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.