Zero-Based Budgeting My Personal Finance Dream

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Zero-Based Budgeting My Personal Finance Dream

Something in this week’s news brought me up short and slapped me in the face with one big reality in my dream of personal finance mastery.

According to the University of California Board of Regents, in-state tuition may go up to $23,000. Per year. This means I have  no idea in the world how my children are going to get a college education.

Sir Empath is 16, and O Psychic One is just shy of 13.  I have always assumed they will go to college, and they both want to go to college (though neither has yet to identify any solid future dreams of their own).

Suddenly, a 4-year college degree seems iffy, and that’s putting a pretty blunt point on it.

In my distant youth, I was a student activist at the University of California and argued before the state legislature against the imposition of ANY tuition at all. The chairman of the committee where I testified (successfully) gave me a job after I graduated, and at the ripe old age of 22 I became an education policy consultant. I know. Scary. But I’m just saying, I’ve got some history on this.

Back then, there was no tuition. The fees students and their parents paid were for things like student health coverage, and student activities, and such things that were part of the social life and well-being of a college student. The state footed the bill for the actual instruction and was glad to do it. It meant than just about anyone who had the grades could attend one of the best universities in the world. The cost did not have to be an obstacle. The state got paid back in income tax on the higher salaries university graduates made. It was beautiful.

I myself worked my way through college. I worked as a bus conductor (don’t ask), a librarian’s assistant, and a waitress in a cafe. I made enough money to supplement my small student loan and a couple of grants, and still had plenty of time for both academics and a social life. I believe fees were less than $2000 back then, if memory serves. I earned enough in my first job out of college (which paid something like $900 per month to start) to pay off my student loan. It wasn’t a burden.

But if tuition is going to be $23,000 per year? What student job is going to even begin to make a dent in THAT? And student loans – forget about it. Can you imagine emerging from college with $92,000 in student loans to repay? Even if the first 2 years are done at a less expensive community college, the final two years at the University will still cost $46,000.  Debt like that is hobbling, to say the least.

And here’s the thing. Why are we as a society not seizing this unique moment in history to talk seriously about things like this? Clearly, we taxpayers cannot afford to support all the programs we’re used to supporting, at least not in the same way we’ve supported them in the past. Higher education is just one of many examples. Why are we not talking about different approaches to get the same, or even better, results?

Why are we not zero-basing our priorities, and looking for better ways to accomplish them?

If you’re wondering what I mean by “zero-basing,” Remy told me a story that illustrates it perfectly.  The owner of a business where she once worked invited all the employees into the conference room one day, where the conference table was piled high with all the intellectual property of the company. Manuals, books, brochures, worksheets, files, folders and what-all. After everyone was gathered around, he swept everything off the table. “Let’s start again,” he said. “Everything is off the table. What would you keep, what would you toss, and what would you do instead?”

It seems to me higher education (and other things) might benefit from a similar approach. It’s a little revolutionary and a little scary. A whole edifice has been built on The Way Things Have Always Been. Changing anything important would probably undermine the edifice. But do we really want to risk allowing a University, or any other public program or service,  to become Too Big To Fail?

I don’t.

I value knowledge and learning. I treasure my own capacity to think critically, express myself, form opinions, and learn new things. I’m not convinced the traditional classroom in a traditional academic setting is the only way to get that. In fact, so much of school seemed bent on teaching me facts. The wisdom of the intervening years has taught me that facts are important, but how to think is what really matters. I often have to look up facts when I need them, but critical thinking is a skill I use every second of every day, and a skill I want my children to have.

Are they going to get that at the University of California? Not if it’s going to cost them $92,000 just to get in the door, never mind room and board and books and supplies.

Is the University of California doomed to behave like the record industry, fighting and kicking and scraping to stay the same in the face of a radically changing social, economic, and intellectual world?

This has not been an easy post for me to write. I loved my University experience, and feel fierce loyalty to my state’s historic support of higher education opportunity. But it’s a new day.

My world class college education taught me to ask this question. Isn’t there another way to do this?


Jayne Speich is a small business coach/consultant who writes, thinks, and coaches extensively on customer service, business finance, and ways to thrive in the new economy. She is the owner of Onsys21 Dental, a coaching/consulting firm for dental practice owners. You can sometimes find her Jayne’s post day is Saturday.

  • Yeah, no where near close enough for my son’s college career. Even his choice of an art focused school adds up. Part of the process, that’s for sure!

    Thanks for the great post – H

  • Remy Gervais, Top Photographer

    I think I just threw up a little bit. Even if I had started saving when my little one was born, I dont think I’d be close! It was nice having lunch with you Friday. Lets meet up again soon! xo Rem ps how is the book?