Can I Ask My Parents to Pay for Grad School Instead of My Wedding?

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Helen, 32, just finished her medical-school residency and, like most of her colleagues, is mired in debt. She owes $250,000 in student loans on top of some consumer debt that she accrued during her student years. She wishes she could take a more fulfilling (but lower-paying) job at an academic hospital, but instead she’s working grueling hours at a community hospital so that she can pay down her debt as quickly as possible — even still, she’s barely scraping by (and yes, she’s already refinanced her loan to get the interest rate down).

Meanwhile, Helen’s loving, supportive parents are in a financial position where they have more than enough money to help her out, but they’ve never offered. Her sister, who did not go to grad school and has a well-paying job in finance, is getting married this fall, and their parents are paying $100,000 for the wedding.

Helen wishes she could ask her parents to help with her debt instead of paying for her own hypothetical future wedding, but she’s worried she’ll come across as a brat, offend her family, and hurt her own pride if she does so. Should she ask anyway?

If you’re a brat, Helen, then you’re a very reasonable one. At face value, the idea that anyone would prioritize the cost of a wedding over higher education is pretty antiquated, if not completely backward. And your parents would probably agree, if the choice were presented to them so objectively.

Indeed, plenty of parents wish their children would think more like you. May, a nurse, recently told me about her 25-year-old stepdaughter who’s engaged, behind on her credit-card bills, and still working toward her college degree. When the stepdaughter asked for money for her wedding, May and her husband (the stepdaughter’s father) offered a lump sum along with a lengthy kitchen-table chat: While the stepdaughter could use the money for her wedding, they hoped she would put it toward student loans instead. To May’s consternation, her stepdaughter is using it all for the wedding anyway.

The good thing about your problem? You’re well-aware that it’s a nice one to have. Your loans are no joke, but you’ve already set out to manage them on your own — and you can, as most physicians do. Right now, you face two promising options: (1) Say nothing, sticking it out at your stressful job, and enjoying the power of independence and self-sufficiency, or (2) Ask for help so that you can have a more rewarding, educational job and comfortable day-to-day life.

The loans vs. wedding component of the latter scenario might make it seem more justifiable, but that’s where we get into murky territory.

It’s very easy to argue that paying for a lavish wedding isn’t a wise use of money, particularly in comparison to education and career. Unfortunately, the bridal-industrial complex is a financial Bermuda Triangle that will continue to suck otherwise perfectly logical people into its lace-trimmed, money-leeching whirlpool, and that’s not a battle you’re likely to win.

Unless you’re my friend Jenna, who in 2009 persuaded her dad to pay for her master’s degree in social work in lieu of a wedding. She had some ammunition: A few years prior, her dad paid for her older sister’s glitzy, black-tie reception, only for that marriage to end in divorce shortly thereafter. Thus, Jenna’s dad had experienced a (very) negative return on his investment, which might have made him more open to Jenna’s suggestion than he would have been otherwise.

“I was really nervous about the conversation, and I remember it nearly word for word,” Jenna recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, I’ve been thinking about something pretty big and I want to know your thoughts. You know how I feel about weddings — I don’t even want a tiny one. But I do want to go to graduate school. What about taking the money that would go to a wedding and having that cover graduate school instead?’”

She had come prepared with an estimate of how much her social-work degree would cost, and to her surprise, he agreed immediately. “I was so grateful. I told him how much my tuition was, and he wrote me a check each semester,” she said.

The arrangement remains a secret between them: “My sisters don’t know about it, and neither my dad nor I have any intention of telling them. To my knowledge, he didn’t pay for my older sister’s graduate school, which came after her $100,000 wedding.” Last year, Jenna got married at a Virginia courthouse without any fanfare whatsoever, and is thrilled about it.

The topic of parental support for weddings versus student loans hasn’t been formally studied, but I’ll work with the numbers we do have. Regarding weddings: Even as our culture presumably moves into the more enlightened direction of valuing a woman’s career over her marital status, there’s still a telling gap in parental support when it comes to who pays for what. On average, according to a study by TheKnot.com in 2015, the bride’s parents contribute 44 percent of a hetero wedding’s total costs, while the groom’s parents chip in a measly 12 percent.

This disparity originates from the outdated tradition of the groom supporting the bride financially after the wedding — you could even say it’s a contemporary form of dowry that society hasn’t managed to shake off yet. Obviously, we don’t know if the bride’s parents are drawing from money they might otherwise contribute to her education, nor can we assume that the groom’s parents paid more for his education, but it’s a discrepancy worth considering.

On top of all this, the cost of weddings is ballooning — by $5,500 in the past five years, according to the same study, and averaging out at $32,641 in 2015. A third of couples go into debt to pay for their own nuptials — a third! That’s a topic for another column, but it just gives you a rough idea of how much people lose their heads over this stuff.

Helen, back to your sister’s wedding: While putting money toward your medical-school bills would certainly be a better use of your parents’ money in terms of securing their own child’s future happiness and financial stability, comparing your debt to your sibling’s nuptials will almost certainly blow up in your face. Families just don’t distribute funds that way, even Jenna’s (for all she knows, her dad could have paid for her sister’s grad school AND her wedding). No matter how hard they try, no parent can split expenses even-steven between their offspring.

Also, you have to consider that a wedding is something your parents get to enjoy with you. They might even be eager to pony up for a larger, pricier wedding than you want, because a killer wedding for your child is one of the most public and tangible displays of parental pride — it’s a socially acceptable way for parents to show friends and family how beautifully their kids have turned out. Sure, your parents might be prouder that you saved four people’s lives in the ER yesterday than they’ll ever be of anyone’s marriage, but it would be weird for them to throw a party for the former.

And while precedence helped in Jenna’s case, it might hurt in yours. If your parents didn’t give your sister a choice in whether she could allocate the cost of her wedding to something else, then it seems more likely they won’t do so for you, either. Your best bet is to leave your sister out of this equation entirely.

As this is more of an interpersonal query than a straight-up financial one, I sought counsel from the master of navigating all things awkward: Lizzie Post, of the Emily Post Institute (yes, she’s a descendant of the etiquette monarch). Lizzie specializes in handling culturally taboo topics like this one — the stickier, the better.

“If we celebrated graduations the same way that we celebrated weddings, this would be a super-easy ask!” she pointed out. “The hard thing about this question is that it starts looking like marriage is more important than career and education, and that’s not the case. It might seem logical to compare price tags, but these are very different components of life that our culture has supported in different ways, and we will get confused when we try to cross them or equate them.”

Lizzie’s advice: You should talk to your parents about your finances, but not in the context of your sister. “Don’t come at it from the angle of, ‘My sister’s getting this much money for her wedding, so I should get the same amount for whatever I’m doing in life,’” she says. “You could say something like, ‘Hey, there are some big life events that I’m trying to plan for, and I want to talk with you about how much you want to contribute and participate in them, and how much I’m on my own.’”

And who knows, she adds: “Maybe they didn’t know you wanted the help!” There’s only one way to find out.

Then again, Helen, it’s equally smart if you decide not to. Your job may be a slog, but you’re well on your way in the right direction — refinancing your loans and tackling them aggressively are both excellent moves. Of course, it’s always going to be tough and lonely to watch your family live in a world that’s different from yours.

You might be familiar with Stouffer’s theory of relative deprivation — being surrounded by people who are wealthier than you often leads to dissatisfaction, even if you’re wealthy too. You can combat this by hanging out with people in your financial situation as much as you can (as a young doctor, that probably won’t be hard).

And in the end, remember that no amount of money can buy the empowerment that comes with paying your own bills.