The student loan crisis in America is reaching epic proportions; here’s how one writer, who came away with debt more than double the national average, manages to make it work and keep perspective.
A few days after my boyfriend and I celebrated our anniversary, I checked my student loan account and felt a twinge of anxiety as I looked at the total: $50,000.
Over a glass of wine the night we celebrated, he’d mentioned that he didn’t think it was a good idea to have kids, or to travel to Thailand—one of our dreams—until my loans disappeared.
This pragmatism stung, though it didn’t shock; after all, I’d graduated with $80,000 debt in 2013. I’d made…progress, if you want to call it that. Still, the reality of having to push back timelines or life events because of my astronomical loan payments was a real buzzkill.
When I first moved to New York after college, I’d ask fellow 20-something graduates where in the city they lived, and depending on how close we were as friends, how much they paid in rent. More often than not, I would hear of other interns or entry-level staffers living in apartments three times the price of my closet-sized room in the Bronx, in decent neighborhoods in Manhattan.
We were all more or less in the same boat in terms of the money we were making. But somehow, they were making it work, and I wasn’t.
And as I continued to ask questions about how they were making it work, the difference began to make itself abundantly clear: I had an unusually high amount of student loan debt—more than double the national average.
As much as I felt like an island at the time—I would have killed to live live closer to work—I am, of course, far from the only person who feels the effects of the student loan ball-and-chain. In fact, student loan debt is widely being recognized as a massive, large-scale economic problem.
As of 2015, seven in 10 college seniors will have graduated with student debt with an average of $28,950 per borrower. And that number represents a sharp incline; between 2004 and 2014, the student debt percentage increased five percent.
Like so many young people saddled with high student loans, getting a job in the city—even one that payed pretty well—didn’t mean I was going to live comfortably, and apartment costs were only the tip of the iceberg. The $1,000 a month I had to pay to the loan service meant I could afford about $600 a month rent in rent (and yes, I feel all you New Yorkers balking right now; where does one even find $600 rent?!)
Well, I found it, but it meant a super long, dodgy commute to work. And while going on a payment plan to ease up on some of this financial stress was an option, it meant paying more money long-term, thanks to my 10 percent interest rate. So instead, I toughed it out in order to put $300 more toward my minimum.
The other, less obvious effect of walking around with massive student debt? I was making every decision with that number in mind—one that, like an invasive weed, only grows larger and harder to rid of if left unattended.
It’s on my mind when I choose to go on vacation despite them. It’s on my mind when I see friends open investment or 401K accounts, or start planning weddings, or their future kids’ college funds. It’s on my mind when I even consider what job to apply to. I left an amazing position that I wasn’t ready to leave, for something I enjoyed significantly less, simply because it paid more. Money speaks, and thanks to my student loans, I really had to listen.
The silver lining, I suppose, is that it’s forced me to learn how to be extra resourceful. I freelance on the side to make extra money to put toward interest each month. I can make a carton of eggs really stretch (hello, $1 pizza slice with an egg on top!), and I’ve learned how to keep myself entertained without cable. I live in a very modest, affordable apartment.
“When I do get a raise, and can afford to live a little more comfortably, I don’t.”
I’ve also joined coalitions to advocate for our country’s student loan policies, reaching out to lawmakers that support loan forgiveness programs.
But one of the biggest, most effective takeaways for chipping at away at my debt that is still considerable, but was once much more so, has been this: When I do get a raise, and can afford to live a little more comfortably, I don’t. I still live as frugally as possible, because every extra dollar put towards my loans will get me closer to financial freedom. And of course, I know I’m not struggling nearly as much as some, in the whole scheme of things, and this fits into a larger conversation about financial privilege and access to resources.
Still, the struggle is real, as they say. I’m aiming to pay my loans off over the next five years, fully knowing that it’ll mean living without any extras. And one day, I’ll get to a point where the mere act of making a financial decision is mydecision rather than something that’d dictated by my student loan. And that will be the most luxurious thing I could have ever given myself.