sundae. In my experience, most college graduates haven't mastered even one of those skills, but with writing instructors who prefer the "intuitive" approach, I guess that's no surprise.
Welcome to The Ivey Files! This is where I'll be talking outloud whenever I have a conversation or gather intelligence or read an article or see a movie or want to shout something from the rooftops about the big, bad world after college and the best way to prepare for it.
That's my mission. To help you — college students and recent graduates — figure out what the heck to do with yourselves. Am I curing cancer? No. Am I doing anything as useful as building a bridge or designing the next generation of garbage disposals? No. Do I have the answer to the Middle East crisis or the Riemann Hypothesis? No. I'll let other people blog about those things. What I do know about is how to help the legions of twenty-somethings who emerge from college every year make smart choices.
I've taken my own twists and turns after college: first to law school, then to corporate legal practice and film finance, and then to the world of college and graduate school admissions — first as an admissions officer and more recently as a private counselor helping people get into the top colleges, law schools, and business schools. Reading so many applications over the years, I've seen over and over again what people have done right at this stage in their lives, and where they've gone wrong. (There are plenty of things I would do differently too.)
I still help people with their admissions goals, but my mission has morphed over time. I realized I had moved way beyond admissions when I started hearing from an increasing number of college students who weren't yet looking into grad school but were thinking ahead about what doors they wanted open to them after college. They wanted my advice on which majors to pick, and my thoughts on whether to participate in this activity or pursue that internship. They wanted to know whether the sky would fall if they took an extra semester to graduate. They asked me how to dress for their i-banking interviews and whether to email or snail-mail the thank-you note.
I also realized that I was telling over half the graduate school applicants who were coming to me for admissions advice to hold off on applying until they had better reasons for applying, stronger credentials, or more work experience (sometimes all three). Most don't want to hear it, and most don't take my advice. That's OK. They can make their own mistakes. But every once in a while, someone says, "OK, what should I do instead?" And then the skies part, the angels sing, and I do a happy dance around my chair.
And almost all of them, undergraduate and graduate school students alike, could use a good dose of straight-talk when it comes to debt and their financial futures.
So whether you're in college right now or have recently graduated, now's the time to map out where you want to go and figure out how you're going to get there. It's your life, and you're the one who's going to be living it. Not your roommate, not your football coach, not Jimmy Joe Jim Bob making small talk with you on your flight to Tucson, not the Excel monkey in the cubicle next to yours, not your pre-law advisor who is telling you (incorrectly) that "you can do anything with a law degree," not your mom who thinks all debt is bad, not your dad who thinks borrowing $150K for grad school is a no-brainer, not your sister who thinks corporations are evil but couldn't define the word "corporation" if her life depended on it, and not your uncle who thinks earning six figures at age twenty-five is the holy grail. It's your life. Choose wisely.