There was a two or three-year period in my life where I legitimately thought no one would want to be with me because of my student loan debt.
All sorts of self-esteem-related-things hold women back from living the lives we want to live, and for me (for whatever reason), I truly believed this insurmountable amount of cash I owed to both the government and Sallie Mae was my albatross.
It just seemed like this was it -- I had sullied myself by going to school and taking out loans and missing a few payments here and there, and now my future was beyond repair. Why would anyone choose to be with me if it meant never owning a home and paying off this stupid debt well into our 60s?
I know you already know all of this, but as a country, we have 1 trillion dollars worth of student loan debt, a number that surpasses credit cards for the first time in history. The average debt per undergrad hovers somewhere around $20k, which seems oddly low, considering many people’s parents are still paying off their own school loans well into their 40s and 50s.
This feels like bad news for a lot of us who are just starting out in life, and want to be financially independent while able to make long-term choices and commitments. Our futures are this weird, bleak mess. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, we can’t necessarily count on Social Security (and certainly not retirement), and everything our parents and their parents had to look forward to when they were our age seems to be fading behind a growing mountain of screwy politics and insufficient policies.
But will people like me be able to find love, in spite of this bleak reality?
In the July 16, 2012 NPR piece, “Call Me Maybe When Your School Loan Is Paid In Full,” writer Jennifer Ludden interviewed people who had both been rejected, and rejected others, on the basis of their student loan status. The interviewees felt a sense of stigma about the debt they had taken on, as well as the “next steps,” such as legal marriage and buying a house, that their debt might prevent them from taking.
"If they go to buy a home," said Bill Driscoll, a financial planner from Massachusetts," and they've got $65,000 in student debt, that's going to undermine a lot of the possibilities for getting financing."
Try doubling $65k, and that is more like what a lot of people I know owe. But hey, the good news is that you are not legally responsible for your spouse’s student loan debts (collective sigh of relief). It’s not like once you get married, you become the cosigner on all the choices they made prior to your relationship. But you are, at least by most social norms, required by your vows to love them regardless of what happens with their bank account. And that is the part that scares me.
It seems like we are far past the era of the sexy starving artist, and well into a time where comparing ourselves to others via social media has left us with disabled self-esteem. It is hard to look at photos of beautiful things on Pinterest when you cannot afford them, so it makes sense for us to want to find partners who are more financially fit than us. It’s modern social Darwinism, brought on by our society’s expectations of what a successful American is. I couldn’t really fault someone for not wanting to be with me because of my debts.
One of the most famous examples of someone who was paying off their student loan debts well into their 40s while managing to have a successful marriage, career, own a home and have children, is none other than our president. Barack Obama loves telling wide-eyed and terrified college undergrads that he and Michelle “only paid off their loans eight years ago.”
“I didn’t just read about this. I didn’t just get some talking points about this. I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this,” President Obama said in an April 24, 2012 speech at the University of North Carolina. “We didn’t come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together. We added up our assets and there were no assets. And we added up our liabilities and there were lot of liabilities -- basically in the form of student loans.”
I love picturing Michelle and Barack sitting together at a Goodwill kitchen table with a calculator, telling each other everything will be okay. For me that seems like the most romantic thing ever, especially when you consider that in spite of it all, they had two great kids and eventually went on to have pretty decent careers. Not a job that I would want, but hey, someone has to do it!
I figure there have to be more people out there like them, like me, who choose partners based not on the money they have or the money they owe, but rather on character and potential for long-term overall satisfaction. Talking openly and honestly about scary stuff, like the time you defaulted on a loan in 2008 is really intimate, and it is that intimacy that really tests a couple’s compatibility.
What I had to realize (which seems pretty obvious, given the entire country’s situation), is that I am not alone in this. While partnering up with someone who also has a ton of debt and a mediocre credit score seems like an irresponsible thing to do, at least they will understand what I am going through, and be supportive emotionally (if not financially), when times get tough.
There are scarier things in life than owing money, and I am not about to let collectors take away my youth, freedom and future along with the house that I never had to begin with. Whoever is the right person for me should feel that way, too. That is what all this boils down to.
For the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert recently penned a very public love letter to his wife Chaz, on the eve of their 20th wedding anniversary. Ebert, who has been bravely battling cancer for the past few years, lived a life that many people only dream of. His love letter tells of the celebrities they knew and dined with, the trips to Italy and France they took with their families, and the various luxuries they were allotted throughout their relationship. But no love letter (at least a truly beautiful one) is actually about vacations or lavish meals -- as those things, though fun and spectacular in their own ways, are not the basis of lifelong partnerships.
“One night we went to the Municipal Casino, carefully taking only as much money as we were ready to lose, and we lost it.” Ebert writes. “In a little restaurant we had enough left for spaghetti with two plates, and then lacked even the fare for the canal waterbus. We walked the long way back through the night and cold, our arms around each other, figures appearing out of the fog, lights traced on the wet stones, pausing now and again to kiss and be solemn. It was one of those experiences that seals a marriage.”
In all of our fears about what commitment means, what responsibilities it binds us to, what difficulties it will cause us to experience in the long run, there are always be, like Ebert’s cancer, unexpected adversities. It seems to me that the saving grace of a lifetime of uncertainty is the comfort the presence of another person brings. Especially when that person has agreed to accept us as who we are, debts and all.