A graduate student in Boston has accumulated some savings, but he writes that he is relying mostly on loans to pay his way through a master's program. He isn't alone: The College Board reports that the average debt borne by those who completed a graduate degree in 2007-2008 was $35,750, one-third of which came from undergraduate studies.
My reader shares his home with what he describes as "a stupid cat who has become prone to getting urinary-tract infections, which can be deadly in male cats ... in a very painful way."
My reader has taken his cat to a veterinary emergency room several times in the past six months. Twice the veterinarians have had to keep his cat overnight to administer treatments.
One veterinarian suggested some lifestyle and dietary changes designed to reduce the cat's stress levels.
"He's already living a fairly stress-free life," my reader writes, "but he refuses the dietary changes. You can lead a cat to water ... "
When the infections continued, he took his cat to another veterinarian. The result: new suggestions for dietary changes, including a very expensive brand of cat food. This was problematic for my reader, who is on a fairly tight budget and has already spent more than $1,000 on overnight stays and treatments.
Since he doesn't have much income, my reader is paying for his cat's treatment primarily with credit cards and with money from the student loans he has received.
"These loans are supposed to be going toward the cost of my higher education," he writes. "But I didn't have the heart to kill my 2-year-old cat."
He jokes that he's pretty sure he signed something at some point saying that he wouldn't use his student loans to pay for cat-related expenses.
"On the other hand, I don't want to be known as a cat-killer if I ever decide to run for office," he adds. "Is this misappropriation of funds unethical?"
I don't know the details of my reader's particular loan agreements. Obviously, if he has undertaken specifically to use his student loans only for, say, tuition, then it would be unethical to use them for anything else, cat care included.
Otherwise, however, his choice to continue to care for his cat does not cross ethical lines, so long as he can do so while meeting his financial obligations - specifically, paying his tuition and other education-related bills.
That will not be easy, however, given my reader's limited resources and the expense involved in caring for his cat. One way or another, he must continue to pay all of his bills. He may do that by taking on part-time work, or he may continue with his riskier strategy of deferring the immediate crisis by using credit cards.
It is not unethical to take the latter option, but it is only postponing the day of reckoning. Sooner or later he will have to pay the piper ... or, in this case, the veterinarian.
Should he continue to finance his cat's expensive treatments? He didn't ask that question, and if he had I wouldn't have been able to answer it. That's one only he can answer, because only he can gauge the various priorities involved. Having a pet imposes certain obligations, but so does attending graduate school. How he balances out these obligations is ultimately his decision.
I can tell him, however, that he's doing the right thing by acting responsibly in paying his tuition and other obligations. As long as he continues to do this - and as long as he pays back his loans when they come due - he's not "misappropriating" anything. He's simply finding a way for him and his cat to live on a tight budget.c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)