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Monday, October 25, 2021

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News + PoliticsOpinionI finally paid off my student loans at 40. No one should...

I finally paid off my student loans at 40. No one should go through this

Not even winning on 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' helped me outrun Navient and condescending bootstrapper-types


Back in 2006, I finished my Master’s degree. On March 9 of this year, I turned 40. And on March 10, I paid off my student loans.

If that timing sounds a bit too neat, I will admit right at the top that yeah, it is. I basically paid off most of the principal last fall, but since my loans always came due on the 10th of every month, I realized last October that I could let the auto-pay take care of things and I would enter a new decade of my life without owing another cent to Navient. So after shelling out $1,000 or more in a given month, my final five payments were a mere $172. That was manageable, something like an outrageously pricey cell-phone or the payment on a 1986 Toyota Celica.

To avenge his father’s death, Íñigo Montoya spent 20 years looking for the six-fingered man, and for me, it’s been a decade-and-a-half quest to get out from under this. Especially when I was sloshing through my lowest financial ebbs—one after the long tail of the 2008 recession and the next in 2014 after I forced myself to freelance more and bartend less—my loans were the defining feature of my 20s and 30s, the cause of all the things I couldn’t afford and the source of all the negative space that creates.

The author at 23, with only an inkling of what lay ahead

I remember the infinite little compromises that being Coinstar-broke entailed: the gas-station top-offs, the two-buck upchuck, the stolen Muni rides, the jeans with torn crotches I wouldn’t let myself replace yet, and the Refinery 29 hate-reads about Millennials with entry-level PR gigs who agonized over not being able to join a vacation-share in the Hamptons with the squad, but whose grandparents provided the down payment for a condo. If I’m being honest with myself, one of the reasons why I was hesitant to come out as non-binary until comparatively late in life is that making the changes I want to see costs money—money that I didn’t start to have until very recently.

I think I owed approximately $88,000 when I turned in my thesis in May 2006. (Let’s be frank, though: Doctors, attorneys, and many others frequently graduate with three times that.) I’ve tried to calculate the exact amount I owed only to find that it’s lost to digital decay, since before Navient, it was Sallie Mae, and Discover—and I dimly recall Citibank in there somewhere—but all their online records don’t back that far. 

I don’t even know how much I’ve paid in total, but it is well over six figures, essentially all of it from a two-year Master’s program in American Studies at NYU, plus the extra loans I took out to pay my rent and live. I remember the angst of being in the Metropolitan Bar in Williamsburg with friends the night I got a notice saying I would owe approximately $450 per month starting in 60 days and running basically forever, as almost all of that would be interest. (My rent was $600 at the time, I worked a data-entry job, and I was all about those two-for-one bar chips.)

Later, as a useless peon at the ACLU, I worked many humid nights cater-waitering tacky weddings in Westchester just to make those initial, existentially pointless payments. When I won $50,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a third of that serviced my debt. 

Since then, I’ve alternated between being an industrious little amortizer and a shirker in near-despair. Shortly after moving to California just as the world came crashing down in September 2008, I put it all into deferment (in which no interest accrues) and after that grace period ran out, into forbearance (in which it does). Just before my 30th birthday, the polite notices began arriving, then the passive-aggressive ones, and then the calls started up. When your phone blows up daily from 6am onward because the outbound call center dogging you runs on Eastern time, it really tests the tensile strength of your ability not to scream at the hapless working-class folks on the other end.

“What are you going to do?” I asked one person after getting denied a 30-day reprieve. “Repossess my education?”

The author on the very cusp of 40, onerous load lightened and fancy-free.

December 2014 was the turning point. I worked my last bartending shift just before Xmas and became a full-time freelancer. The next month, I started a spreadsheet plotting out how I would pay off what was then seven loans totaling $56,779, with the monthly interest alone at $109. Then came the boring part: I just sucked it up and did it for 60-odd months. I’m very fortunate that I could.

Not everyone is so lucky. Lots of people don’t finish their degree. They get pregnant, they get married, they get laid-off. Their spouse gets sick and they fall prey to nightmarish medical bankruptcies and protracted fights with anonymous insurers whose pure evil obliterates anything Navient ever could do to you. 

But behind every for-profit college and every shady actor promising boundless upward mobility in exchange for a little elbow grease, Congress has been there.

Student debt is classified “nondischargeable,” the equivalent of child support and taxes themselves. You can’t get rid of it in a personal bankruptcy. If you reach 67, and not everyone does, they’ll garnish your Social Security to get repaid. If you die, they’ll take your estate to probate and extract a posthumous pound of flesh from your corpse. As with cannabis being a Schedule 1 substance, this is a grotesque miscategorization enshrined in federal law.

And occasionally, people will look down on you with a specific kind of haughty pity, as if you were Mathilde in Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace,” condemned to a lifetime of dishpan hands just to save face for a debt you had no business incurring.

But now reform is on the table. Betsy DeVos is out of the picture, some tens of thousands of defrauded students are getting full restitution, and the Biden administration, despite moving slower than the speed of an executive order, isn’t letting Navient et al. snatch anyone’s tax refunds and is moving inexorably toward some relief. Genuine change feels possible. I remember groaning at the beginning of the Trump administration that I was on target to pay off my loans at the very moment when Democrats could plausibly regain power. That’s almost exactly what happened, but I’m not groaning anymore. I’m elated that I’m done!

Naturally, a predictable online chorus greets these objectively positive developments with broadsides against the “entitled” young people who made “bad decisions”—as if every single adult in most 18-year-olds’ lives weren’t encouraging them to go beyond high school, or as it capitalism itself weren’t premised on us financing our futures via debt.

They don’t seem as transparently bot-like as the Euro-troll anti-vaxxers swarming The New York Times’ Facebook page for every story about Moderna, but these people are just as insipid. It’s usually some die-hard, up-by-the-bootstraps ideologue, the kind of person who screams, “I pay your salary!” to every elected official—and who’s probably lying that he never had any help in any area of life, because he just wants a platform to fume about the hypothetical possibility that someone less deserving might get something he didn’t. The word “sheep” will invariably be used, like an ovine corollary to Godwin’s Law.

Sadder still, these people almost always express contempt for college, for learning, for the whole thing. It’s a tell. That person is saying, “My life didn’t turn out how I wanted it to.” Well, I wrote my M.A. thesis on masculinity and empire in evangelical Christian pop culture, and I wouldn’t say that that necessarily opened doors for me, but I certainly don’t feel screwed by higher ed itself. I feel for people who do, even when they channel that righteous rage into the standard Trumpy grievances. (Although I sometimes get just as sanctimonious in the comments as anyone clashing with an anti-college troll who can’t spell.)

I have no love for New York University, which is basically a real estate behemoth with some auxiliary teaching duties, a steroidal Academy of Art. Several weeks ago, I got a call from my alma mater hoping to drum up donations among alumni. As with the nasal call-center nags hounding me for nonpayment a decade ago, I know this polite-sounding student was merely reading her script off a screen. So I heard her out. But when I said that I’m not giving NYU any money, ever, her reply was a pained “understanding that times are tough right now.” I almost wanted to speak with her supervisor, so they could rewrite that condescending prompt. But I realize that that well-intentioned little shit might owe even more money than I ever did.

In the meantime, I’m 40 and debt-free—except for my credit card, which now has a balance once again, since I’m 40 and I bought myself a fancy bike. I use a somewhat different name, I’m in the best shape of my life, and I feel optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time. Upon exiting the revenge business after 20 years, Íñigo Montoya considered a life of buccaneering as the new Dread Pirate Roberts. As for me, I’m no marauder, although I guess I’m officially saving for retirement.

That’s hardly some singular, all-encompassing life goal, though, so I’m also working to develop a firmer butt.

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  1. @zsrunner I’m with you on that. College is mostly a scam and loans are con jobs perpetrated on very young people, and therefore I think we should have a debt jubilee, or allow them to declare bankruptcy just like any other debt. My degree was pretty much worthless career wise – I ended up learning computers on my own and being trained on the job. Thank God I didn’t incur any debt for a history degree! LOL.

  2. 88,000 in debt for what? The author is right, no one should go through this. The issue however comes down to choices. We choose our debts.

    I’m nearly 40 and it’ll be a good few years before I finish paying off my debt. I earned athletic scholarships, wasted them, failed out, attended Junior College, wasted more time chasing a degree I didn’t need, became a tradesman in 2008 and wanted fit ready work for the next few years. When an opportunity arose to finish my bachelor’s degree, I took it, along with more debt. And when I realized that degree wouldn’t get me the kind of life I wanted, I went back and got a master’s degree as well.

    I found ways to pay out of pocket so I wouldn’t incur more debt. I did this because I knew the career that I wanted would never make me wealthy. And since then, I’ve lived a modest lifestyle with my wife. Our collective debt was somewhere in the range of 130,000. We’re now looking at paying off the rest of our debts in a few years.

    Complaining about your debts won’t make them go away. Teaching young people the real value of education will reduce the burden of debt on college grads. College shouldn’t be free. It should be affordable, and guess what… It is. We need to stop complaining about the consequences of the poor choices we’ve made in our lives and start teaching others how to avoid the mistakes that we’ve made.

  3. Interest rates for both federal and private student loans should be capped at a very low rate. I’m willing to payoff the principal but the high interest rates are infuriating. I find it funny that the anti-loan forgiveness crowd doesn’t seem to care much that the military-industrial complex feels entitled to waste and “lose” billions of dollars every year. I would love it if my taxes went to forgiving loans instead of an F-35 that we end up selling to Saudi Arabia. What’s the point of funding the “best military in the world” if there isn’t much left to defend but the rich?

  4. Wow, do you guys have anything better to do than judge what type of education a sought?

    What a bunch of entitled whiners

  5. I have $0 in student loan debt. I’ve never taken a student loan. I’ll be graduating with a master’s degree in November.
    I have sympathy for people who take on too many student loans to get degrees that don’t typically pay much. While I do sympathize, I also find it pathetic that someone can’t foresee issues with the debt they’re taking on as they’re coming. I have attended 8 different colleges to get my degrees. Each one was accredited and notoriously cheap per credit hour. I finished 60 credit hours in 12 months while working full time, rehabbing a house, and carrying for a stay home mom and 5 kids. I’ll be 40 in a week. I graduated cum laude, so maybe I just get it a little better… congratulations on paying off your loans!

    College should not be free. Free means someone is either acting as a slave or everyone is taxed so that someone can make poor education choices. When you make it “free,” people will invariably go after valueless degree fields. You value things you have to earn. If your degree doesn’t earn you the living you want, perhaps you need a different job, place to live, degree, or all three.

    I got 1 scholarship I was able to use and one I turned down. My scholarship was for $500. My parents gave me $500. Everything else, I worked for. Community College was super cheap. It went from $11/ hour to $37. All total, all my undergrad costs were about $8k. My master’s program is a pay for time and go at your own pace program that’s under 6k/ year and I’m finishing it in 1 year. All total, I’ll have spent less than 15k on my college education. My degrees are business management with a focus on entrepreneurial management and organizational leadership. Bootstraps… mine have been laced for a long time!

    I’m happy you got your loans paid off, but you have no one but yourself to blame for how long it took you to pay them off. That part, you’ll get no sympathy from me. I also loved during 2008… you and I are within 1 year of each other. We just made different choices. Now go make your degree count…

  6. @ peterastridkane no I was replying to the whining 40 year old boy who is kvetching about his student loans but it pertains to your comment too. Easy to dismiss criticism as being “privileged “ but I don’t have vast wealth, just a modicum of assets that I have tried to deploy smartly. I also majored in liberal arts but had the good sense not to attend graduate school after seeing how expensive it was and the amount of debt that I would have to take on. Personally I think that we should have a debt jubilee for all student loans but going forward society should focus on education in practical terms; we have a surfeit of grievance studies majors. Hope that makes sense.

  7. @aogilmore You replied to Marke but I’m pretty sure you meant me. Also it was passive-aggressive of me to talk about you in paragraphs 16-17 without mentioning you by name. Thank you for introducing yourself. Enjoy your vast wealth, and your afternoon!

    @willy As an undergrad, I majored in English and political science. Not anthropology. I took one anthro class as an elective thinking it would be fun but it wasn’t and I got a B-

  8. @ Marke oh okay so you went and got a GRADUATE degree in something useless. That’s much better. I’m sure that you majored in something practical and you swimming in student loans until the age of 40 is just an unfortunate coincidence… you’re such a man child. When I was 40 not too long ago I was counting assets not debt. You are a poster child for why students should avoid debt, in fact.

  9. College should be free. But a master’s program in anthropology or whatever? Not so much.

  10. @Marke B. The Pandemic recession happened 14 years before he graduated. I don’t agree that education beyond High School should be free. Sorry if that offends you.

  11. @aogilmore What do you mean “major in”? This was grad school. Do you know what you’re talking about? Also I sell discount coffee cakes down at the shopping center now. My parents didn’t teach me that. Fun.

    @bobkoelle yes, these were private loans. The feds only give you so much, and I quasi-remember that I had no option but to pay the federal loans off first, private ones later. I also consolidated the private loans at some point, but these sort of nitty-gritty details were both lost to the sands of time and don’t really hustle the narrative along, so I didn’t want to go overboard. I hope you and your wife made it through the process!!

  12. @aogilmore what an incredibly privileged response — guess you forgot that there was a total recession that wiped out the job market that the world (except for you apparently) is still recovering from, and that predatory lending is still going unchecked. College should be free for everyone, and it’s not a job factory—even doctors and lawyers struggle with debt. But keep on judging, which is something your parents should have taught you to refrain from. Shame.

  13. I think one should major in something that will make some money before taking on a lot of debt? Surprised your parents didn’t teach you that. Shame.

  14. My wife’s Masters degree student loan debt story, amounts and all, matches the author’s pretty closely, and while we were just getting by, we knew the one thing we could never cut back on was that payment. Even landlords had more flexibility.
    I have to question one point however. “If you die, they’ll take your estate to probate and extract a posthumous pound of flesh from your corpse.” That’s not the experience I had (not with my wife). Is this a reference to certain private loans? https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/death
    Thank you.

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