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The Absurdity of Student Loan Debt

It was easier to have faith in myself after I accepted my expensive but human error

Courtney Gillette
Jun 14, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

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When I was getting my MFA in creative writing, a professor asked us to write a list of our regrets. While I could easily conjure up regrets from my past, I was in the midst of the most shameful of them: that I was borrowing $44,000 for this degree. I’d read a guidebook about MFA programs that made the analogy of borrowing money for an MFA to borrowing money to finance a car.

“Yeah,” my mother said. “But where’s the car?”

Living inside a regret was awkward. I loved my MFA, but how I chose to finance it began to haunt me. I was a recovering alcoholic who understood what it looked like to bottom out on my drinking, but bottoming out on debt was more nebulous.

When drinking, I fooled myself by always finding friends whose drinking appeared worse than mine. I dated a woman who could knock back 14, 15 beers in one evening, which surely made the eight or nine beers I consumed nightly looked manageable. In this same way, I tried to compare myself only to people who had more debt than I had. My debt consisted of money borrowed for my undergraduate degree, a credit card that yo-yoed between being maxed out and being nearly maxed out, and now, the money borrowed for an MFA. Friends who were lawyers or doctors dismissed my debt, saying they had borrowed double, triple what I owed. The difference was that they were lawyers. I was an overqualified administrative assistant at a nursery school with a master’s degree.

I grew up in a family where my grandparents played the Pennsylvania lottery every day. Money, I thought, was something you lucked into, especially if you wanted to be a writer, especially if you had debt. Even once sober, while other areas of my life improved, my relationship to money soured. I held my breath whenever I swiped my debit card, unsure if there was enough in my account to cover the transaction. Vagueness could be its own opiate. I didn’t know what I had, and I didn’t know how much money I needed to earn. I just told myself that this is what it must be like to be a writer in New York.

I still obsess over the path I chose to get my MFA, knowing what it could have been otherwise. What would it have looked like to apply to fully funded MFA programs, no matter how long it took to get admitted? To eschew the degree and save up for writing classes instead? But this is also a story of how I lacked of faith in myself. When the director of the MFA program called to congratulate me on acceptance, I failed to ask about scholarships or grants. I didn’t know I had worth. I told myself it was a surprise to be wanted.

I filled out the student loan paperwork on my lunch break. It was deceptively easy. If I was underearning at my nursery school day job, I was now under-underearning, cutting my hours to three days a week so I could write. When my boss calculated my new salary and handed it to me on a Post-it note, she asked if I could do it.

“It’s plenty of time to write,” I said.

“But can you live on that?”

“Sure,” I said. My belief system about money was not based in the reality of money. It was based in the damaged ideas I’d cultivated for myself — that this was the best I could do. That I should be grateful for what I have.

I don’t regret my MFA, because it gave me the mentors and community I so desperately wanted after years of writing on my own. But I underestimated the debt, financially and otherwise. There is a way that debt corroded me spiritually, putting a limit on what I thought I was capable of, or worse, on what I deserved.

I have a friend who says that God is reality, as in reality can be its own gift, its own awakening, and the opposite of vagueness. If my spiritual life is about accepting the truth, then having faith in reality can be its own balm, especially against the incessant denial I was in about my finances. The first bill I received for my MFA loans was for $416. I panicked and applied for an income-based repayment plan, which, paired with my habitual underearning, lowered my payments to $96 a month. After five years of payments, I now owe more than what I originally borrowed because my payments haven’t even scratched the principal.

A friend made the kind and straightforward suggestion that I call the student loan company and just ask why. Why was my debt increasing when I paid every month? I expected the answer to be, “Because you’re an idiot.” Instead, a chipper customer service representative explained that my loans were accruing $8.18 in interest every day. To stop this, I would have to pay the minimum of $251.10 every month.

I wrote the numbers in my notebook, numb with shame. There’s something about debt that makes it hard for me to kick-start my faith that I will be okay. At this rate, I will finish paying the loans in 435 months, or 36 years, or when I am 71 years old. This is why the fantasy of debt is so easy, because the reality of debt is so absurd.

There are only two things I can honestly do with this debt: Pay it off, and write about it. My grandparents rarely won the lottery. Sometimes they’d win a few hundred dollars, and they’d joyfully share it with us. I know the Pennsylvania lottery jingle by heart. I’ve only recently let go of the fantasy that something, anything, will rescue me from my debt. Turns out it’s easier to have faith in myself once I accepted that I made an expensive but human error. Regret without forgiveness is not a lesson learned. This is me, putting my regrets down on the table in front of you and hoping the story will be enough to release me, to give permission to let it go. The most important identity of my regret is that it’s mine.

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