The Things I Tell Myself to Deal With My $200K Student Debt Burden

By Brianne Benness

My student loans are now officially closer to $200K than $150K. If you convert the balance to Canadian dollars, the currency in which I conduct the rest of my life, they’ve already sailed well past that number. They’ve been steadily growing since I finished grad school in 2011, and the things I tell myself to cope with this have been evolving at a similar rate.

During most of the four years since I graduated, it has been financially impossible to make payments that would cover the interest and start to chip away at the principal on my loans. Fortunately, Obama introduced Income Based Repayment (IBR), which I like to think of as an education tithe. Since I couldn’t possibly make enough money to actually cover the cost of my education, the government would accept a symbolic percentage of my income every month for the better part of my adult life. I didn’t worry too much about the tax I’d have to pay on my forgiven loan after those 25 years were over, since I also firmly believed that the entire American economy would collapse before that time. I found it comforting, really. I’d be living here in Canada when the Tea Party or whoever finally threw America into such disarray that the ballooning balance on my loans would be forgotten. It might be tomorrow or it might be in 2030, but the full collapse of the American economy would be a much bigger issue than the $300K+ of student debt that I would inevitably end up asking the government to forgive.

I can’t imagine that my survivalist attitude is uncommon. I got into this situation the same way a lot of people get into this situation. When I was 21 and starting grad school, I just assumed that everybody took out loans to cover the cost of a professional degree, and then paid them off with the salaries from the professional jobs they were able to secure afterwards. It’s worth noting here that I started architecture school in June of 2008, just months before the crash. It quickly became clear that it was not a good time to be banking on a future in architecture.

If I’m feeling a little more forgiving of my 21-year-old self, I like to indulge the notion that this was actually the best possible outcome. When I was 18, my mom was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and she spent the fall semester of my sophomore year getting chemo and radiation treatments. When I was 19, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and all the reading I did during my junior year confirmed that there was no treatment for this at all. I probably drank way too much in college, and I spent the summer between my junior and senior year working two restaurant jobs without managing to save any money at all. So when I want to forgive my financially irresponsible 21-year-old self, I play out different scenarios where I moved back home after college. I probably went back to those restaurant jobs and began haunting the two suburban bars where young people hung out. I would have lost both of those jobs when the grief over my dad’s death consumed me. I would have driven drunk on suburban roads. I would have racked up credit card debt. As it is, I didn’t really snap out of it until 2013, so I have my 21-year-old self to thank for the fact that when I snapped out of it, at least I had an M. Arch to show for myself.

When you are consumed by grief (or youthful ignorance, you decide), it can be very difficult to navigate the bureaucratic barriers that are put up to prevent you from making meaningful payments on your loans. I have spent weeks, no hyperbole, trying to get approved for IBR and set up a banking situation that would allow me to automate my loan payments. For two years I had to call the loan office at the University of Michigan every month to make a credit card payment by phone, since this could not be done online.

My most recent IBR application was rejected three times in a row because it didn’t include a pay stub. Even though my employer did not provide pay stubs and I had submitted bank statements and tax forms that more than covered the information a pay stub might offer. This was ultimately settled when I told my loan handler that I would write a letter repeating everything in my application, then print it out on company letterhead and send it to them. That was what they needed. My bank statements and my legal tax forms were not as credible as a document that I created by myself in Microsoft Word.

The experience of opening a cross-border bank account and applying for automatic debit has been equally frustrating. All of them have required submitting forms, waiting an undetermined number of weeks for the forms to be delivered by mail, and then completing a follow-up action as quickly as possible. For three years I couldn’t maintain the focus to do this. Whenever I missed a follow-up deadline and had to start over, I comforted myself with the certain knowledge that the American economic system would collapse within my lifetime. Whenever I actually succeeded in navigating one of these eternal bureaucratic mazes, I revelled in my adherence to the American Dream where hard work and applying yourself are their own rewards.

But, I recently found another reward. Days after the first automated payment was debited from my U.S.-based bank account (and years after I finished graduate school), I was offered a job that felt tailored to all of my experiences so far. There was architecture, which I’d studied, and editing, which I’d been doing ever since. There was a six-month contract and forfeiting my benefits, and a slight wage cut, but I’d be moving my experience and credentials in the right direction. As I considered what life would be like as an independent contractor — invoicing, collecting sales tax, paying for my own dental visits — I realized that there was nothing stopping me from turning my existing job into a contract position as well. My boss had barely been in the office for months and our client load had dipped and this would be a great way to boost my income. During my first month as an independent contractor, I invoiced my old company for about 75% of my previous monthly income. I felt pretty clever. Why didn’t anybody tell me that working two full-time contract positions was the secret to making meaningful progress on my loans?

Now that I’ve moved up a tax bracket, I’m trying to plan for my financial future. I devoured Your Money or Your Life and read back through a bunch of Mr. Money Mustache. I tell myself that I’m living frugally so that I can retire early, while putting 18 percent of my income into a retirement account and converting about 60 percent into USD to pay down my student loan interest. I feel smug for opting out of consumer culture while investing my savings in an economic system I’ve decided to have faith in again. I expect that faith and that smugness to last about as long as my contracts do.

Brianne is the managing editor of an online architecture publication and a co-producer of the Stories We Don’t Tell podcast and events. You can keep up with her customer service complaints about banks on Twitter.

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