Student Loan Debts and A Mortgaged Future

Hayley: For richer, for poorer (and everything between)

I’ve often heard it said that finances are the biggest source of discord in most relationships. Like any couple, Nick and I have our fair share of disagreements, but when it comes to money, we’ve always been on the same side of the equation. For the vast majority of our relationship, neither of us had any money, so there was really nothing to fight about. When we were broke during law school, it didn’t bother us. We weren’t supposed to have money then, as we held down work-study jobs and muddled through the obligatory, marginally paid summer internships. Which bill should we pay first? Ramen Noodles or Easy Mac? These aren’t really questions we got particularly riled up over. We’d buy the food, we’d pay the bills to the best of our ability, and that was that. When Friday came and it wasn’t payday, Nick and I would pool our meager funds to buy a pack of hot dogs and a cheap bottle of wine, and hole up for the weekend watching DVDs and taking long walks. It was romantic! We were young! We had hot dogs and wine, and in a year we’d graduate and have salaries and be successful and laugh at these days of austerity.


But after graduation, it was different. As the student loan deferments ended and the lucrative legal jobs did not materialize, we decided to crash on my mom’s floor for a month or so while we looked for jobs. One month turned to two and two turned to six and before I knew it, we had been there almost a year and a half. We made the best of things while we struggled to find full-time, permanent jobs. I worked as a cashier at a sporting goods store (woeful lack of knowledge of baseball gloves and lacrosse equipment notwithstanding). Nick did his share bagging groceries, and we’d rejoice when he scored a Sunday shift (time and a half!) We babysat and did odd jobs and continued interning in our field in the meantime, to make connections and gain experience. And while we were smart enough to be grateful for jobs (any jobs) and a floor to crash on, it was a struggle to reconcile the dream we’d been sold (mortgaged by student loans) with the reality we were living.

No matter how hard we worked, it felt as though we were never getting ahead. If we were lucky, we’d break even, but many weeks we fell short of even that. Each month, I’d call my student loan provider to renegotiate my payments.

“You know, your monthly payment would go down if you had a kid,” the eager representative informed me.
“… Excuse me?”

“I’m not, like, suggesting that you do that… but it would lower your payments if you did.”

One of my more vivid memories from that time occurred at a stoplight. Nick and I were having a particularly awful week—more job interviews that hadn’t panned out, a hefty dental bill we hadn’t expected, a car break-in requiring a paycheck-worth of replacement windows. We were driving along quietly, each lost in our own anxiety-ridden thoughts, when this unbelievably depressing song by The Script came on the radio:

She needs me now, but I can’t seem to find the time.
I’ve got a new job now on the unemployment line,
And we don’t know how,
How we got into this mess; is it God’s test?
Someone help us ’cause we’re doing our best,
Trying to make it work but man, these times are hard…

There we were at a red light, in our barely-functioning old car, shuttling between an unpaid internship and a minimum-wage night job that would not quite cover our food costs for the week. And we both burst out hysterically laugh-crying because man, these times are hard, and how did we get here, and why is this song so terrible?

It was incredibly frustrating, feeling as though we had mortgaged our future. We went to the good schools, we got the good grades. We even struggled through balancing the unpaid internships that were supposedly prerequisites on the path to successful careers, with the minimum wage jobs we needed to support ourselves in the meantime. It wasn’t that we felt entitled to be making more money—it was just that we felt so stupid for thinking the outcome of all that hard work would have been worth it financially.

“Generation overleveraged”

We’re not alone in this mess, of course. We’re just two of the nearly forty million Americans with student loan debt, part of what USA Today has dubbed “Generation Overleveraged.” We, and our financially beleaguered peers, postpone big purchases like cars, or have to shy away from entrepreneurship and small business ownership, and are often forced delay homeownershipOne study found that “over a lifetime of employment and saving, $53,000 in education debt leads to a wealth loss of nearly $208,000.” Ouch.

Even as our day-to-day financial situation has stabilized, I can’t shake the feeling of underlying financial anxiety, and I’m not sure I ever will. Our collective student loan debt, for a combined fourteen years’ worth of higher education, seems insurmountable at times, as we chip away at it month by month and never seem to make a dent. I try to focus on the positive—at least I am now in a position to make my monthly payment without the requisite painful phone call to Sallie Mae—but if I think too hard about the grand total, I break into a cold sweat. Financial goals I thought we’d have reached by now—retirement savings that’s not pocket change, an emergency fund, the beginnings of a down payment for a house—simply seem unattainable.

“for richer” (By comparison, anyway)

I don’t want to live our lives feeling like we’re playing a never-ending financial catch-up game, but in weaker moments, I can’t help but feel like a failure for all we haven’t accomplished, and overwhelmed by all the milestones that still seem so far out of reach. I know we can’t change the financial choices we made in the past, and who knows if we would have made the same choices, knowing what we know now? It’s slightly comforting to remember that the economic outlook was a lot rosier when we decided to go to law school, but the long-term ramifications of graduating into “arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than thirty years” sting all the same. All we can do at this point is grit our teeth and make the best of things going forward. (Though I do joke to Nick, “I wish I could have met you somewhere less expensive.”)

The scrappy part of me feels pretty damn proud of how far we’ve come, despite the fact that barely half of our graduating class found full-time, long-term legal jobs within nine months of graduation. We’re saddled with a hell of a lot of student loan debt, sure, but we’re finally employed as (full-time! permanent!) attorneys, and incredibly grateful to be standing on our own two feet financially. We’ve got enough saved now that we can weather a minor crisis, like a busted tire or even a last-minute flight for a family member’s medical emergency, and still pay our rent on time. It’s an enormous relief to be able to make an immediate doctor’s appointment when I’m sick, instead of waiting until my next paycheck, when the twenty dollar copay will be less of a burden.

Looking back on times when we didn’t have these luxuries is a constant reminder to be thankful for all we have now. I chastise myself when I find a stray five-dollar bill tucked in the pocket of my jeans, because it wasn’t long ago when five bucks would have made an enormous difference in our week. When we recall the stomach-churning anxiety of being unable to make a scheduled payment, it’s easy to find a sense of pride in just being able to keep up with our current bills. Weathering a period of intense financial instability early in our relationship gave us an invaluable sense of perspective—I just wish that gratitude wasn’t tinged with the ever-present fear of going through it all again. (Or worse. We did not have a kid, a pet, or even a houseplant to consider the first time around, much to the chagrin of my student loan representative.)

I try to think of those earlier, tougher times as a badge of honor, or a security blanket for our future. After all, we’ve done “for poorer” once already, and I know we can get through it again, laugh-crying all the way. I’m just holding out hope that it won’t be necessary.

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