Today, for the first time in almost 7 years, I feel truly free. Earlier this morning, I clicked “Submit” on my final student loan payment — something I couldn’t have even fathomed a few years ago.
Many of my friends were fortunate enough to have had financial assistance from their parents to attend college, which is a luxury that I know nothing of. From the age of 18, it was crystal clear to me that I was 100% on my own, which was a blessing and curse. I knew that I had nothing to fall back on, but this also caused me to make decisions from a place of fear rather than from a place of confidence. This is by no means a sob story, nor did I have a crippling amount of debt like you read about in the news. In contrast to people with $100K+, my own $30K at times felt downright paltry, which, if you stop and really think about it, is really messed up.
As a 22 year old graduating in 2009 with a liberal arts degree, I was thrust into one of the most devastating economic environments in recent history. Some career twists and turns lead me from Boston, to San Francisco, and eventually to New York City, but every step of the way I felt a nagging student loan debt rain cloud hanging over my head. Knowing nothing of compound interest, and to some extent burying my head in the sand like an ostrich, I was stupidly unaware that the just-barely-over-the-minimum payments that I was making weren’t even putting a dent into my loan.
While I have no regrets about the path I’ve walked in life so far, I can’t help but hate the fact that I was forced to make concessions as to where I could live and what I could do. With my International Relations degree and a concentration in Latin American Studies, I had big dreams of moving to South America for a few years and joining an NGO after graduation. On the flip side, I was also entertaining the idea of joining the Peace Corps, or taking a year off to live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with a friend. But all of those dreams were dashed by a sense of fear that paralyzed me and prevented me from making one of those leaps, and lead me instead to explore a “safer”, more traditional, career path.
I don’t want to get into the politics of whether student loans are good or bad — to each his own, I say. I’m so incredibly grateful for the phenomenal education that I received at Colby College, and for the generous financial aid system at the school. Without the grants that I received, I probably would have been closer to $60K in debt upon graduation. However, I will say that the system as it currently stands is untenable. At the time I’m writing this, my alma mater’s yearly tuition is $63,330. That is double what I was making my first year out of college, and quite honestly makes me sick to my stomach knowing that some student today is taking on loans that will drastically affect his or her life for the next two decades to come.
Throughout the years, I’ve become accustomed to a constant sense of guilt when doing anything even remotely indulgent — eating at restaurants, taking trips, shopping for basic clothing and shoes, etc. That debt was like a shadow following me around, and I would dream of the day when I’d be rid of it once and for all. I also had to deal with feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment when my now husband and I started dating. He was debt free after immediately paying off his small student loan, the rest of his education having been covered by scholarships. I felt like a burden, and was ashamed by the financial baggage I thought I was bringing to the relationship.
I refused his numerous offers to pay off my loan (which would allow me to pay him back instead, interest-free), because I didn’t want to muddy our budding relationship with finances. It was my debt to pay, and pay it off I damn well was going to. Starting in 2012, I buckled down and became a budgeting pro — tracking every single cent that came in and went out in an Excel spreadsheet divided into income, variable expenses, and fixed expenses. I would forecast for the year based on projected income, and factor debt repayment into my budget every month. Tracking expenses was an invaluable tool in my debt-repaying arsenal, and is now a habit so strongly ingrained in me that I know I’ll continue to do it, albeit not as stringently as I have over the last 4 years.
For the past 6.5 years, I haven’t had one paycheck that was entirely mine — every month, I knew a huge chunk of it was going into someone else’s pocket. And you know what? That really f*$%#@! sucks.
But not anymore. The shackles that I’ve mentally and emotionally worn since graduation are finally broken. In a strange way, I’m thankful that I had this financial obstacle to overcome, as I developed some prudent money habits that I know will stick with me for life. But I’m even more thankful for the fact that as of today, I am 100% able to design the life that I want, free from guilt, fear, dread, worry, and indebtedness to someone else.