How much income would it take for you to be happy?
The answer might be best explored by looking at a tale of two studies.
Research has shown that when people get more money, it can make them happy. But a new study from Purdue University says it’s not enough to measure happiness by income alone. You’ve got to factor in debt, too.
I know what some of you are thinking: Really? This revelation warrants research?
Yes, it does, because what seems common sense to some might not be for others.
I’ve seen countless people with low and high incomes stressed about their debt load. And yet, folks pile it on anyway without fully realizing its impact through the years. Exhibit A: student loans.
“A lot of people are pursuing a college education, which is a good thing,” said study co-author Louis Tay, a Purdue assistant professor of psychological sciences. “However, the financial cost of doing so also needs to be considered. . . . These large loan numbers can sometimes be thrown around without us actually realizing [the] day-to-day impact on our lives. We are now translating student loan debt to actual psychological and emotional burden.”
Tay and fellow researchers Cassondra Batz, Scott Parrigon and Lauren Kuykendall culled information from the Gallup-Purdue Index, an effort supported by the Lumina Foundation to measure the well-being of more than 30,000 college graduates in five key areas, one of which is financial happiness.
Their paper, “Debt and Subjective Well-being,” published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that the financial strain caused by debt does lower people’s sense of well-being. Among the study sample were 2,781 college graduates who have been paying off college loan debt for at least seven years.
“We found that the level of college debt actually had almost similar levels of effects as income levels on financial worry and life satisfaction,” Tay said.
This brings me to the second study.
The College Board just released its latest findings on college pricing and student aid. In what isn’t going to come as a surprise to any parent of an undergraduate, costs rose — again. The average published tuition and fees at colleges and universities outpaced the growth in financial aid, family incomes and the average prices of other goods and services, the College Board said.
Average published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year institutions increased 3.6 percent, before adjusting for inflation, rising from $32,330 in 2015-16 to $33,480 in 2016-17. The average cost for full-time out-of-state students at public four-year schools also increased 3.6 percent, before adjusting for inflation, rising from $24,070 in 2015-16 to $24,930 in 2016-17.
There was some good news. Undergraduate students are borrowing less. In 2015-16, loans from federal and private sources accounted for 36 percent of the funds used by undergraduates to go to school, less than in any other year over the past two decades, the College Board said. However, loans constituted 64 percent of the funds used by graduate students. Total federal loans as a share of funding for graduate students increased from 31 percent in 2000-01 to 38 percent.
Let’s look at the big picture of debt for grad students.
“Between 2010-11 and 2015-16, graduate-student borrowing through the PLUS Loan program, which supplements unsubsidized direct loans for graduate students, increased by 17 percent from $7.6 billion to $8.9 billion,” according to the College Board report.
Even with the mix of news, there’s this: Students and parents borrowed $106.8 billion in education loans in 2015-16, down from a peak of $124.2 billion (in 2015 dollars) in 2010-11.
We’ve told people that to get a good job — and, therefore, a good income — they have to go to college. And, if they don’t have the money to go to college, they should just borrow. You’ll be happy about it later, they are promised.
Except many are unhappy about it later.
Studies show that having money does significantly contribute to contentment. But, as Tay points out, “in all the talk about rising costs of college, it is important to recognize that there are real psychological costs and burdens in terms of worry and life satisfaction down the road. It is important for individuals who are going to take on college debt to consider carefully if that is the path for them.”
In my experience, people tend to categorize debt. I get concerned when folks say something like, “I don’t have any debt, except my student loans.”
The takeaway for me from the new research is that there isn’t an exception for any debt when people really begin to weigh the burden that borrowing brings to their financial lives, in both the short and long terms.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.