Thoughts on Student Debt

Probably you’re wondering what my college debt and my sobriety have to do with each other.

Until recently, I didn’t feel like they were really related.

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First, some background.

When I graduated high school I was very lucky to have choices. We didn’t have very much money, but I had gotten good grades throughout school and I had been involved in many extracurricular activities.

At the time, Nevada had a program that allowed local high school graduates to attend an in state school for almost nothing.

However, I was wanting to go into a specialized field of the arts, and I felt like I needed to go to a private out of state school.

I remember my dad sitting me down and trying to explain to me what it would mean if I chose to go out of state.

He explained compound interest to me, which I would likely be paying as I only qualified for some government student loans and would have to take out mostly privatized student loans in order to pay for the four years of schooling.

The numbers he showed me didn’t seem real. It was like fake money. I’d never had $500 much less tens of thousands.

I didn’t understand what it would feel like to be 21 and over $40,000 in debt.

So, against the gentle advice of my parents, I chose to leave home.

Now, I look back and I know it wasn’t just the ego of getting out of where I grew up. There were some really complicated things happening in my family at the time, and even if I’d stayed in Nevada for school, living at home wasn’t an option.

When I arrived at college out of state, I knew I’d need to get a part time job, as well as an assistantship, and that I wouldn’t have things many other students had like a family bank rolled credit card or a car.

Throughout college I did have multiple part time jobs and I kept my grades and activities up in order to retain my scholarships.

And I drank. I drank to forget the fact that I’d soon be in debt so deep that I could have put a couple of down payments on houses.

I didn’t want to face the fact that I’d made a decision that had consequences.

When I graduated I remember calling the loan companies to talk about repayment, and I took the minimum monthly payments. 2025 seemed so far away! Surely I’ll figure something out before then, right?

The first months out of college I had no financial safety net.

Both of my parents were not in a position to help me in my move to a big city across the country, so I took on multiple jobs and started my minimum payments.

And I drank, more than ever.

I felt so resentful.

I resented my friends who I saw taking low paying or unpaid artistic internships because they either didn’t have school debt or their parents were able to help them pay for expenses.

I resented my own parents for not being able to do the same.

Looking back, I wanted to blame everyone but MYSELF for a decision I made.

Granted, I’m not totally sure it’s the best practice to allow an 18 year old to go into that much debt, but nonetheless I knowingly made the decision.

For years, rather than face my debt head on, I drank and I shopped rather instead of paying extra on my student loans.

I resented those loans so much that I tried every way I could to ignore them.

But ignoring them didn’t make them go away.

Ten years into a lifestyle I couldn’t really afford–living in a big city, working low wage arts jobs, and drinking with abandon, I hit a wall.

I was so depressed.

Even though I had this great apartment, I had a great personal relationships and a spouse I loved dearly, I felt empty.

But this was the life I’d always wanted–working long hours for the sake of art, living in a city I could brag about, spending weekends up until all hours drinking with friends.

And something inside me said, “What if you were wrong? About all of it?”

“What if what you actually want is to pay off your debt, move back west, change your profession, and stop drinking?”

It felt terrifying to even imagine.

I didn’t know where to start.

I felt like a fraud and I hated my debt and I hated myself more than I ever had before.

Then, I got really lucky.

A few days after this self-questioning catharsis I got laid off.

That’s right, I got laid off from my ‘dream job’ and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My husband and I made plans that night to move home.

We’d wanted a family for years, but debt and lack of support had made it feel impossible.

A month later I was headed west (he had to finish out his work contract for a few months still) to start this new life.

I’ll be honest, the college loan thing still wasn’t on the top of my life.

Sobriety came first.

Building up a savings came second.

And the third piece of the puzzle, paying off college debt aggressively (which I am still in the midst of) came last.

To be married, in your thirties, trying to get sober, switching professions, and living with your mother for two years can be a lesson in humility to say the least.

During those two years I felt things begin to shift–if I could confront these issues, especially giving up drinking, maybe is was time to conquer my ultimate resentment–my student debt.

I started googling everything I could think of to find tips.

And as I’ve written about before, thank heavens I found Cait Flanders’ site.

She painstakingly and honestly catalogued how she paid off $30,000 of debt over a few years. AND SHE WAS SOBER.

In the past year I have made some major headway in my student debt.

I’m about 3/4 of the way there, and it’s a battle I still fight daily, trying to push back on the urge to spend my money on things and drinks…but I can say that so far it’s been worth it.

Yes, I’ve had to cancel trips.

Yes, I’ve had to turn down certain kinds of social events.

Yes, I’ve had to make changes in my professional path.

And yes, I’ve had to make changes in my personal life.

But it’s ALL been worth it.

Giving up alcohol helped me develop the tools to self examine in a way I could have never done before.

It taught me to sit with and in discomfort and get to the root of it, rather than numb it or ignore it.

I still have slip ups.

I have days where I want to blame someone else.

I have days where I want to buy things I don’t need (and sometimes do…)

I have days where I want to go to a bar and blow $60 on bourbon.

But the thing that keeps me from doing so is the past couple years of progress and the hope that one day, I’ll see that student loan balance at zero.

And something tells me when I see that zero, I won’t want to celebrate with a beer.

Something tells me I’ll want to celebrate by doing something free, like taking a walk with a friend in the mountains or going to the library or writing on this blog.

I’ll be sure to keep you posted when the day comes, even if it’s a few years down the road. <3

How about you? Have you found that your money and your sobriety are related?

And for more listening on others’ experience with student debt, check out WNYC’s Death Sex & Money podcast episodes here and here….


Thanks for reading and happy sobering friends!

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Student Debt

  1. Thank you for sharing this story!
    I never had debt from college, and so I was one of the lucky ones.
    And now that I am retired, I have even started my own savings account, away from our joint one!
    It makes me feel good I can pay my bills, and save, too!
    xo
    Wendy

  2. Really great post on so many levels! You should really be proud of how hard you worked in your life, and are still working to pay off the debt. While some kids do get full rides from their parents, I think it’s the ones like you who know what sacrifice and discipline are, who end up going further. Good for you! We can all look back and play armchair quarterback but all of our experiences mold us, make us who we are …..even if we have ended up doing something completely different than we ever thought we would be doing!

  3. It’s so hard to predict how your life will pan out when you’re 18. It’s great that you’ve managed to roll with the changes and have had the courage to take an honest look at possible options and run with them. The student debt levels in the US seem scary to me but the UK is catching up fast on that front. I also embrace minimalism and simple living because it allows me to prioritise time over earning money. It’s amazing how much cheaper life can be if we really think about what we’re purchasing. It sounds like you’re doing a great job on all fronts, life, sobriety, debt clearance etc. Hugs x

    1. thanks so much for your thoughts TOTW! it is so bogus that we have to make so many big life decisions when we are so young…and yes, it is amazing how much simpler life can be without all the spending…I still have to fight the urge, but with time and discipline it can get a bit easier! hope you have a great day today <3

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