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.
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?”
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.