Dear Oprah and Suze,
While normally I am a fan of both of you ladies, I happened to catch the tail end of the Oprah show yesterday (10/22/08) and was appalled by what I saw and heard counseled.
A mother, Jean, was asking for advice. Her 5th grader wanted to go on a school trip to Costa Rica. At 11 years old, this boy has been studying Spanish for a while and is almost bilingual. He has been looking forward to this special 5th grade trip for years. It cost about $2200.
The problem? The mother was carrying $20,000 in debt on her credit cards.
Suze Orman said, No way you can pay for that trip. He simply cannot go.
The mother knew her son would be dreadfully disappointed if he couldn’t go. She talked about the one-time educational opportunity of this particular trip.
Suze didn’t budge an inch. Tell him you simply can’t afford it, she counseled without empathy. Tell him he can’t go this year, but he’ll be able to go another year.
Oprah was even firmer. If you let him go now, when he knows you can’t afford it, you’ll be setting a bad example for him about spending money you do not have.
My heart went out to that poor boy who would be so heartbroken. Mostly, though, I was outraged that Oprah and Suze didn’t offer any other alternatives to the mother. It was only the most radical and depressing solution: There’s no way he can go on that trip because you can’t afford it.
Here’s something I wish I would have heard instead: make it a project to earn the money to pay for the trip of a lifetime. Here are some ideas:
1. Get a paper route. I knew a large family that brought in almost half their income from paper routes that everyone participated in together before going off to school and work. At 4am, even the littlest ones would be in the garage, rolling and stuffing papers for the bigger kids to deliver by foot, bike, and car. All the money earned went toward the communal family coffers, but this family could put it aside to pay for his trip.
2. In my neighborhood, an elementary school kid started up a business where kids hang flyers from local merchants on doors throughout the neighborhood. He began by doing it all himself and grew to hire other kids to help deliver. It’s a win-win for the kids and the local merchants. And for the neighborhood, too, as the flyers often contain coupons to encourage people to support local businesses.
3. When I was 16, I decided I wanted to go to South America and volunteer with a group called Amigos de las Americas. It required 6 months of training and fundraising efforts so that the out-of-pocket expenses per volunteer would be significantly less than if we were each paying our own way.
Some of the fundraising efforts we did included running a local bingo parlor on Sunday mornings (each family rotated through this responsibility), selling frozen pizzas (after the sales were taken, we formed an assembly line to assemble and shrink-wrap each pizza, which was delivered fresh to your freezer), and selling handmade blankets (ours were made out of old ski hats from various ski areas… perfect for a Colorado rec room!).
What if the parents of this boy organized a class fundraiser to help reduce the out-of-pocket costs for all of the families? I’d do that in a second if it meant that a) I wouldn’t have to disappoint my kid, and b) he would learn some valuable things in the process. Things like working to earn toward a goal. It’s amazing, too, how a common effort like this can pull a family and community together. By the time these kids went on their trip, they would have experienced some serious team-building exercises together. Even if there wasn’t enough time to do this beforehand, the parents could do a short-term loan that would be repaid upon completion of the fundraising effort.
But most of all, advice like this could have empowered the mother and the son, instead of sending them to the depths of dispair and hopelessness.
It could have instead been an opportunity to offer hope and creative ideas to solve the problem. We could all use a little bit of hope right about now, I think.