12 People Talk Honestly About How They Paid Off Their Debt
“When I made the final payment, I actually felt shame. I should be happy, but it seems like a lot of my cohort paid theirs off like a decade or more ago?"
For all the years I’ve been in debt, I’ve devoured stories of people who somehow managed to get out of it. The vast majority of them quite frankly made me feel like shit: For these people, becoming debt-free was a simple matter of cutting out Starbucks and toning down your online shopping habit. But none of those things would make a dent in my insurmountable pile of student debt — or the debt of most people I know. I wanted to read detailed, deeply honest stories of paying off debt. The budgeting aspect was interesting to me, but even more interesting were the larger questions of assistance (Who helped you? Who paid the phone bill? Who paid the rent?) and how paying down debt made people feel.
What you’ll find below is a collection of stories, culled from the hundreds of responses, with various motivations, strategies, and outcomes. The sacrifices people made to pay off their debt might not surprise you. But the reaction those same people had to finally paying off that debt likely will.
Puerto Rican, New York City
$102K in student debt
Time to pay off: Six years
I researched how to get out of debt and discovered the snowball/avalanche method. My first job out of school (three months after I graduated) was $40K (up to $80K over my loan journey), and I vowed to pay more than the minimums on them until I was done.
I lived with roommates in shitty places around Manhattan and with an ex-boyfriend in the Bronx and then Washington Heights. With the exception of my phone bill paid for by my parents, I never had help paying my debt or any other kind of bill or finances. I was lucky to not have kids, which made it easier to do side gigs, which is how I was able to pay the last $32K of my debt in eight months. I dog-walked, freelance wrote after my day job, and babysat.
I feel like having debt dictated all the decisions I made, especially the jobs I took. It dictated the immense anxiety I had when I was laid off. I lived so far from work, and my commute took a toll on me every day. I felt guilty when I did do things (like vacation) to make myself happy. It made me resent my partner for not having debt.
My life was decent during the first five years of payoff, but the last eight months of killing myself to pay it off really took a toll on me. My relationship with my boyfriend took a backseat. I couldn't exercise anymore. Any personal project for work or myself (like writing a book) I wanted to do was impossible. Debt came first. I also feel like I missed out on the opportunity to save for a home, something my boyfriend got to do right out of college because he had no debt. Sometimes I think if I didn't have debt to think about, I'd have a book or something by now.
"I had become addicted to working side gigs, which isn't a thing I ever knew existed, but I've had to actively work to gain back my mental health and free time without feeling bad for it."
I'm very open about my debt. I chronicled my journey on Instagram stories and I had a funeral photoshoot when I paid it off that went viral. It felt like a relief — but it was also terrifying. Debt was all I had ever known as a working adult. I was scared it would come back and I was scared I wouldn't know how to manage my life without it. I had become addicted to working side gigs, which isn't a thing I ever knew existed, but I've had to actively work to gain back my mental health and free time without feeling bad for it. I was also angry. I had to pay back $27K more than I originally borrowed due to interest rates that are higher than a mortgage. It's not OK.
I'm all for debt forgiveness, but I don't think it alone will solve the problem. We need to attack the issue at its core: predatory private lenders with high interest rates, tuition hikes, and the lack of education an 18-year-old gets making such a huge financial decision. The system is broken and it's time we vote for lawmakers who are committed to fixing it in its totality.
White, upstate New York
$90K in high-interest student debt
Time to pay off debt: 12 years, but paid off in two
I'm white and grew up upper-middle class. Important to my debt story is that my husband is black, from a low-income immigrant family, and we've had completely joint finances since 2006.
When my husband and I met 14 years ago, he had $90,000 worth of student loan debt with high interest. I came from a more financially privileged situation than he did, so I had no student debt. We also both worked low-level nonprofit jobs, so we simply paid the minimum on it for 10 years.
For 10 years, we'd been just paying the minimum and not thinking about it much. In late 2015, we moved to a lower-cost-of-living city and started making a little more money, and decided it was a good time to reevaluate our finances — particularly as we had an infant son to think about. Also, the debt had been a thorn in the side of our marriage and we wanted to stop fighting about it and problem-solve.
When we checked the balance, it was still $71,000!!! The interest rate was so high, we'd barely made a dent. We decided to live like monks and put every extra cent toward the debt until it's done.
Our combined gross salary when we started this project was $132,000. Near the end, I got a new job with about a $25,000 bump in salary, and the whole bump went toward the loans, accelerating our payoff. But we also began using YNAB to obsessively track and allocate every penny. We didn’t buy new clothes unless absolutely necessary, we didn’t go out to dinner, we didn’t travel. Absolutely zero discretionary spending. Our grocery bill was $250 a month for a family of three. It turned out travel was the thing I missed the most, so we learned how to hack credit card points and we did end up taking a couple of inexpensive international trips during those two years.
There’s a real mental load to budgeting and living frugally. Making your own yogurt to save $15/month makes a person really reflect on how much mental effort it takes to save money. Stopping all extra spending makes you pay attention to what you miss and what you don't. During this time, I learned that I did not really need to frequently amass material possessions to be happy. It also made me aware of how much money food can cost if you aren't careful.
"Stopping all extra spending makes you pay attention to what you miss and what you don't."
People in less fortunate financial situations take on student loans for the most honorable reasons — to better their circumstances, to learn, and to be productive members of society. When you think of it that way, the interest rate on our loan was downright predatory. I think our country and economy would be far better off if student loan debt was forgiven. Getting out of this crushing debt was an empowering accomplishment, but we had the means to do it (and not many people do). I am quick to mention the degree of privilege it takes to embark on this journey: I was in a stable place in my life; I’m educated. If we had the stressors of poverty and lacked time and resources to learn, we wouldn't have been able to do this.
When we made the final payment, we felt this incredible elation that took months to wear off. We felt even more in love with each other because we accomplished this as a team and it brought us closer together. We felt so empowered, like we wondered what more could we do: If we kept living this way, could we retire young?
Black, North Carolina
$35K in undergraduate loans
Time to pay off debt: two years
Back during college, I had the foresight to question my future job security as an English major and wanted to avoid a future balance made untenable by compounded interest. I taught on the tenure track for two years at $46K yearly, paying $1K–$2K monthly against the principal. I walked to and from campus because I didn’t have a car. I lived a very minimalistic lifestyle (no furniture, nightlife, vacations). I worked a second teaching job netting an extra $4K each summer. I liquidated my little 401(k) and paid it, too, toward my student loans. The campus HR kept insisting “Are you sure?” during my exit interview, and it was a bitch persuading TIAA to pay it out.
Paying off the debt felt athletic, militaristic — like lopping off great gobs of obstacle every time I mailed a check and got back a receipt with a greatly diminished balance. It was the only thing about that time period that felt worth something.
"I liquidated my little 401(k) and paid it, too, toward my student loans."
I feel sad, especially for kids who feel shook and vulnerable. I never felt stressed or fearful while conquering my student loan debt. I can’t imagine dealing with debt stress and child-rearing or elder care, for example.
Looking back, I should have invested in a car for transportation to attend professional networking events and visit friends out of state. I have no friends or job now and a rapidly shrinking savings account. Each year it seems there’s a transformation of society’s basic expenses, the type and cost of necessities. It’s too easy to mismanage one’s money. I’ve bought small Etsy purchases ($20 or under) that upon arrival I realized I could live without, been suckered into monthly donating to 2020 candidates, bought classroom supplies or food for students before I quit teaching public school, owed an ER $3K because I wasn’t low income enough for Obamacare. What do I know about money, job security, or the future?
Sometimes I wonder how many otherwise talented, but aging, pre-AARP people live in multigenerational households and are not on disability. Even with love, support, and family generosity, there’s friction, shame, and disillusionment.
African American, Austin
$70K in student loans and car payments
Time to pay off debt: 18 months
My husband and I took Financial Peace University (a Dave Ramsey course) about two years into our marriage. The philosophy and framework were pretty easy to understand, and there's a big push to become debt-free.
We organized our debts from smallest to largest and paid off the smallest one first. From there, the money that we were using to make payments toward our smallest loan went to our next smallest until that one was paid off. Then we rerouted that payment to our next smallest until everything was paid off. It's called the "snowball method."
We made tough choices (cutting out any additional shopping, couponing like crazy), but being dual-income without children was a major factor. In addition to working full time, I started a side hustle during that time to generate extra income as well. We didn't have any external help from family or anyone else.
We allocated a certain amount of cash to everything weekly, and once it was spent, it was spent. Pretty much any other income went to the debt. it made me feel very emotionally connected to money in a way I never had when I just swiped my card. Using cash to pay for everything was also very challenging. There are actually places that will not accept cash, and counting out change in the grocery line has the potential to upset folks in line behind you. It felt archaic, but it also was a big driver in our ability to control our spending.
"EVERYTHING is more expensive when you're broke, and trying to aggressively pay off debt is not high on a lot of people's priority list (for good reason)."
The biggest sacrifice was really just a collection of small sacrifices. We survived and we were fine, so I really don't know that there were any huge sacrifices to speak of. Quality of life was fine. We ate, we slept well, we had date nights still. It worked out.
I became a bit obsessive about it while we were paying it off. I actually considered getting a third (!) side hustle to try to pay it off faster. I talked about it to everyone who listened because I felt like I'd had some kind of...epiphany?
Now, I'm a little more careful and MUCH more empathetic when I talk about it. I know what it is to be broke. I know that EVERYTHING is more expensive when you're broke, and trying to aggressively pay off debt is not high on a lot of people's priority list (for good reason).
Talking to people helps normalize debt. I paid off all of my debt, and I'd be thrilled if no one else ever had to.
Approximately $200K in undergraduate and graduate loans between self and husband
Time to pay off debt: 10 years
When I started law school in 2006, the economy was booming. By the beginning of my final year, in 2008, the recession hit. Job offers got rescinded, starting salaries got slashed, and people who didn't have an offer at all were absolutely screwed. From the start, I knew a few things about my situation: 1) I had a good job offer for a law firm in Ohio, where my husband and I are from but generally desperately wanted to leave, to practice in an area of law I wasn't that passionate about; and 2) my debt was non-chargeable in bankruptcy and potentially life-ruining and not something we'd be able to pay if I lost my job.
I ended up back in Ohio, just grateful to have a good, high-paying job, and prioritized paying off my law school debt from day one, mostly out of the fear that my job would disappear and we'd be totally screwed. I have no financial support from my family, and I had felt like I had had a sword hanging over my head until we recently paid off the student loans three months ago.
It's funny, I feel a little guilty even filling out this survey about my debt. I don't think I have had to "sacrifice" as much as others; I'm not deprived. I still eat out and get coffee with regularity — two things our financial aid counselors suggested cutting out at our exit session right before graduation.
Instead, I took a difficult and stressful job that pays very well, but that I'm not particularly passionate about, in a low-cost-of-living area and have lived strictly within our means. We did buy a house, but it's small, and, because of the cost of living in my area is so low, the mortgage was MUCH less than my monthly student loan payments (almost $2,000 per month vs. $1,200). We budget monthly (using YNAB) and don't travel extensively. I prioritized my high-interest loans monthly, and anytime we came into extra money (e.g., bonuses from work), it would go toward the student loans.
"The amount of money I borrowed was more than any of the cost of any of the houses my parents have ever lived in."
I have two kids in daycare, and we sent them to a much cheaper in-home daycare for the first few years of their lives (that I had some misgivings about) to save additional money. It ended up being fine, but I've always hated that we made the "economical choice" for their care because despite making a good salary, we had all this stupid debt. Also, I married young-ish, so I always had the backstop of my husband's income to support us if necessary.
I had these ideas about what I wanted to do with my law degree. I went to law school expecting to go into a career in politics in DC or do public interest in another big city. I came from a family with zero lawyers, so I really had no context for what my life would look like after. My whole life plan altered. I felt like (and still believe) there was really only one path, and that's what I took. I don't regret it — my life today is good. I'm happy. I have a good husband, great kids. I'd be lying if I said I felt fulfilled being a corporate lawyer. I'm stressed out, short-tempered, and bored with my surroundings. The older I get the more entrenched we are and the more restless I feel. Maybe it was cowardice, but at the time it truly felt like I had no options. And I was a lucky one!
I had internalized that it was worth doing ANYTHING to fund my education. I don't think I really understood debt — the amount of money I borrowed was more than any of the cost of any of the houses my parents have ever lived in. My parents didn't go to college. I made some stupid decisions, like turning down a couple of full scholarships to law school to go to the "best" one I could. Just saying that makes me want to vomit.
I thought paying off my loans would be amazing relief and that I would be elated. And it is, but it isn't? I feel a little mad — like somehow I was tricked? I tricked myself? I've always felt like I should have been smarter and not put myself in this position. I looked forward to paying it off for years, but, if anything, paying it off made me angrier at myself for ever having it in the first place.
All my debt talk to others would be student-loan focused. You should talk to some recent college graduates about their debt and their approach to school funding, especially if you don't have parents who went to college. The axiom "don't borrow what you can't afford" doesn't make sense to a high schooler — they can't afford anything. Don't go to graduate school because you have a liberal arts degree and don't know what else to do and have always been good at school.
Debt is not a personal failing. You don't have to feel as if you have to punish yourself to pay it off more quickly. Have your avocado toast or your latte and live your life.
With that said, my experience in law school and as a lawyer has opened my eyes to the reality of our American brand of capitalism and the way that privilege and familial wealth begets privilege and familial wealth. I truly had no idea. I still feel like a visitor in a world to which I don't belong. It's just an overwhelming problem to which I see no solution.
$50K in medical debt, student debt, fees from undergrad and grad school, and car loan
Time to pay off debt: three years
My situation was anomalous, I suspect. I finished undergrad in 2008, as the economy was crashing. I continued on with grad work, but at the same time, I had a botched back surgery and everything in my life changed immediately. I was only able to work 15 hours a week, adding to the pile of debt. But my back surgery also led to me getting out of debt, after I applied for and was approved for disability.
I started earning ~$750 a month in Social Security disability and supplemental income, which I have lived on since. But gaining disability also made me eligible for federal student loan forgiveness. The private loans I had taken out were my responsibility, and I defaulted — but when those loans went to court, a lawyer was able to help me get them written off. A friend helped me make my car payments so I could keep the car, which was necessary given my disability, and assisted with medical expenses before I got on disability. I moved in with a partner and paid no rent for over a year. But I still have $15,000 in credit card debt that I am not paying on due to the fact that I live on about $800 in disability benefits per month.
"I internalized that debt made you an irresponsible, bad human being. But everyone I knew was in debt."
I grew up with parents who were poor and always in debt. I internalized that debt made you an irresponsible, bad human being. But everyone I knew was in debt. Once I had debt of my own, I was extremely hard on myself. I told myself I was just like my parents. That I made mistakes, that I didn't work hard enough, that I didn't plan. Of course, I realize now how much the economy had to do with this as well as my own bad luck with my back.
Today, I am as limited by being poor as I am by being disabled — no travel, no events like concerts or shows, no big purchases. And because the government forgave my loans, I don't feel like I did anything to achieve it, and that makes me feel lousy. While I am relieved that those loans were forgiven, I do feel guilty that someone is picking up the tab for an education I gained. I also feel like I made a mistake leading to my back surgery that ultimately fell on the government to correct. When I paid off my car, I thought I would feel a sense of satisfaction and relief, but I really just felt indebted to the friend who helped.
I wish I had known so many things going into adulthood. I wish I'd come from a family that talked about debt and had educated me on finances. I wish someone had given me advice about credit cards. Free T-shirts in exchange for applying for a credit card is a TERRIBLE idea. I also wish I had considered things like the state of the economy upon graduation or the possibility of life throwing me a curveball when I began acquiring debt. It's okay if you have debt. You aren't a terrible person. It's okay if the debt you have was because of a situation out of your control or something that was necessary for survival. People who need loan forgiveness are not a drain on society. They have much to give, but they can't give it while buried in debt.
Some people are in terrible situations where debt forgiveness can allow them to regain a life. Often living with debt over your head isn't living at all.
Half Mexican, half white, San Francisco
$8K in credit card debt and unpaid bills
Time to pay off debt: two years
I don’t have the most dramatic amount of debt, but it took a lot of luck for me to see a path forward. When you’ve got debt and have a mental illness like depression, making small changes every day is overwhelming. I got a steady job after moving from gig to gig off Craigslist, and suddenly could see a path out of an abusive relationship. Getting rid of my debt became the first step in undoing the damage that relationship did on my life.
I inherited $18,000 from my grandma and used it to dump my boyfriend and move out. Around the same time, I was working 60-hour weeks and was offered a raise from $25,000 a year to $55,000. (I had asked for $35,000 a year, coming from retail. My tech industry employer laughed at me — getting out of debt can be empowering and humiliating at the same time.) I cut my life expenses in half by no longer financially supporting my boyfriend, and moved into a room in San Francisco for $500. I drank so many lattes with this money, but I was working from 10 a.m. to midnight, so I didn’t have much time for nonfood expenses.
The biggest sacrifice I made was the hours I worked at my startup job. I hadn’t framed it as a sacrifice to get out of debt — they asked it of me and I desperately wanted to prove my worth and not get fired. I was used to not seeing my friends from the abusive relationship, so giving myself over completely to work was easy. I’m still undoing this.
"Growing up, I noticed that being poor takes a lot of planning ahead and a lot of asking for help."
To my boyfriend (raised in a lower class than me but with more financial security), it was just our lot in life and something we’d never get out from. Now that I’m firmly in tech culture with peers who never worked a retail job, I feel like a spy. They don’t know they’re talking to someone who lived out of a car briefly, or assumed the bills would just never find her. They don’t talk about it. They never experienced it. It’s infuriating.
Growing up, I noticed that being poor takes a lot of planning ahead and a lot of asking for help. My mom was able to feed a family of five for around $100 a week ($30 in extreme moments) and had to reach out to my grandma to pay for dinner after that. Now it infuriates me that people think being poor is easy. It takes so much work and so much strategy. I’m pretty hard on people with a path forward who treat unemployment like a vacation.
I feel stronger for having paid off my debt, like I’ve already lived through the worst part of my life. And I feel closer to my mom, who got free of debt and abuse when I was a kid.
I thought I’d just say that we should erase everyone’s debt, that it’s all bullshit. I do think that. But at the same time, there’s this subset of people who invested in themselves young because they were promised an upper-middle-class lifestyle, and who make me angry with their optimism. I want them to see poverty for a few years. I want them to feel how lucky they are.
Debt can come from depression and not some bright promised future, which is a lot of the narrative around student loan debt. I’m in a world now where people have never experienced debt, and my peers can’t imagine how emotionally draining it is to never see an end in sight. I wish I could tell them.
Colombian and Italian, New York City
$39K in student debt
Time to pay off debt: three years
I was afraid of my debt, but I knew I could get out of it if I committed.
I graduated a semester early and moved in with my parents. I started working two of the three summer jobs I had throughout college while I completed an internship, which cost money. I finally got a foot-in-the-door job as a receptionist in Manhattan. Living on Long Island, that meant I commuted four hours a day — but it also meant my only big expense was a railroad monthly pass, which was $300–$350 a month over the three years I lived at home.
I poured every cent of my $33,000 salary (which eventually grew into $50,000) that I could into loans. I paid the minimum on all of the loans every month. The second I had the full payment amount for one whole loan in my checking account, I squashed it like a bug. Spend nothing, repay everything. Rinse and repeat until all the loans were gone. I couldn't have done it without living at home.
"Spend nothing, repay everything. Rinse and repeat until all the loans were gone. I couldn't have done it without living at home."
But commuting for four hours a day takes a big toll on your mental health. I had to open our building at 8 a.m., which meant leaving a little before 6 a.m. and getting back home closer to 8:30 p.m. For a stretch of time I tried to have a social life after work and was so tired all the time I started slipping on job responsibilities. I couldn't afford to lose the job (financially or career-wise), so I cut back on after-work activities. For three years, I did very little socializing, or traveling, or anything really. I may have paid off my loans quickly, but waking up and coming home in the dark and spending all day doing menial, unappreciated assistant work put me in a bad mental place.
I will always talk about what it took for me to get out of debt; sharing gives others the power of information. I did not spend my early twenties having fun and being a young person in the city. I spent it commuting and saying no to events I was worried would cost me too much money.
Today, I’m so pro-debt-forgiveness. There are so many broken systems that result in organizations and people profiting from others being in debt you can't help but wonder whether the systems were designed that way.
$90K in law school debt plus $10K in credit card debt
Time to pay off debt: about four years
I never gave much thought to paying off my debt. I grew up upper-middle-class and eventually upper class. When I got out of law school, I was 26 and making six figures; it seemed natural that the most important thing to do with my money was to pay off my debts.
My salary while paying off my debt was between $160K–$200K. I put about $1,200 a month toward my debts, plus two or three larger lump sums (~$5K) when I received end-of-year bonuses. I was making a high salary for someone without dependents, so it did not require much sacrifice. My goal was to get everything paid down before getting married/having kids, and I ended up paying off the last of my debt a few months after my wedding.
"I’m someone who very closely monitors my finances — almost certainly as a way to feel in control of my life."
As a young lawyer, it was very normal to commiserate among my coworkers about how student loans were a headache, and I would nod along. But I knew my debt load was much more manageable than others’, which made me unlikely to start conversations about it. I talk about my finances with my parents and wife in fairly matter-of-fact ways (seeking/giving advice, planning, etc.), but otherwise it doesn't come up much. I/we paid off the last of my wife's student loans shortly after we were married. It was about $20K from her undergrad and we had the ability to simply get rid of it.
My quality of life while paying off the loans was great. If I hadn't been paying off debts I almost certainly would have just saved the extra money. I knew two years in advance when my debt would be paid off, and once it was, I transitioned almost immediately toward saving for a down payment on a house with the same portion of my income. I am very glad that I was able to pay off my debt, but I don't think I was very emotional about it. I will say, I’m someone who very closely monitors my finances — almost certainly as a way to feel in control of my life.
Our student loan system, especially for undergraduates, is in need of serious reform. I'm more ambivalent about the system of graduate student loans: Grad school usually pays off (and any PhD program worth going to is funded), and 22-year-olds can make more informed decisions than 17-year-olds when it comes to taking on that debt. I think that debt forgiveness is a wonderful thing for most people, but the idea that someone in my financial situation would have their debts forgiven offends me. Public resources should be for the needy — liberally defined.
$69K in undergrad and grad school debt
Time to pay off debt: three years
When I ran the numbers, I found out when I paid off my debts, I would be paying close to 50% more for each credit hour than my wealthier colleagues who could afford college (specifically, their parents). While I understood how finances worked, the way student debt compounds inequities really tweaked all my priors.
The thing I’m proud of here is no external assistance. No parental help. When my father passed away, he did so penniless, and I actually had to fend off his debt collectors for years. When I finished my PhD, I got a job outside academia but maintained a grad student lifestyle by living with grad students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This strategy kept rent at $300 or so, and I could funnel most of my take-home income to the debt. My job required extensive international travel (50+ countries in four years), so my grocery bill was much less.
I turned paying it off into a game. I had a spreadsheet that I used to measure each drop in principle, recalculating the interest I still owed. I funneled every cent I could toward the highest-interest loans from grad school (avalanche). This provided the weakest psychological rewards — snowball is better for many because you can tackle the smaller loans to feel progress. But since the root of my anger was interest, avalanche made too much sense.
Debt was a tax for me to want to be better. I delayed marriage and any change in career trajectory. I lived as cheaply as I could for the three years after grad school. This meant delaying buying a house and driving my ’94 Jeep (when it ran). Even though I made decent money, I made sure not to use a cent of it to expand the lifestyle box.
"When I ran the numbers, I found out when I paid off my debts, I would be paying close to 50% more for each credit hour than my wealthier colleagues who could afford college (specifically, their parents)."
I also lost the ability to take risks. Debt meant I had to take a safe route. When the debt was discharged, I quit my job and went for a newer, riskier one. When the risk on that one was justified, I started my own business. Having student debt would have prevented those decisions, both foolish and wise.
Student debt compounds economic inequality — particularly for women and people and color. It needs to be shed like a bad habit. I do think there are pragmatic middle grounds that should also be pursued (either making loans dischargeable through bankruptcy or lowering the interest rate to be commensurate with risk), but I am 100% for a debt jubilee. I think timing it with an economic recession would unlock generationwide purchasing power that could act as an economic stimulus.
I often get angry with America because of its health care system, broken politics, and uneven powers of citizenship. When I traveled the world, I told my international colleagues that while America was a new country, it was one of the oldest governments. Everyone else had a chance to reevaluate their social context in light of expanding human rights and the scientific revolution. Not us; our ideas about government were made when men and women were kept in chains, doctors used leeches, and everyone shit in buckets.
But truth be told, the one thing America got right was lenient bankruptcy laws. In any other country, bankruptcy was a financial death sentence. In America, bankruptcy meant you had seven rough years, but after that it was expunged, even from your credit report. In America, you can begin again. This is why companies like Apple and Google got started in America — because the cost of failure is low. This allows us to be creative, to take risks where others cannot. I started my own business knowing that if I failed, it would not cost my son his financial future too. It wouldn’t even cost me mine — I could even start a new business within the decade.
Because student debt is not dischargeable through bankruptcy, it violates that unique sense of adventure in America. It closes the door to opportunity, and for millennials, America becomes just another old country with rigid class structures. That the burden of student debt breaks across economic class lines compounds this inequity. This is why student debt is a true crisis: It violates our sense of American identity. Without the freedom to fail, you don’t have the opportunity to succeed. And that inflexibility codifies our economic classes into social classes. It is fundamentally wrong and evicts the spirit that has animated this country.
White, Waco, Texas
$10K in medical debt
Time to pay off debt: four years
The majority of our medical debt resulted from our first daughter's birth and subsequent hospital stay. We came home with a baby and (unknowingly) $8K in debt. Later that year, my husband and I ended up in the hospital with the flu — including an overnight stay. That brought another $2K in medical debt.
The $8K was sent to the incorrect address, and without our knowledge, sent to a collection agency. We both wanted to pay it off as quickly as possible. We immediately realized we needed to lower our living expenses. At the time we were living in the East Bay, but knew we wanted to move back to Texas in the next few years. Those plans got fast-tracked.
"I learned how to stretch a 99-cent/pound chicken to last a week."
We were able to get on a payment plan with the hospital and set up monthly installments. Thankfully, it didn't ruin our credit. But we didn't have a steady salary during this time — my husband was freelancing; I was taking care of our baby. But we saved money by becoming a one-car family. I learned how to stretch a 99-cent/pound chicken to last a week. We ate A LOT of peanut butter for lunches and fried rice for dinners. I used cloth diapers and washed them at home. We just tried not to spend money as much as possible. But I feel like the small-picture stuff almost doesn't matter. Every little bit helps for sure, but we would not have been able to pay it off as quickly if we had continued to live in California.
Before I had kids, I had idealized what the early years would be like. There was always a lot of love and some wonderful, happy, golden moments for sure, but the debt cast a pall of stress and uncertainty over those years that's undeniable. I wish I could recollect my children's babyhoods without also having a pervasive sense of anxiety clouding those memories.
I had also internalized the belief that people got into debt because of poor decision-making. There was certainly a preconceived notion that a person in debt shouldn't spend money in "frivolous" ways that existed for me both before and during our own process. I felt so guilty anytime I'd buy something that wasn't strictly necessary. There was a definite sense of relief paying it all off, but we both have residual stress and anxiety that stems from the debt. I get really nervous/anxious whenever we get an unexpected or late medical bill in the mail.
After paying off our debt, I feel a lot less judgmental of others. Sometimes things happen that you weren't expecting or didn't count on. A lot of people are one accident, medical diagnosis, freak thing occurring from getting into debt. Most people are just doing their best trying to get by.
$80K in student loans
Time to pay off the debt: over 20 years
In 2016 (after 18 years of paying minimum payments, deferring payments for more grad school, paying minimum payments again), an ex-boyfriend, who is also a very good friend and also happens to be a trust fund kinda guy, made the rather jaw-dropping proposition, "Why don't we live together, I'll pay the rent, and you can pay off your student loans?"
And in my head, I was like, Are we going to end up sleeping together again? Do I really have a problem with that, though? If we *did* end up sleeping together again, would that be me...trading sex for rent money? I mean, I guess? Technically? But I was single anyway, and decided the chance to pay off my loans was too good an opportunity to pass up. So here we are. He stays home; I go to work. He pays the rent, and the groceries, and the utilities; I pay my student loans and the internet for the apartment. He and I have separate bedrooms. And I made my final student loan payment last week!
I was raised in the old "student loans are 'good debt'!" mindset; plus, coming from a poor family where we didn't always have food or heat but always had lots of library books, it was wildly obvious that college was going to be the only way out.
But when you grow up without money it is very hard to learn how to think about money as an adult. You don't really have a model for how to budget when you grow up in a family with a budget of $0. You definitely don't learn how to talk calmly and honestly about money. You do learn how to be extremely frugal in terms of needs versus wants, but once you have enough beans and rice in the pantry to last the week, what next? Rent, okay. Student loan payment, okay. Well, that's another paycheck used up.
For me, *every* *single* *answer* to the question "What should I do with the rest of my life?" was constrained by "Oh, but I can't, because of my student loan payments." The loan payments were gatekeeping MY LIFE. I also know that this is, structurally, by design: People who are effectively indentured by debt and live in fear will not be making radical choices about how to live or how to change the world!
I used to talk about student loan debt like medieval peasants talked about death: as a primordial burden, like the price of some kind of original sin, as the price of living. And as something that didn't seem to burden the rich and powerful very much at all, somehow, or at least not as violently or as often.
"Paying a debt like that feels like a life's work; now that it's paid, instead of wanting to celebrate, I feel like grieving the lifetime it took."
When I made the final payment, I actually felt shame. I should be happy, but it seems like a lot of my cohort paid theirs off like a decade or more ago? (I would just feel stupid now if I posted on social media, like, "Paid off my student loans yay!" Instead, I'm just ashamed of my life that it took this long and I still needed help to do it and it was all just luck I was finally able to finish paying it off anyway.
I feel like I don't know who I even am without that hanging over my head. Paying a debt like that feels like a life's work; now that it's paid, instead of wanting to celebrate, I feel like grieving the lifetime it took. I try not to be a bitter Gen X’er about it, but the truth is that student loans began to cripple new graduates starting way back in the ’80s. No one then seemed to notice the student debt canary in the coal mine though, not because Gen X was ~apathetic~ or ~didn't care~ (god I hate that bullshit), but because demographically our voices were always proportionally too few, and our student debt, while enough to ruin individual lives, was not collectively enough to undermine, say, the entire US economy, like it is now.
Student loan debt forgiveness has gained momentum now because we as a society continued to sacrifice young people on the altar of debt until there were too many to be ignored. And those of us from the beginning of the shitty-student-debt-policy era are now no longer young; if student loan forgiveness comes, it will come too late for us. I don't even have children (see aforementioned debt) who might reap the benefit of it. But we should totally do it anyway.
My advice to others is: YES, get your education. YES, do take every opportunity to subvert the notion that education is just job skills training. YES, you should probably double-major in college: one major for practicality, the other for flexibility. Don't train for any career where the median earnings are insufficient to service the debt you incurred to get there. Consider whether the career you want will also require you to live in a high-cost-of-living area. Consider whether you will be okay with renting and having roommates in your thirties, forties, and beyond. Consider whether you will be able to afford to marry someone else with high levels of student loan debt; consider whether the person you want to marry will be able to afford to marry you and your debt. Consider whether you will ever, ever want children. Remember that most of the adults who seem like they're doing okay are actually just treading water; the rest have generational wealth and family money the likes of which you will never have. Unless you do — in which case, go nuts, kid.
All of my thoughts about debt are, at this point, thoughts about systemic income inequality and the many, many intersectional factors that not only make it easy to get into debt and hard to get out of, but also make debt very, very difficult to talk about. Student debt, mortgage debt, medical debt; the stock market casino, the rentier economy, the gig economy; racial disparities, gender disparities, the class hoarding of opportunities; the privileging of the nuclear family, health insurance tied to employment, mechanisms of social reproduction as mechanisms of social control. We all live in fear as if there were no other way to live. ●
Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Illustrations by Rose Wong for BuzzFeed News