I've been there.
I remember that feeling of opening the first loan statement like it was yesterday. It had been almost 6 months since I had graduated college. I was SO excited about the thought of getting my first “real” job, making money, and starting my future.
I would have never imagined how much the words “Sallie Mae” on an envelope would change my life, both immediately and long term. Everything I had been dreaming about came to a grinding, heart-crushing halt when I saw the numbers on the paper.
These weren't normal numbers by any stretch of the imagination at the time. My bank accounts combined had never had 5 digits in them, much less 4.
How in the world was I going to pay this back?
I remember being really angry. I couldn't believe that my parents had let me come out of college with $40,000 in student loans.
I thought it was unfair, I felt cheated, and my heart was in the bottom of my stomach. It seemed like my financial life was over before it started, and I literally had never had that much shame in my life about anything.
I did what a lot of people do when they get the letter…I looked at the minimum payment amount, felt a little bit better, and then pushed it to the back of my mind.
Only after I paid off my loans did I realize that it wasn't my parents' fault. My parents worked hard to provide the life that my sister and I enjoyed. We were never hungry, we always had shelter, and we always had support.
How can I blame them for not predicting an almost 130% spike in tuition costs from the time I was born to the time that I graduated high school?
So, who's fault was it?
I could say that it was my teachers' fault in high school…they didn't teach me anything about finances. However, they don't control the curriculum, so it must be the administration, right? Wait…their hands are equally as tied (if not more) than the teachers'.
I guess I should blame the state, or maybe just the colleges themselves. Maybe I should just skip all of that and blame Obama or Bush?
The above paragraph is the biggest thing that I haven't been able to put my finger on since I started writing about personal finance. I can never figure out who is to blame.
I usually just jump back to the conclusion that it was all my fault. I could have cut food costs in college. I could have lived cheaper. I could have done better in high school to get more scholarships.
I should have done more.
This is the problem with student loans. After talking to a lot of people that still have them, I've realized how much anger, shame, and general disgust is wrapped up in two simple words that are supposed to make you a better person. We were all told that college is the only way to get ahead.
Junior highs and middle schools put up college banners in the hallways to get 10 year olds thinking about higher education before they even know what it really is. High schools push the test scores that kids need to have to get in to the top schools.
They hold special “announcement” parties and put up students' college choices on bulletin boards to celebrate their achievement.
It's the most well-intentioned conveyor belt ever made.
When I started Millennial Money Man, I'll admit that I contributed to the shame in student loans just as much as the rest of society. I wrote from this “holier than thou” mindset, just because I thought I was special by paying my loans off quickly. I had an ego about it until I got my first email that read like a horror story:
“I have $200,000 in student loan debt, and all of them are in deferment or forbearance. I can't make the minimum payment on any of them. I don't know what to do.”
I was stumped. The cold reality set in that in some cases, cheesy budgeting tricks or ways to cut back your grocery bill don't mean crap in the face of mega-debt.
Some people are screwed, and it happened because societal pressures pushed them to that point.
It would be easy for me to sit back and say: “Well, they're dumb for taking out that much!” or “They should have known better!” The truth is that those kind of statements are cop-outs for the fact that I have no idea what to say that could help.
Just make more money, duh. <– Yeah right, not as easy as it sounds.
Since then, I've done a little less lecturing and little more sympathizing. Trying to better yourself through education is nothing to be ashamed of. Doing whatever you can to be a better freaking human being is not an embarrassment.
We treat money like a taboo thing in this country. It's the be-all-end-all for who wins the race of life. People don't talk about how much they make, because they don't want to feel the shame of being beat by someone else.
Our money culture sucks.
If you're stuck with loans, you aren't alone. You aren't a failure, and you can (usually) beat them. Keep hustling, try to make bigger payments, scratch, claw and bite your way out of it. Student loans are numbers on a page, and they never define who you are. Period.