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Steve Vistaunet, Steve Vistaunet
Rob Skidmore with his wife, Corryn, and son, Henry, are making ends meet.
I was pretty scared about finding a job. I knew I would get one, because I was willing to do the work necessary to find one, but I wasn't sure if it would be in my field or not." —Rob Skidmore

College graduates are scared.

Sixty-two percent are afraid they won't find a job, according to a new survey commissioned by eHealthInsurance, an online health insurance company.

Fifty-four percent are afraid that if they find a job, it won't be in their chosen field, the survey says.

Already 60 percent say they have had trouble finding a job.

And nearly half of students (and 45 percent of recent graduates) are afraid they won't be able to pay back their student loans. They are so worried about student loans, in fact, that 75 percent of grads say they would rather go without health insurance than default on their student loans.

Rob Skidmore gets this. He is a recent graduate from BYU and works in Internet marketing at Infogenix.

"I was pretty scared about finding a job," he said. "I knew I would get one, because I was willing to do the work necessary to find one, but I wasn't sure if it would be in my field or not."

Skidmore is in the middle of reality. His wife, Corryn, is still in school and they just had a baby boy, Henry. Skidmore makes about $30,000 a year, he says, and they live in a two-bedroom apartment in Provo. Their car, a "slowly dying" grey 1995 Toyota Corolla, is holding together for the moment. And in it all, they are able to pay off some debts and are trying to save money.

And except for Skidmore's dad helping out with the telephone ("That is just the way it has been set up for a long time," he says. "We could handle the cost."), he and his wife are on their own financially.

Feeling secure

But the eHealthInsurance survey paints a different expectation among college students and graduates. On average, college students say they would need an annual gross salary of slightly more than $81,000 to feel financially secure. Their parents say their children would need about $54,000.

"We were stunned at such a misconception that, to be financially independent, they needed to make $81,000," said Carrie McLean, consumer health insurance specialist at eHealthInsurance.com. "That's just absurd to me, especially in their 20s. They may never make that much. It tells me we need to teach our kids what is realistic. I'm not going to keep you around in my house until you make $81,000."

But the survey implies parents are willing to help out. To a point.

"If parents are thinking their kid needs to make $54,000, it tells me they are going to be willing to support their kid longer," McLean said.

The survey found that recent graduates reported their average first-job salary was $21,900 — a gap of about $60,000 between reality and perceptions.

Back to reality

Joe Wilson, a wealth management adviser at financial services firm TIAA-CREF in Atlanta, says "from the income perspective, the employers will bring them back to reality rather quickly. Then it is their job to figure out what to do with the salary they have in front of them."

Wilson said parents have a difficult time with teaching their kids about finances because they are not experts either. "A lot of times financial education begins with employment," he said. "In order to become financially independent earlier, they have to become financially educated sooner."

And McLean says a job that pays $21,900 is an education. "There are a lot of people who live off a $21,000 salary and still find a way to be financially independent — meaning they are paying their own bills and they are living on their own," she said.

Skidmore, who is making a little more than the average starting salary, thinks his fellow students are being a little unrealistic thinking they need $81,000 to be on their own.

"It is a good estimate from what people think they will need," he said. "It's just not being realistic."

Goals in context

But Charles Richards thinks the $81,000 dream isn't necessarily all bad. Richards is author of The New York Times best-selling book, "The Psychology of Wealth: Understand Your Relationship with Money and Achieve Prosperity," and is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Diego, Calif. "It is good for them to set goals," he said. "But not to set goals like, 'I have to have this much to be financially independent.' But rather to set a goal in this context, 'This is what I am shooting for, to live what I think will allow me to have the lifestyle I want.'"

That context is the lifestyle they see their parents living and understanding what it takes to live that lifestyle. "I don't think that is an unrealistic goal for the youth to have," Richards says, "to live at least as well as their parents have lived."

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Richards said a lot of how graduates feel about money and their prospects in the world comes from the messages that surround them. He said youth are getting a constant drumbeat of negative messages — unemployment is high, health insurance is through the roof, people are losing their homes. "The youth are not getting any alternative messages," he said. "That may be the reality, but there is a reality that can come from your expectations and what you accept. It may be the collective reality, but it doesn't have to be your personal reality — unless you accept that limitation. There are always creative ways to prevail and be successful."

Skidmore agrees and has big dreams — even when driving the 1995 dying Toyota. "I think the thing to do is dream big and live small," he says. "The biggest problem we get into is when we try to live at a level we are not prepared to live at yet. And that gets us into trouble. Have high expectations, but have realistic ones, too."

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