My debt story began the way it has for many people before and since, with college. Some of the details are timeless, but others might be quite different than what the students of 2016 are experiencing. One thing I suspect is unchanging is the fact that college is more financially perilous for the children of the middle class than anyone else in the United States. Wealthy people have always been able to plan for the expense of college, and those in poverty either get aid, or they don’t go at all.
I was a student at a time and in a place that was infused with the assumption that everyone in my socioeconomic bracket was expected to go to college. Not that there wasn’t the oddball kid who ended up going into a parent’s trade or joining the military, but they were special cases. It would be decades before there was a widespread recognition that the number of college graduates was creating a glut of people with that skill-set and a yawning chasm where the electricians, plumbers, machinists, and other skilled workers belonged. It was understood that I would go to college unless I came up with something better, and at the very least “something better” would mean paying rent to continue living under my parents’ roof.
Youngest of more children than any couple today could possibly afford, there wasn’t any savings to speak of for my college education, and even then, the financial aid options of even a generation before were weakening. I was too young to have received a free college education in California even if we’d lived there at the time, and the scholarship I received to my own state system was for the same amount my father had declined 30-odd years earlier. If he’d taken it, it would have covered his tuition; for me, it didn’t even pay for half of the books I needed each year. As with so many of today’s students, I relied almost entirely on loans to support myself and defer my costs.
That was not, however, where my debt really began. Yes, I was on the hook for that money, but not right away. It didn’t feel like I owed anything, and surely I would get a job to cover it. No, the real debt for me came in the form of smiling department store employees, seated at tables in my college’s student union, offering gifts in exchange for me filling out credit card applications. The first was for a JC Penney’s card, and got me a set of four glasses that I was pleased to add to my dormitory possessions. Since the store was on the far side of town, I never got into the habit of using it.
Within a couple of years, though, I had bank credit cards, and those were much, much easier to use. The minimum payments were always so small, and the rewards were so large in comparison. It was easy to keep up with payments on my financial aid . . . which was, the reader might recall, pretty much all loans. At least two rental car trips and a few tattoos (two on a friend I haven’t seen since well before the turn of the century) inked by a guy who called himself Doctor Strange (whom we traveled to see because of a rumor that he was Pagan, something we never thought to ask him about) ended up on the card, not to mention the bill for repairing the cigarette burn which mysteriously appeared in the upholstery. It was easy!
By the time I escaped from the college environment, I had a few thousand in credit-card debt, and my student loans on the horizon. I was unemployed, not particularly qualified to do anything specific, and again completely dependent upon my parents to ensure I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach. At least I had a queen-size bed to sleep in, though! — although it was a wee bit outsized for my childhood bedroom. I was grateful to have a home to return to, but I knew my parents would not be providing me with a car, or spending money, or anything beyond love and the basics.
Paying down the debt like a madman
Once the sweet, gauzy memories of college fell away before the harsh light of real life, I immediately disliked my station in it. I found myself a job as an overnight security guard, for which I was able to borrow a parental car for transportation, and learned to love coffee. My friends were able to attend concerts and movies, but both my weird hours and crushing debt load kept me from most of the social pleasures enjoyed by my peers. I misered down and sucked it up, realizing that immediate gratification was going to make my life one of eternal torment.
Computers were becoming more common, but I had no money for such a tool. Instead, I started keeping track of my expenses and income — my meager, meager income — on paper. I drew columns with a ruler and calculated how much I needed to set aside out of each paycheck to cover the credit cards and the student loans. I also started saving for my own car, but saving is a story for another time. My obsession with getting out of debt got so intense that my friends didn’t just think I was cheap; they actually made up stories about my legendary thriftiness. My favorite had me riding a unicycle to work because I figured out it was less costly to maintain than a bicycle — fewer moving parts, you know — and that I’d picked up drinking kerosene for recreation because it was so much less expensive than beer.
I’d like to be able to claim that I paid off my debts on the pittance I was earning and freed myself from the shackles of debt forevermore. That would make for a good story. However, the truth is that I got a much better job about five years later, after a long time in the security world and a series of food-service jobs that I chased out of a desperate belief I could make a career out of them, and it was the higher pay which made it possible. However, that’s still only part of the story: the reason why the better job allowed me to pay off the last of my ill-gotten debt was because I doubled my income without changing my standard of living. I lived beneath my means.
That’s the nugget of wisdom I learned from my own mistakes: the only way to actually pay off debt is to learn spend less than you earn. That’s progressively more difficult the less money one makes, but it never is particularly easy at any income level. Our society encourages us to enjoy today’s pleasures on tomorrow’s dollars, and the tattoo I got was paid for with dollars that I labored to earn as much as seven years after the needle hit my skin.
No instant fix exists to make debt go away. All of the options require effort, persistence, and discipline. I wish I could claim something else is true, but once debt is acquired, it’s no mean feat to slough it off.
I will help as much as I can.