Valley Girl With a Brain

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How to Deal With Student Debt

What to do if you're feeling helpless and owe a lot of money you don't have.


The world's most expensive toilet
This toilet is 24-carat gold & worth about $32 million.
http://home.howstuffworks.com/most-expensive-toilet-in-world.htm
Not too long ago, an unexpected issue began making a larger-than-life impact on my life. 

Back when I started graduate school a few years ago, I remember writing a flippant article about how much my $60,000 education was actually going to be worth. Compared to the price of the world’s most expensive toilet (made from solid gold), the cost of schooling was a bargain, or so I thought. 

Six months after graduation, the bills started showing up, along with too many unexpected numbers before the decimal point. 

I’m not a stranger to paying off student loans or debt for that matter, but I was naïve (actually, stupid) in not being more thoughtful about the “interest-rate-gone-wild” loans that I had taken out for my 12 months of even higher education.  

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Now, after a couple years of struggling to pay back my loans, I decided to have a chat with my loan service provider a few weeks back to see how much my debt had been paid off. The call was fascinating—mostly because, after paying thousands of dollars thus far, I learned I had barely made a dent in repaying my principal.  

At that point, I decided that the best way to live the rest of my life was to be dead for the remainder of it. Under current law, student debt is one of the few types of debt that cannot be forgiven under bankruptcy. There is no escaping this loan. No matter what.

You might say that I feel some modicum of comfort in the fact that there are millions of people like me—and collectively, we owe upward of $1 trillion—in student debt, more than car loans or even credit card debt. 

There’s safety in numbers, right?

But…comfort is the last thing I feel. Instead, I wonder how all of us (well, mostly me) are going to exist in real adulthood. How are we going to raise families, buy cars and homes and be contributing members of society, when a big chunk of our monthly paycheck goes directly to MyFedLoan.gov? These are the worries that keep me up at night, every night.

It goes without saying that the situation feels hopeless—in other words, I feel like I have no control of my future and am doomed to spend the rest of my life stuck in this self-made quagmire, and nothing short of death or a Powerball win will help me get out of it.

But, while I feel hopeless—I am not helpless. And here’s why: 

Though the federal government is not doing much to remedy the student debt crisis, bright and innovative individuals (unlike me) are helping themselves and others in retaking control of their lives, in spite of their debt 

For example, Aaron Calafato, a co-founder of Student Debt Crisis, started a collegiate run of his one-man show, “For Profit”, to tell (maybe, warn) current college students about the impact his $62,000 student debt has made on his life. 

While being in debt obviously affects him financially, Calafato tells me that he’s been “impacted emotionally the most.”

“I've felt a lot of anxiety, shame, anger, sadness and frustration. Why? Because it's not just having debt. It's working really hard, having success, and because of the amount of debt and the minimum payments each month, never being able to reap the fruits of my labor or make a dent in that debt.”

That’s why Calafato decided to “shift his anger and shame into creativity and expression. My tool set is performing, organizing and bringing awareness to the very same issue that impacts my life.  For me instead of focusing on my problems, I want to try and remedy it and make it better for everyone.”

While the future is still quite uncertain, Calafato remains optimistic. “I've accepted that continuing to pay unreasonable student debt is something I'll do for the rest of my life… I will be happy, inspired, and expressive no matter what. That is the true weapon against economic oppression. They can't take the essence of your soul unless you concede it.”

The last time, I checked—my soul was still intact (kind of). This is good news.

Another inspiring individual who decided to empower herself despite graduating with more than $200,000 in student debt is Kelli Space. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to make her gargantuan monthly payments thanks to her entry-level job, she turned to crowdsourcing to give her a hand.

Her efforts paid off—in total, she raised $13,000 from “strangers around the world” who offered to help.  Then, even more amazingly, she and friends decided to turn her experience into a program for others. 

They launched zerobound.com, an online donation platform for students to receive donations in exchange for community service. It’s a win-win situation for both students and community—and one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve heard in a while. It’s a perfect example of coming up with a creative solution to a problem that seems to have none.

A few days after the phone conversation from hell with my loan service provider, I took to the library and borrowed one of Suze Orman’s financial learning DVDs. I have always been a fan of Suze Orman but have rarely taken her advice. I thought that this might be a good time to start. I was sick of feeling helpless. I needed to try something… anything… and I figured watching a DVD was the quickest and painless way to try something.

At the end of the show, a nervous, shaking middle-aged man from the audience came on stage. His voice cracked as he finally admitted his truth: “I have $90,000 in student loan debt. I just lost my job. What should I do?”

I was hoping that Suze was going to tell him to leave the country, ASAP. Go to South America, purchase a new identity on eBay. That’s what I would have told him. 

But she said something that I hadn’t expected—she told him that he’s going to have to do his best to pay it back. Even if it’s only a small amount each month. She reiterated ominously that student debt is one of the few types of debt that cannot be forgiven under any means. 

McLovin
Get a new identity, stat!
She then said something else which was even more unexpected: “Take responsibility for your debt—own it. You made the decision to go back to school, and you must now do the best you can do with that education. Take pride in knowing that you are taking responsibility for your actions.”

While I’m looking around trying to find anyone to blame (the loan service operator for not being sympathetic, my parents for not being wealthy, the government for duping me with their high-interest rates, my current job for not paying me enough), the true culprit is suddenly staring at me in the mirror. 

Suze’s advice reminds me of a recent article in Forbes about a woman named Stephanie, who paid off her $90,000 student debt in three years, simply by taking control of it. 

Instead of complaining, and sitting around being helpless, Stephanie helped herself. She stopped going out, she gave up luxuries, and most importantly, she began to budget her life so that she could achieve her goal. She made a concentrated effort to change her life for the better, by empowering herself financially.

So there it is—examples of real-world inspiration in seemingly helpless situations. All I have to do is rise and accept the challenge. 

Follow me on Twitter: @ThisJenKim 

Jen Kim is a former Psychology Today intern and a graduate of Northwestern University.

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