The seventy thousand
The Biden administration announced their student debt relief program this week. Of course there are a lot of opinions on this, ranging from literal tears of relief to outright rage over liberals getting another handout. I’m one of those people who penny pinched for years to pay my loans off and I think this is a great idea. Strap in for a story.
It’s 2005 and you’re pretty good at making websites. You know people pay for this skill, but you can’t seem to get your foot in the door anywhere. Right now, you work at a gas station making $6.75 an hour. Your parents think a 20 year old needs to enroll in school or to get a job pay rent. There’s no discussion at all about any of it. It’s their way or the highway—literally.
You see, they’ve been told your entire life that college is the key to the success they’ve never been able to achieve. You’ve heard it from the time you were old enough to walk, from every teacher, mentor, family member, and sitcom you ever watched. Unlike those kids on TV though, you have no “college fund” and you have to pay for this yourself.
Sick of working a shitty job for $175 a week and forking over $50 of it for rent, you decide to enroll in school. There’s a local ITT campus about 40 minutes away that is offering Web Development degrees. That seems to be a closer fit to the work you hope to do one day than computer science. It’s also only 2 years instead of 4.
You randomly drive down to check it out after getting in another fight with your mom about that $50. Before you know it, you are asking questions like “what is my monthly payment going to be?” and not getting an answer. You’re only 20, and you’re too dumb to know that you should never sign a loan without knowing the monthly payment amount, and that they totally could have calculated it for you. You enroll anyway and wait a few days to tell your mom to fuck off on rent day. You’re in college now, baby! It surprises you that it causes an argument and she still expects the $50 that week.
Months pass. You realize that this school is pretty lame and you already know more than they are teaching. Like, a lot more. The stuff that is interesting, like Photoshop, is for the version from two years ago. You think about dropping out, but then your parents would just call you a drop out. So you keep your head down and pass the classes.
Randomly, financial aid people hunt you down to sign another set of paperwork. You don’t realize quite how much everything is costing, just that your other friends get access to the money to spend on things that aren’t directly through the school. Some of them managed to get cars and you’re driving a 25 year old shit box that leaks gas every time you turn left. These finance people mention you should try to pay some of the interest, if you can, to save money later. No one tells you how compound interest works or how much interest you’ve accrued so far.
You eventually get a tech support job in your field. You consider again whether you should continue with a degree that isn’t really teaching you much. If you got out now, you’d “only” owe about $20,000. But, you’d have to start paying immediately. Besides, having the degree will be worth it, you assure yourself. Everyone says college is the key to success, right? That looming payment is starting to scare you, but it’s still a year or so away.
You finally graduate and move into a web development role. Life is good for about 6 months! You’re living on your own and getting by. Until you wake up one day and get that first bill for $610 a month and it all comes crashing down.
You’re making about $39,000 a year, and seeing just about $1,000 in your paycheck every two weeks. In a panic you call the loan company and tell them you can’t pay what they want. They explain that they have options based on your income, and once you can verify your salary, they can bring it down to about $415 a month. You’re still panicking. That’s still a lot of money, but you aren’t going to argue with a $195 savings every month.
You make it work somehow for about year. You don’t realize that every month the balance on that loan is actually going up. By a lot. It’s probably a small blessing you don’t know yet.
One day you find out you’re done with your “easy” payment and now you have to pay $630 a month, no ifs, ands, or buts. Oh, and since you’ve not actually made any progress on the loan yet, you still have a full 120 payments to make. The year and half of payments you’ve made so far did fuck all for your actual loan balance.
You’re really struggling now. You know you can’t maintain even the modest lifestyle you’re used to, but you try anyway. Soon all of your bills are being paid late every month. They don’t seem too mad, so you’ve convinced yourself there are no consequences to this.
All of your credit cards are close to maxed, but you’re just above water. One day you foolishly spend $25 at the gas station on a card with a $945 balance. That puts you over $950. You don’t realize that “950” is the magic number your bank has arbitrarily decided is the max you get to spend on your $1,000 max credit card. They charge a $35 fee which puts you over your $1,000 limit. They charge you another $35 for that.
You’d probably be crying but you’re a man and men don’t cry. They deal with their own problems. You do the math and realize on the disposable income you have, it’ll take you 2 years to pay that card off. You try your best, but when the month is done, that card is still over its limit. The bank calls you 45 times in a single day before you can send them just enough to stop bothering you. You really want to take that cry, but you suck it the fuck up like a man.
You know you need to move back home to get out of the hole you’re in. It takes you about six months to finally admit to yourself. You feel like a shitty friend to your roommate. You feel like you’ve failed at 24 years old. And since you’re a dumb 24 year old, you also feel like it’s forever.
Moving home feels like a relief, for a bit. In spite of having a little extra money it’s still hard to put a dent in any of the debt. And every month, Sallie Mae is there to say “fuck you pay me”. You spend two years just barely scraping by. You don’t know it yet, but your credit score is pretty fucked because you have 7 months of 30 day late payments reported. Luckily you know you can’t afford a car loan yet, so your bad credit never actually bites you in the ass.
After a couple years, you land a new job making $60,000. Making 50% more money overnight feels absolutely life changing. Just 3 short months after starting you are finally caught up and can BREATHE! A few months after that and you have $1,000 in the bank for the first time ever.
You live a few years relatively stress free as far as finances are concerned. Still, it takes you another 3 years to fix your credit score, and another 4 after that for all the derogatory marks you had to clear. You’re thankful you didn’t really need to buy a house or car during this time.
You hear through the grape vine that the company you started at years ago wanted to pass on you because of the name ITT. Frustrated and sad, you quietly remove a black mark you never knew you had from your resume and LinkedIn. You’re still making those $630/month payments.
A few years later and you smile one day when you realize your net worth is a positive number for the first time in your life. You realize you’re even in a spot where you can finally pay down the last $3,500. You do it in one payment as one final small fuck you, as if the $30 they’d miss in interest somehow makes it all worth it.
In spite of finally have no large debts and a 6 month emergency fund, you still can’t shake the idea that you’re one surprise letter or phone call away from having it all taken away from you. Every time a car makes a noise or has a bad smell, you start to panic. Not that it’s ever your car… That sad 24 year old—with his leaky Civic and over-drafted credit card—is still inside of you a decade later just waiting to pop out and say “I fucking told you so, man!”
Fast forward another 4 years and you’re hearing rumors of student debt forgiveness. The idea kind of bugs you. You had to pay for your loans and it was fucking hard! Why are people pursuing basket weaving degrees anyway? Why is that your problem?
Ah well, you’re not really convinced the politicians will do anything—wait, did they just refund $3.2 billion with a b for recent ITT graduates?! You not only get no refund, but now that degree is really not something to advertise.
You wake up on a random weekday and read that Biden’s actually gonna do it. Your fiancée is almost in tears of relief now that her $25,000 has almost disappeared overnight. You read countless stories online of other people in similar or worse situations. You can feel the weight lifted from their shoulders.
You spend way too long writing a blog post about it. It’s kind of painful reliving those moments when you opened that first tuition bill and realized it was more than 30% of your take home pay; what a failure you felt like when a $25 gas station trip went sideways; how truly odd it was to wake up one day and feel financially stable for the first time in your life.
You realize it’s been 17 years and you still feel somehow broken from the entire ordeal. You’re not sure it’ll ever go away. You know half the people who read this will think you’re a privileged baby. But you publish it anyway, and you hope that maybe all those people you read about can feel normal themselves someday.