J W Hensley

J W Hensley
Denver, Colorado, USA
Technical Writer
I'm a native Midwesterner who traded for the mountains, a vegetarian cook who occasionally hankers for a hamburger, a non-practicing ceramacist, a technical writer who prefers to write non-technically, a wife and mother/amateur zoo-keeper to three dogs and two cats crammed in an 800 square foot house.


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Editor’s Pick
APRIL 15, 2009 1:59PM

My Student Loans Are Ruining My Life

Rate: 18 Flag

The first time I got a student loan bill, I didn’t open it. Not because I had already sunk into the deep, depressive denial that so many in staggering debt experience; the kind where you just start putting unopened bills in a box without looking at them because you know you can’t even begin to pay the debt that will most likely consume the rest of your adult life. Denial was not my motivation for not opening the bill. I just didn’t recognize that it was a bill. I was so removed from the fact that I had actually spent thousands of dollars through my borrowing over the years that the many envelopes that starting showing up addressed to me were a mystery.


When I started getting calls from my various lenders after several months of throwing away their statements, I was slightly wiser. My boyfriend, now husband, made mention to me that his parents had proactively jumped in to help him figure out his loans and get them consolidated. Oh yeah, I remember thinking, loans. Huh.  I’ve got those.  And boy did I. I tried to play dumb with my angry lenders when they called, telling them that I simply hadn’t recognized that my grace period was over. Well, actually, I wasn’t playing, which made it all the more embarrassing when they didn’t buy my excuse. Nevertheless, I made arrangements to try to catch up on my payments that were now bloated with late fees.


I was barely out of school, making a slim salary at my first job and I was already deep in the hole. I didn’t know how this had happened. Even after I caught up on the late bills there were still so many minimum payments to keep up with that I quickly felt overwhelmed. I was living paycheck to paycheck, just like I had all throughout college, even though I was making twice the hourly rate I used to. I got extremely pissed off as I signed away checks for $80 here, $50 there, $120 later in the month. I felt cheated. Why all this ridiculous campaigning about the importance of education by all adults throughout my life? Why did every one seem to think that the only way to get ahead was to get a degree? I had a degree and I was way behind.


Shadowing this anger was my own shame. I felt so stupid about all the money that I and I alone had willingly borrowed. I wanted to plead temporary insanity. I wanted my Get Out of Jail Free card. But all I got were more bills. I do think education is important but I also know that when I started my college education, I wasn’t ready to be a serious student. Rather I wasn’t ready to be a serious student of my own accord. When someone else was footing the bill and I had minimal freedom, I could manage school just fine. My dad paid for my first year of university and I lived at home with my mom. I worked hard, I got good grades and I saved money from my job at a sub shop. I felt like college and I were pretty compatible. Then I got some news that lead to a few decisions that, I can see now, completely ruined the sensible path I was on.


My parents informed me that I wouldn’t be getting any more financial aid from them at the same time that my boyfriend told me that he would be going to school in another town. So I applied for loans and a transfer. I dimly remember my parents offering me two pieces of advice. “Stay here, live at home and save money,” my mom said. “Only take out as much as you need to pay tuition and work for the rest,” my dad said. Yeah right, I thought. If they weren’t paying, then they didn’t get any say in my decisions. Ah, the wisdom of adolescence. I was allergic to good advice. I had a supreme sense of entitlement. It never occurred to me to take what my parents said to heart. Nor did I think to wait, work a couple of years, learn some self-sufficiency and then try my hand at academia.


Not only did I take out the maximum amount of loans allowable but I also worked as few hours as possible. I ate out every meal instead of using my prepaid cafeteria plan and I used the rest of my paltry wages to buy intoxicating substances that helped me stay up late, sleep in late, take naps and routinely skip classes. My boyfriend, who I had transferred to be with, broke up with me the first month of school. I used the ensuing depression and aforementioned intoxicating substances as excuses to withdrawal from some classes, with no refund, and switch to an easier major. I wasn’t wasting anybody else’s money and nobody was checking my grade cards anymore. I was accountable to no one.


College continued like this for me for a few years and then I hit a wall. My step-mother of nearly two decades was dying, I was getting terrible grades and I was constantly stressed about money. I still didn’t like to work and the loan checks were always blown within the first month of the semester. I dropped out to give full reign to my grief and early twenties angst and started a series of part-time jobs as a nanny, a bagel baker and a server.


A few years later, after struggling to survive on minimum wage, I had managed to grow a little character, a shred of responsibility and a modicum of motivation. I got back in school and worked hard at my classes and my job. I was still taking out the maximum allowance of loans because I still wasn’t making a living wage. I needed tuition and a cushion for my living expenses. My advisor told me I needed to do an internship to get experience so that my only skills weren’t wiping baby asses, making bagel sandwiches and slinging Italian food. I couldn’t work during my unpaid internship. I took out more loans.


I finished my degree with a decent GPA that I had somehow managed to resurrect from the depths of mediocrity. I got a job as an editor. Things were looking good. I started thinking about graduate school. And then the bills started coming in. Then the phone calls. Then the old familiar feeling of being broke and tense and desperate.


I wish I had listened to any of the people who warned me about student loans. I wish that it hadn’t been so easy for my idiot young adult self to take out thousands upon thousands of dollars. I wish someone in the financial aid office would have counseled me a little about the consequences of loans, of interest, of being financially irresponsible, instead of helping find more money I could borrow. I wish they would have at least imposed a minimum GPA so that when I started sliding, I wouldn’t be able to make things worse by taking out more money and then dropping out of more classes. I wish I could go back in time.


I can’t, so I decide to take the advice that all the adults are giving me now: consolidate. Looking back, I’m not sure I agree with the whole consolidation thing. I think I probably consolidated some loans that were accruing a lower rate of interest than my consolidation rate. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of that until after I’d already consolidated. Kind of like how I didn’t think about how much money I was borrowing until it was already borrowed.


My first consolidated bill came two years ago. Along with the bill was a handy little statement summarizing the extent of my debt. When I read those five digits, a sum greater than I had ever imagined, I felt defeated, wholly and completely. There was no way I could claw my way out of this pit of debt. With an English degree, I didn’t even know if I would ever make a yearly salary equal to my debt. When I told my step-dad the amount, after much prodding on his part, I was embarrassed. I couldn’t make eye contact. I heard him give a low whistle and tell me that was more than he’d paid for his first house. My heart sunk even lower.


Even after a couple of years, I still suffer sticker shock when I pay my student loan bill every month. If I look at it while I’m menstruating, I cry. So I try not to do that. I try not to get bitter about the fact that I can’t go back to school and get a Masters like I’d always planned because I can’t take out more loans and I can’t save money for tuition with my massive monthly bill. I try to console myself. I’m doing ok, keeping my head above water. Most people I know have some school debt. I just have a little more. They have the Hondas of debt and I have the luxury car. I tell myself that, in part, it couldn’t be helped. My parents couldn’t fund me because they had so many kids. I was grieving and depressed during my first run in school; I had a rough time. And, expensive as it was, I got my degree in a subject I love. I use my degree everyday as an editor.


I can’t ever totally shake the anxiety over my mountain of debt though; the mountain that I hope to clear sometime in my fifties. It always keeps me a little out of breath. An anxiety settled over me the day my loan repayments started. I wear it like a bulky sweater that’s too hot for the weather. Sometimes I don’t think about it and I can forget briefly; I push up the sleeves or I flap the front to let in a little breeze. I grow slightly accustomed, a little more comfortable. But then I remember. The sweat starts to bead and my armpits moisten and my forearms itch because the sweater is heavy and prickly and stifling.  I see every one else walking around in short sleeves and tank tops and I realize that I can’t ever take the damn thing off.

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Oh, I feel your pain, girl. Especially today, after the i.r.s drained the last few sheckles outta my bank account. And now I have only 2 more weeks to drum up rent and next month's tuition.
Let's just take a deep breath now, shall we?
when i recently heard what my nephew was paying for tuition (at a community college) i was stunned. i don't remember exactly how much it cost when i was in college in the late 80's early 90's but i'm pretty sure it wasn't $85/hr. i'm also pretty sure that the quality of education hasn't increased at the same rate the cost has.

while i was a little more fortunate than you (my parents were always able to help some) i also worked full-time while i was in school. i was always envious of people like you who didn't have to work, but once i graduated the envy was reversed - i had no loans to pay back.

that said, don't beat yourself up too much. you were young(er), and behaved as if you were. hopefully you were able to experience college with some joy. the money's spent, now cherish the memory of that time as much as you can.
This may not be much of a consolation but you can have it set up as an automatic deduction from your checking account. You still have to keep track of it of course, but you won't have to open the bill every month. Go paperless.

Buy a used car. Don't get cable TV. I don't miss TV. At all. I have found renting an apartment to be fine. You don't have to buy a house. You can do this. I know because I did.
I feel your pain, Dear. I am a lot like you, although I didn't ignore my bills when they first started coming (I hate paying late fees-- talk about money for nothing). I imagine you will get some dings from the self-righteous debt-free folk who worked their way through community colleges and night school programs to get their degree. They can wax on self-righteously, they deserve to and they are lucky to have had a wisdom at 18 that many of us lacked to our lifelong detriment.

But the truth of the matter is, some of us, maybe those of us who grew up in cushy circumstances believing that our parents were rich (when it turns out they were merely living just above their means, overmaxing their credit cards, or were high wage earners who lived paycheck to paycheck and led by example). We were more likely to be deaf to good advice when we were young, we believed the siren call that college would result in a high-paying job that would permit us to easily repay our student debt, we believed the canard that "educational debt is good debt" and perhaps we grew up too sheltered and naive-- our parents had provided for us, surely the world wouldn't invite us to do something so foolhardy as to take out more debt than we could handle. Surely our colleges would provide some restraints and not just keep raising tuition beyond the affordable. In Church, some of us were taught, "God never gives us more than we can handle."
I look back and don't know why I thought reality somehow wouldn't apply to me. Adolescent magical thinking I guess.

Our high schools do a piss-poor job of preparing most students for the reality of student loan debt. They seem to be in bed with the colleges that benefit from student naivete. The colleges have raised their tuition astronomically over the past thirty years-- in the same way that the housing bubble resulted from overextension of credit, so too has higher education raised its prices as a result of the free-flowing availability of student loan debts-- for everyone from the finance major to the art major unlikely to secure a living wage upon graduation.
The answer, I believe, is to change the zeitgeist. Students need to be uniformly educated on debt, interest, and amortization statements as well as the projected salaries for their field of interest. Another myth "do what you love and the money will follow." Well, no it won't necessarily if no one is buying what you have to sell.

Good luck getting through repayment. You are not alone.
I could have written this. (Except that I didn't get any warnings about student loan debt. My mother discouraged me from working during college, saying that I needed to concentrate on my schoolwork instead; my notoriously unreliable father told me that he'd pay off my student loans for me.) Three years after graduating, I've only paid down $1,000 off my original $25,000, thanks to a 6.25% interest rate. I could point you in the direction of some helpful debt repayment gurus, but you've probably heard it all already.
I have a daughter starting college this year and my student loans are still about the equivalent of my mortgage payment. Stupid law degree. If anyone is reading this, don't go to law school!
You take your lumps and learn your lesson. That's how it is with money. Live and learn.
While I never had too much issue with student debt (I was working part time through much of my college years), I learned my own expensive financial lesson a few years after I came out of school. I lost ~6 figures on the stock market around the time of the dot-com bubble. And I was hardly unique- tons of people lost their shirts during that time. That was around the time when online stock trading was first popularized- and we all thought we were stock trading geniuses. I am STILL deducting the capital loss from that time!!!!
If it's causing this much stress, look into the income contingent repayment option. They want you to pay it back, but they don't really want it to kill you. Then they would have to forgive the loan, and where's the profit in that!
I am with you. Only I worked nearly full-time all through college and still walked away with a ton of school loans and a degree I can't use: Literary Writing. I wouldn't change a thing though, because no one can take away my education or my experience. I'll just be paying off this debt way into my forties.
If it is any consolation, a college graduate is less unlikely to be unemployed today than others with associate degrees and high school degrees. The stats are: 4% unemployment for college grads and up to 22% for those without. Also you are more likely to earn, over your lifetime substantially more than those without.

You have obviously learned how to think, write and communicate effectively. All of us had to pay our dues with stinky jobs in our twenties, but don't hold your breath, becuase it does improve.

Shine and all will come to you you. Feel fortunate that you had the ability to get that degree. It will pay off in spades. My children all mumbled about not needing the degree until we put them out in the great big wild world on their own to earn what they could with a high school degree under their belt. They went to college with their tails wagging behing them after dead-end, mind-numbing (not that tech writing puts a big grin on your face) minimum-wage dreck.

Get a bit of seasoning behind you and you will find, it was a good choice, especially when medical and dental become an important part of being on the grid, so to say.

I did work to get through college, so my debt, was minimal. It was ouch, but not boing. Stay in the game, you made the right choice.
JW, this too will pass. and when you write that that last check to the department of education many moons from now, hopefully your salary will be higher than what the loan was. good luck kiddo.
You shouldn't feel bad about it. There really ought to be some limits on what people can borrow and also limits on how much they can be forced to pay back per month. Maybe 10% of income , more if they make alot.
There should be laws against usury, and that is what it is.
Meanwhile maybe try to make a deal as above post said.
I have two, count 'em, two graduate degrees to pay off, and I agree about the sticker shock of that first payment, though I did know how much I was borrowing throughout my schooling. It's just different to see a payment amount on paper. This is why I have a day job, and teach writing classes online in my spare time. Maybe you can find some extra work that way to give you a little income boost?
I owe $140,000 in student loans for a BA and a Masters and I am on food stamps and unemployment. I get called 8 times a day from Sallie Mae. The whole thing overwhelms me and I have no idea when I will earn enough to support myself let alone pay off these bills. I gamboled on my future and I lost--my gambol was that I would make it as a writer, since my MFA was in Creative Writing. But you never what the grand plan has in store, so I still have hope--but right now I am gushing bills with no requisite money coming in--I need a transfusion fast!
Six figures here. Really. I know your pain.

Even the consolidation should be something you can stick in forbearance and pay just the interest. Until you get a stronger paying job.
People, seriously, income contingent plan! It's on the website for any Stafford loan lender. I have more debt than I should too, and currently very low income. I'm paying zero right now, and not using up years of deferrment. Each year you submit the paperwork again and they recalculate. Meanwhile, nothing stops you from paying what you want above what's due, if you can. After 25 years, if there's anything left, it's completely forgiven other than the fact that you have to pay tax on it. DO NOT let your accounts go into default when there is this simple, sane plan available to you! You can even google "income contingent repayment plan" and find calculators online that will tell you about what your monthly amount due will be. Please don't panic! There's a sane way to cope with this.
Another note to let you know you're not alone: I started paying off my student loans in 1985, and (with an abeyance in the early 1990s when I went back to school) it wasn't until after 2000 (when I was, let's see, 37 years old) that I was through. I'm probably luckier than most, having had only the Honda or even the Kia of debt. But I'll still offer encouragement.
Usually the last to give advice, but in your case I'll make an exception. Please do whatever it takes to pay off your loans quickly, even if you have to bunk with your stinky cousin Pete and eat Ramen for a year and walk to work to burn off the Ramen. I was married with 2 little ones and a big, unemployed child-man when I got out, so this wasn't an option for me. But--if I could've done that, I'd have saved myself from the loan that has been sold and resold to the point that I now owe about 4 times what I borrowed. I can't even afford the minimum payment now, and I'm 40. At this rate, I'll be dying to get this one paid, literally.
I'm with you, "Even after a couple of years, I still suffer sticker shock when I pay my student loan bill every month." and now I don't have a job. rated.
I am the male version of this story...thought I knew it all...had a girlfriend...took out loans...transferred, etc. Later, I took 18 months off while my father was ill. I delayed payment on my student loans two or three times. I'm now 24 and should be graduating with a degree in journalism at the end of 2009. I don't even want to be a journalist anymore...I'm not sure if I even believe in "serious writing" anymore. It seems almost pointless and irrelevant in a land where comics/screenwriters/twitterers dominate. ANYWAY, I owe somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000. But here's the real kicker ... all I truly want to do is move to NY or LA and try my hand at stand-up comedy. I don't even care what happens. I just want to take the journey. I'm sure many of you are thinking that's really silly, all too youthful, and kind of pathetic, but it's the truth.

I have no idea what I'm going to do. Scared shitless, really.

Good luck, J W.

You seem to be handling yourself with the best of 'em.
The commenters who say that it's ok and that you'll get through it... I don't think they actually realize how crushing the debt is for some of us. I, too, have a five-digit debt. I worked through school. I got good grades. I did everything "right," short of getting loads of scholarships. I went to a crummy state school, not an "expensive" one. I even lived with my mom to cut expenses for a year or two. Now I work to pay off debt, and nothing else. High schools push kids into college. College has become prohibitively expensive and no one educates kids how to pay for school; they just tell kids they'll end up homeless if they don't go. It's overwhelming and depressing to think that so many options are off the table for me (children, hobbies, travel) because I took all of the good advice I was given and got a degree.
we need more government student aid you shouldn't have to start out so deep in debt,and it is happening to too many people.
This whole thread depresses the hell out of me. No offense, as the kids say. I guess you write so well that I'm feeling your burden, and I'm also extrapolating it onto my kids and realizing that my own employment situation is unlikely to change. sigh.
I know how you feel. I knew there was no way I could afford that payment each month. I wasn't even using my degree (and still don't). I remember tring to joke with the guy saying if I gave back the piece of paper with my name on it, could I get my money back. He didn't think it was that funny.

Certain jobs will qualify you for debt forgiveness. Is there any chance you would qualify for Federal employment?

Berkeley had NO tuition in the 60's. But then there were those pesky protests - going to school FREE and protesting against the government. Mr. Reagan took care of the free tuition. But at least you could still get student loans at discounted rates with generous repayment terms. But jeez some people declared bankruptcy after getting there degrees and bragged about it - I strongly suspect these people are now prominent republicans and followers of Michael Savage but I digress. It became impossible to bankrupt student loans. For the final straw, in the 80s - the Republicans stuck down all the fair lending laws leading to the present situation of 38 overdraft, 29 late fees, over 100% APR payday loans. You have every right to be angry and bitter - get politically active.
I am currently doing the same thing and falling into the same pit. I'm currently at $21,000 and rising with only half of an Associate's Degree to show for it. Sigh. As a single mom on a very limited income, I really have no choice, though. I had better get a really good career when all of this is done.
I feel your pain...I think way, way too many of us know what you're feeling and thinking. My undergraduate debt was bad enough---but two graduate degrees sound dumber and dumber each time I have to add to the stack of loans. I set myself a reasonably high number as a cut-off line, thinking that the benefits of the job, etc., would make that number okay. I didn't want or need a big house, an expensive car, all sorts of things--I was willing to work off my education over decades, since it would be its own reward.

Well, I passed that number two years back, and the hits just keep on coming...and when I think of the total I'm likely to end up with, I get insomnia. Literally.

Great...now I won't sleep tonight!

Hang in there to you, Hensley, and the rest of us in the same boat.
The cost for higher education in this country is ridiculous - I'd like to know how it got so out of hand that people have to spend the rest of their lives trying to pay back loans for a Bachelors degree! WTF?
WTF indeed? I am really interested in the movement (small, maybe disorganized) to force the government to bail out student loan borrowers.
It makes perfect sense - relieve some of that debt as forgiveness - bailout - whatever you want to call it and you free up a huge amount of money that WILL go right into the economy. If your student loans payments were halved, you would ....go on a cruise? No, you would get busy on a mortgage, new or old.

The GOOD thing is that they can't make you pay more than what you can pay - so you can pay $50.00 on $60,000.00 until the cows come home, and as long as you make the payments, you still have good credit.

There are some loan relief programs that mostly involve teaching. With your degree, would you be willing to teach away your loans?

Don't rule out grad school - you could go for free and get a living stipend.in the right program.

Teaching overseas can be very lucrative - I think you have kids, so that makes it harder. But most teaching jobs provide housing. I'm planning on going to South Korea next year. I know a couple with two kids who signed a contract to teach in Budapest - they're subletting their house, living rent free, there's an international school, and they're getting paid for the experience.
No matter what, don't be too anxious. It's not like $15,000.00 in credit card bills - which is very common, and destroying many people.
Take a deep breath - you will be fine.
Also - your courage and your eloquence describing the spiral of taking the $$money$$ is amazing and so apt. At UMASS -where I recently completed my degree at a ripe old age - it's called the "excess check". I could have funded my classes on grants, and I did for two semesters. But then I succumbed. because banking on paying off debts by getting the excess check was too tempting. In my case, I paid off old student loans with part of one excess check - paying Peter to pay Peter!
I really appreciate your honesty in removing this situation from the shadows. When my son started college last fall, everyone I knew said that I was crazy to send him to a community college for the first two years before transferring to a State school. They said he should go to a private school and have "the full college experience." It sounds like that "full college experience" isn't worth the extra student loan debt. After reading your story and the comments, I feel that our decision was a prudent one. I'll also advise him to send the extra loan money back if he doesn't need it for tuition or books. Thanks to you and everyone who commented.
I don't think any student realizes the impact of the loans they're taking out- they're just such an accepted part of "the college experience". My law school tuition (at a public state university law school) jumped 40% in three years, from $15,000 a year to $22,000 a year. Neither our national rankings nor our available federal loans jumped accordingly.

Sadly, I feel like one of the lucky ones because my parents taught me (in a sense) the dangers and pitfalls of credit card debt. Many of my friends weren't so lucky, and in addition to six-figure school debt, have significant credit card debt on top of it, because of what I consider credit predators on college campuses.
Well said. As former students, we just didn't know any better, we were just trying to get an education the way society told us to do. Unscrupulous banks and universities are to blame.