I cannot think of many things that I dread more than checking my student loan debt balance. I am 28 years old, and I grew up middle class in a city neighborhood in Syracuse, New York. I was the valedictorian of my large public high school where the graduation rate hovered just above 50 percent, and I was the first person from my school to ever attend Brown University. I went on to earn my master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Though I am proud of those experiences, I now personally owe nearly $100,000 in student loan debt because of them. That’s not including the additional loans my parents took out to help pay for Brown as well.
I know I am not alone in having this financial burden. Student loan debt in the United States is staggering. Right now, 44 million people collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans, with recent grads owing around $37,000 each on average. Four out of five working professionals with student loan debt reported it as being a “significant” or “very significant” stressor, according to a 2017 survey.
The anxiety spiral
I am one of those people. When I start thinking about my own loans, it can send me into an anxiety spiral. There are so many stressful decisions to make that can have long-term financial consequences: Should I refinance my loans, or should I do a government loan forgiveness program? Should I do a graduated repayment plan, where my payments start low and then grow each year based on the assumption my salary will grow, as well, or should I do an income-based repayment plan, where my payments are based on my salary for a given year?
I lose sleep worrying that I will never get out of debt. $100,000 is a shit ton of money, and owing that much as a 28-year-old, is daunting. Like many other young people with major debt, when I think about the costs of a wedding, buying a home, or having children, I cannot imagine doing any of those things anytime soon, if ever.
Debt can feel like a cloud that’s constantly hanging over your head. There have been countless times I’ve opted out of going out to dinner with friends because I was worried about affording it. There have been other times where I have eaten something cheaper beforehand, and then just gone to the more expensive restaurant to sit while other people eat. It is crazy how much monthly student loan payments can bring down your salary. I’ve noticed how many people who don’t have student loans do not seem to fully understand how much repaying impacts your quality of life; they might not understand that those with student loan debt are often paying hundreds of dollars per month for many years.
A more guarded social life
Beyond that, my debt sometimes even discourages me from dating, which can easily become very expensive. In New York, dating often means going out to dinner, or going to the movies. Sometimes, the thought of making romantic gestures by buying someone a nice meal—or even paying $50 or more for two movie tickets and two drinks—can feel unrealistic when I remember that I have this debt that is not only waiting to be paid off, but also constantly accruing interest.
There have been several times where I have wanted to ask someone out, but then have thought about how much not only the first date would cost, but going on follow up dates, as well, and then decided against it.
I have also realized there are cheaper ways to go on dates, for instance going to coffee is way more affordable than going out to dinner, whether you are splitting the bill or making a gesture by paying for just yourself.
I know that doing things like buying someone a drink or a meal can be implicit ways of expressing romantic interest in them, but I have just learned that when you are worried about debt, sometimes it is easier to just say you are interested in them, then trying to convey that through spending money.
Fear of being honest
In the United States, we are taught that it’s taboo to talk about money. From a young age, we’re told that we shouldn’t ask people how much money they make, and we definitely shouldn’t ask people how much debt they have. Debt becomes our secret. I often write about my struggles with mental health, my experiences with addiction, and even my sexuality, and I cannot tell you how much scarier it feels to write this piece where I am being honest about how much debt I have.
Immense student loan debt can feel like a moral failure, rather than the product of being screwed by a system. As the cost of higher education has experienced extreme inflation over the last several decades, the borrowers who had less means to begin with are the ones who have to deal with the mess for years.
And I know there are many borrowers out there who have it much harder than me. There are people whose parents were not able to take additional loans to help them, or borrowers who already have their own children they need to provide for. People of color owe disproportionately more in student debt than their white peers, and studies have shown racial discrimination in hiring is prevalent, making it harder for people of color to have access to jobs that will help them earn the money to repay their debt.
What I could have done differently
There are certainly different decisions that I could have made nearly a decade ago to have less student loans today. In hindsight, I now realize I could have gone to public universities, worked more jobs during school, and waited to get my master’s degree until after I’d paid off my undergraduate loans.
But, I would also argue, that when you are 18 years old and have never taken out loans before, you are far from being an economic expert. We grow up essentially being told that the more educated we are, and the higher ranked the universities we attend, the more access we’ll have to better jobs, and the more we’ll be paid. When you are 18 and get into your dream school – or even when you are in your early 20s and get into a graduate program – it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s all a necessary investment.
Hopefully, that sentiment still proves itself to be true for other borrowers and for myself.
Even if it is, the current system could still use a major reform. People shouldn’t have to spend years in financially-induced emotional distress before they feel like their investment pays off.
How I’m tackling my debt
Right now, I am on an income-based repayment plan, where my payments are 10 percent of my discretionary income. Assuming this program is not changed by the government, if I make monthly payments for 20 years then the remainder of my debt will be forgiven. This means my payments are smaller than they would be otherwise, but sometimes it just feels like I am kicking the can down the road, and I know I will still have to deal with the bulk of my debt eventually.
I try to take on as many freelance projects as possible, and use this money to try to start chipping away at loans. Living with roommates has helped keep my rent lower, and I am trying to eat out as little possible.
I have also learned that it is important to be honest and transparent about my struggle with student loan debt. When I kept it to myself, it felt like such an invisible burden. Now, I want the people around me, especially those who do not have student loans, to understand the toll they take on borrowers. Hopefully, this sort of visibility will help us figure out a better solution to helping people afford a higher education without having to spend the rest of their lives in intense debt.
Follow Seamus Kirst on Twitter .