“I don’t know if I can marry you – not without a prenup.”
That’s what my ex-girlfriend told me after I proposed to her five years ago. The reason? She didn’t want to touch my $80,000 in outstanding student loans with a ten foot pole. My massive debt was hanging over my life like the sword of Damocles, and that’s when it pierced my heart.
Am I melodramatic? Maybe, but the cold truth is that my college debt played an outsized role in the precarious nature of my adult life.
I used to say that if I had a time machine, I’d set the dial to 1996 and give unsolicited advice to my seventeen-year-old self: “Hey, maybe harass the customers for late fees at Blockbuster for $4.50 an hour isn’t so bad after all. This was the year I made what seemed like a rational lifestyle choice then, the one I my parents, my peers, and pop culture have all said the only viable path to reasonable success in America is: I went to college.
Higher education seemed exciting at the time. None of my working-class relatives graduated in four years, and I was lucky enough to be the first in my family to graduate. But scholarships were non-existent and my parents couldn’t afford tuition, so I took out several government loans to make ends meet. No problem, I was told. These grants were just a down payment on my bright future, and I would pay them back after I got a stable middle-class job.
Turns out it was a lie level five Pinocchios. In the two decades since I graduated from the University of Missouri, my loan balance has grown from about $60,000 to $80,000, despite paying off $20,000. How did I get caught running forever in a hamster wheel of debt?
I admit I got scammed by a sleazy loan consolidation company that promised to lower my monthly payments. I was twenty-two, working as a substitute teacher for $50 a day, and they took advantage of my desperation to end up adding thousands more interest to my balance.
But the biggest rip-off was an American economy that chose to pay millions of people – myself included – less than a living wage. I’ve worn many hats in my career: I’ve been a reporter in four different states, I’ve done tedious $10-an-hour agency work in the accounts receivable department of a consulting firm, and I’ve ‘ve been to rehab halfway through reception. house where I searched clothes for contraband. For a brief period, I toiled in a place that I considered a notch below the Death Star in terms of evil: the collections department of the head office of a payday loan company. I’ve also collected binders for the US Census, tested video games in the guts of Activision, and sweated through night shifts moving boxes full of books through a textbook factory.
What those jobs had in common was that they paid me between $15,000 and $35,000 a year, which in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago meant living mostly paycheck to paycheck while trying in vain to make a dent in my student loans.
Opponents like to paint a picture of debtors as overeducated elites demanding alms while munching on $15 avocado toast in first class on a trip to Europe. But I lived relatively modestly. I haven’t owned a car since 2005 and rented cramped apartments with roommates until my early 40s. For three years I moonlighted as an Airbnb host to help pay the bills, sometimes renting my place for $100 a night and then staying in a rundown Airbnb for $40 a night to earn a few bucks . I once slept in a double bunk in a stranger’s kitchen that was bounded by a blanket hanging from a clothesline.
The bad years were pretty bad. I haven’t been able to afford health insurance for most of my career, including in 2010 when a penny-sized gallstone clogged my digestive system. I desperately tried to avoid a hospital visit because of the cost, so I lay in a bathtub filled with ice for three hours to try and numb the pain and hoped the stone would pass naturally . It didn’t, and the pain got so bad – like a small dagger repeatedly stabbed in my side – that I gave in and went to the ER.
I was lucky. In that window of time I had developed pancreatitis and probably would have died an inglorious death if I had waited much longer. As it was, there was a brief fright; my skin turned sickly yellow and the doctors had to resuscitate me on my second day in the hospital because I passed out after suffering neurogenic shock (I woke up spasming uncontrollably until so the doctors can stabilize me).
My body survived, but my finances did not. Because I was too weak to work for two weeks, I couldn’t pay the rent and had to temporarily move into my brother’s basement. I resumed writing regularly for the Chicago Grandstand for $45 to $75 per freelance column, and took odd jobs to save money and allow me to live on my own again.
All of my untreated health issues weren’t as dramatic as severe pancreatitis, but they still took their toll. The scoliosis that has curved my spine since birth led to more spine and back problems as I got older and trickled down in the form of knee and hip arthritis. Even worse, I had undiagnosed sleep issues that led to chronic fatigue and robbed me of memory and cognitive health. I stutter more than before, and sometimes it takes me a second to speak in a conversation because I find myself searching for words, trying to break through the fog of my thoughts. Amid these issues, depression quietly set in, and at a particularly low point in my life, in 2018, I attempted suicide.
In a bitter irony, I earned one of the best incomes of my career by not working. At the start of the COVID pandemic, I lost my job as a housing journalist and therefore qualified for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Benefit which paid $800 per week to the total. Finally, I was earning enough money to further reduce my student debt.
None of this is to say that my struggles make me unique or interesting. What they make of me is American: one of 6 million people who owe at least $50,000 in student debt. Now that President Joe Biden has canceled $10,000 of my loans, I’m down to just under $71,000. Maybe by the time I die I can reduce that to $62,000, the average American debt go to the grave with.
A boy can dream, at least.