Originally posted on The Guardian as a kick-off to their series on debt.
I expected college to feel like a major accomplishment. I walked across the stage, eight months pregnant with my almost seven-year-old daughter watching in the audience. A month earlier, when I’d told her that I wasn’t going to grad school, she said: “You mean you won’t have to be at class or doing homework all the time?” I nodded, trying to reflect her happiness, but I couldn’t help thinking about the $55,000 debt I had put my family in. Graduating was not “I did it!” It was: “What have I done?”
As a single mother, I qualified for Pell Grants, and received a scholarship from a small organization for domestic violence survivors. I worked part-time as a housecleaner, thankful for my handful of loyal clients who understood my need to reschedule if my daughter was sick or if I had to bring her with me because I couldn’t find childcare that day. I took out the maximum amount of loans – about $10,000 a year – for three years, adding to the student loans I’d borrowed 15 years ago in my early 20s.
During my last year of college, I maxed out what small available credit I had after declaring bankruptcy in my mid-20s to pay medical bills. I’m estranged from my family, so I didn’t have a celebration or cards or a hearty congratulations to look forward to. I don’t say this in self-pity. I say this in recognition that it took grit, a lot of grit, on my own to get to the point of walking across that stage. But I went home that night to an apartment I could barely afford, even with a roommate, to the room I shared with my daughter, and put my cap and gown on the portable crib I’d already set up, unsure of our future.
Two years later, I’m starting to grow confident that my gamble on getting a degree in creative writing paid off. I work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week as a freelance writer. I’ve worked us out of the system of government assistance. I’ve started to be able to enjoy the little things that I hadn’t been able to for several years, like the ability to take a friend out for a nice dinner.
Income-based payments have saved me from the debilitating $500 a month I’d have to pay normally on my student loans. I’ll qualify for complete loan forgiveness if I continue working at a non-profit for the next 10 years. Right now, along with steady payments that are double the required minimum on credit cards, that’s my main plan to get out of debt. I have no idea when I’ll be out of debt. I try not to think about it. I try to be proud of the diploma on the wall.
It’s difficult to know how my life would be different if my net worth wasn’t so far in the negative. I’ve never had a credit card with more than a few thousand dollars available. I’ve never been able to get a loan without a co-signer, which I needed even to buy a used car. Every other car I’ve had I bought with cash, and they were all from the early to mid-1980s.
I expect to work for as long as I can. I can’t imagine retirement. I can’t imagine buying a house or even a car that’s less than 10 years old. I keep telling my oldest that this might be the year we get a vacation, but the cost seems so outrageous that I shy away from it. This is not our sad story, though it sounds like it is. I chew nails over bills, though not so much any more, and worry about providing for my family.
But isn’t this the American way? That if you work hard, you’ll succeed. I’ve had to define my own version of success, and it’s learning to appreciate the little things, finding happiness in a sunny afternoon on a lake, or all of us snuggling on a couch to watch a movie.
I just want to raise these two, smart, willful girls, and be able to say at the end of every day that I did the best I could with what I had. Even though, comparatively, it’s maybe very little, but for us, to have an apartment we can afford on our own, and a car that doesn’t break down every few months, and the ability to order out once in a while, that seems like a whole lot.