Saturday, February 13, 2016

Student Debt Identity

When I was in San Francisco two years ago, immediately before I met my girlfriend in person for the first time, I visited a small bookstore in the city's gay district (The Castro).  It was the kind of cozy, inviting bookstore that encouraged leisurely browsing, which is exactly what I did for my last few hours in the city.  I checked out the staff favourites; I discretely flipped through LGBTQ books that would make Dan Savage blush; and I somehow resisted the enormous selection of magnets and mugs and bookmarks that I'm usually suckered into buying.  In the end, despite finding a large collection of books that wanted to come home with me, I managed to leave with only one:  Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed. 


If you have never read this book, you should go out and do so immediately.  And don't take it out from the library (although I love libraries):  buy it so that you can read it over and over and over again.  The book is a collection of articles from the "Dear Sugar" online advice column that Strayed used to write, and it is easily the best advice column I've ever read.  She addresses every topic from romance (of course) to friendship to finances to body image to life's purpose, and she does so in a way that is wise and frank and kind and simply amazing.  I loved the book so much that I finished it on the red-eye from San Francisco (instead of resting up for my date when I got home), and I have read it cover to cover two additional times.  When I picked it up to start writing this blog post, I had a hard time not reading it a fourth time.

Anyway...this is not supposed to be a post about the genius of Cheryl Strayed but rather a post inspired by one of her responses as "Dear Sugar".  In one of the letters she received, a young woman wrote about her desire to go to graduate school and her frustration about having to incur additional student debt to do so because her parents didn't have the means to put her through school.  In one line that stuck with me, the woman stated "[M]ore often than not, I am defined by my 'student loan identity'."  Strayed's response surprised me a bit.  She seemed to diminish the woman's concerns about debt, and she encouraged her to strongly consider graduate school despite the cost.  In addressing the woman's concerns about the psychological aspect of debt, she said "I don't even known what a student loan identity is.  Do you?  What is a student loan identity?"

As I sit here, months away from having a positive net worth for the first time in almost a decade, and another decade away from having my debts payed off, I know exactly what a student loan identity is.  A student loan identity is waking up every morning and thinking about how much you still owe.  It's feeling like every dollar you earn is already accounted for and that none of it is actually yours.  It's saying yes to extra clinics and extra weekends of call because you're bloody tired of being in the red.  It's feeling like every decision you make has to be based on the financial implications, rather than on what you most want to do in your heart.  No matter what my rational brain tells me about the wisdom of my decision to go to medical school or the long-term financial security that I will enjoy, my lizard brain keeps fixating on my student loan and the long road between me and debt repayment.

I wish I could be more Zen about my debt and just accept that it's there and will be for a long time, but I can't seem to get past the sensation of OH MY GOD, MY HAIR IS ON FIRE!  I can't seem to stop questioning every purchase, wondering if I can somehow live without $20 a bag cat litter and train my cats to use the toilet.  (The answer to that question is a resounding no.)  I can't seem to say no to any opportunity to make extra money, no matter how tired or stressed I may be making myself.

More than anything, I just want to be back in the black.

8 comments:

  1. Fortunately when you're not zen about debt (and have a reasonable amount of control over income and expenses, which you do), the stress is temporary! It is a LOT better on the other side. And you'll get there and it will be awesome.

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    1. I hope so! I'm looking forward to the day when my money is just something in the background and I can focus on living more than earning.

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  2. Hopefully, you are just a few months away from net positive... In short term, being that focused might be good, but you cannot maintain that in the long run, or you'll loose happiness and purpose...Life ahould never be just about money and please continue to take time for yourself and with people that are important to you, that is what life is for...

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    1. My best estimate is 6-8 months, one of which will be a vacation month and so hopefully not spent thinking about money!

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  3. I know exactly how you feel. It's hard to see people the same age who don't have loans anymore and they act very much differently. The brand new houses, the recent phone update, new cars- where I can't get those things because loans take priority over everything. We have to put off starting a family another year because I want to pay off our debt down to 150K. it's hard because I want to get it paid NOW but it's a ten year problem that will only be resolved a little more each paycheck. Student loan identity sucks.

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    1. I was thinking about you as I was writing this post, because I know that you've also struggled with the debt mindset. It really is shitty that it can't be paid off quickly; the numbers just don't work!

      The thing about people getting the brand new house and cars is that many of them can't afford it, even without loans. Ten years from now when your debt is gone and your savings are growing, you'll be in a much better place than many people. (Not that this helps in the short run, of course.)

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  4. I'm not saying this to sound like a jerk, but I will forever be grateful to my parents that I do not have student loan debt. That said, I *do* have (what I consider) stupid debt, re: credit card debt, and an totally relate to never turning down a side gig no matter how tired or stressed I am because I Just. Want It. Gone.

    Ugh. I can't even think about it too hard, or how this money we're sending to the credit cards every month could go toward some lovely travel experience or...or... I don't even know. I'm just head down and trying to power through.

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  5. I wonder if this is a cultural thing. I'm exactly the same age as Cheryl Strayed, and when I read Wild I loved it because I totally related to her - but my younger friends so did not get it. At all.

    I'm American and have a HEAP of debt. While I paid off all my undergrad loans before grad school and then paid those off before law school, law school has kicked my ass. Especially because the economy tanked and I was so screwed.

    It's made me shrug a lot. I'll pay it off as I can, maybe there will be some public loan forgiveness, maybe not. I may well die with there being an outstanding balance. I'm also bitter because they are charging usurious rates (8%!). I just bought a house at 4% interest. A second house. I bought the first for cash after an overseas job that paid very well. I could pay down my debt or I could feel the security of owning a house outright, and I did that. A very modest home in what is considered a sketchy neighborhood, I absolutely love it and all the work that I put into it. It is a duplex so I now have both sides rented out and pull in a good amount of $$. The house that I just bought has a small apartment in the back that I can rent out for a fair amount once I've renovated it; between those two, both mortgages are paid (I pulled out the equity of the first to make down payment to second).

    Had I paid off my loans instead, I'd still be paying rent, something I'm very averse to. Had I invested my little nest egg in the stockmarket, I would have taken a bath. I don't trust it at all.

    I trust land and homes. I'm trying to wisely leverage the bit of assets I can accumulate. I have had no family support and am single, so I really need to be prudent as I have no safety net beyond what I can weave.

    Student loan debt is completely in the background of my mind, even as it grows because I make only the minimum payment. It's around $230K now (was $160K when I graduated; that's all compounded interest). I'm nearing 50, so I really do expect to die before it is paid off, and I'm fine with that. I live fairly frugally but also comfortably. I know people judge me for my aversion to buying anything new or fancy and I do not care. I would much rather have my 14-year-old pickup and no car note, and I will wear my shoes until they fall apart, thankyouverymuch. I never carry credit card or other debt - I use credit cards to earn points for free travel, but I pay it off each month.

    My point? Just a different perspective I guess. And when Cheryl Strayed and I went to school, it was much more manageable cost-wise. IT's only more recently that it's so consuming.

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