On Owning Student Debt

Scrabble Series Debt by StockMonkeys.com, on Flickr

Image source 

It’s time I owned up to my debt.

Today, I owe $15,824 to the federal government.

As a girl, I was of a rare and particular cluelessness about money. I was an only child and sat prettily on that throne: at seventeen, I decided I would go to a small women’s college and study English. I can’t recall thinking once about the tuition, only that it would be handled by some offstage magic, as everything else was.

And it was, mostly: my parents, good souls, threw their funds into the vast hole that was a $30,000 tuition. They took out a loan in their own names to save me the burden of emerging with my English degree and that yoke of terrible debt.

The first time I had any comprehension of what I owed was during my senior year at that college, when I sat in the dining hall to sign forms acknowledging and ensuring repayment of my debt.

What do I care, I thought, my pen etching the tiny loops of my signature, I’ll be going to grad school in the fall. That meant deferment, and thinking on it now, I realize I deferred on most anything practical in life: I drove a car but didn’t maintain it; I had never worked (except for that job at 14 as a figure skating instructor–but that was just fun, really); I didn’t have a post-college plan except to “write.”

I spent five years in grad school, deferring and deferring through an M.A. and M.F.A. By the time I returned to D.C., my debt had inflated to over $18,000.

And then I had to start paying it back.

It’s only in the past year I’ve become fiendishly aware of my finances, and what it means to carry an unsubsidized, 6% interest loan. I spent ages on Reddit’s personal finance sub. I signed up for an account with Mint. I opened a savings account with %0.87 APY (so far I’ve accrued $2 I never had!). I purchased a small IRA with Vanguard, and I check its growth far more often that I should.

I’ve become terribly boring.

But the point is this: I needed that debt. I needed the sudden, eye-widening shock of learning I was to pay $200 every month, even though I was jobless and living on a tiny den of funds. I needed to learn what it would mean to default on my loans. I needed it terribly, in the way naivete can only be cracked with that first, electric prick, and then it begins slowly and then more quickly to slough away.

All of which doesn’t disagree with the important and rightful notion that student debt is a plague. The interest rates, the sheer amount that some young people must return–it’s absolutely crippling my generation.

When I was teaching at university, I saw some students as unaware as I had been. But many–and maybe this was an effect of teaching at an engineering school–a gratifying many understood where they were, and what they were doing, and where they would go in the future.

They owned it. They owned their lives and their debt (even if they were clueless in other ways). You can do both, I think: recognize the abhorrence of the state of student debt in America while acknowledging where you’ve put yourself, even if naively.

Some of us need it.

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