We are in the midst of a student-debt crisis: Cumulatively, nearly 45 million people, the majority of whom are women, owe $1.5 trillion in student loans. And, if nothing changes, the problem will only get worse.
On Monday, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released a sweeping, ambitious plan to eliminate nearly all student debt in the country — a policy that would drastically change millions of lives overnight, freeing them from what could amount to decades of crushing financial burden. Those living with debt say they struggle on a daily basis with paying bills, getting approved for apartments, and simply breathing.
The Cut spoke to four people who took out student loans and are now working to pay them back. Though the specifics of their situations differed, all four described their debt as an incessant source of stress. Below, they describe how their loans have impacted their lives in their own words.
“You will forever be a slave to something you signed your life away to when you were a stupid 17 or 18-year-old.”
I was the first person in my family to attend college, so I did not know what student debt was and neither did anyone in my family or high school. There was an assumption that if you go to college, you will get a great job and make tons of money. Because I grew up in very rural Iowa and my parents did not support me financially, I had to attend an Iowa college; I picked Iowa State University. Today, I pay about $650 a month out of a $50,000 salary while living in a city, which is income-based repayment. I owe about $62,000 in total now.
I work in the arts, which is plagued by folks who either are completely crippled by debt, like myself, or have zero debt — the joys of privilege. Someone I know complains about having $10,000 in debt; meanwhile I am totally embarrassed that I made a huge mistake and owe significantly more than that, with that “mistake” being going to college.
Without debt, I would be able to be more risks in my life: take a trip, take that freelance job, not be scared of getting fired or not having a job. I would not be depressed or extremely anxious about debt collections or checking my mailbox. With debt … you will work with people and be around people who get to live freely, and you will forever be a slave to something you signed your life away to when you were a stupid 17 or 18-year-old.
“I can’t imagine saving enough to put a down payment on a house.”
I went to a public university, but I was an out-of-state student, so it wasn’t exactly a bargain. I got a few scholarships, but they were paltry compared to the total cost of tuition. So, last year, I graduated with a little under $50,000 in debt, not including Parent Plus loans my dad took out.
My college fund got spent on my parents’ messy divorce, and neither were able to help me financially, so I knew I was going to be on my own. Even so, it was never a question whether or not I’d go to college. My dad was like, “Everyone has debt. You’ll be paying debt until you die no matter what. It’s fine.” At 18, it was really easy to just hit “accept” to thousands of dollars of loans and not think about what it meant.
Day-to-day, I’m lucky that I don’t have to stress too much about paying my bills and having what I need. I live with my long-term boyfriend and our finances are largely merged — without that, I’d be under a lot more financial stress. I do get really sad thinking about what our savings account would look like if all my loan payments went into it. At this point, I can’t imagine saving enough to put a down payment on a house. I feel like a lot of things we want to do eventually will be delayed because we’ll be getting a late start to truly saving. But I guess that’s true for almost everyone my age.
“My health has put me behind with my loans.”
Before going to college, I absolutely did not worry about having debt in the future. People talk a lot about student debt but not in a way that resonates with a feeble-minded 18-year-old. No one explained the ripple effects it had on their daily and professional post-grad life. To me, it was often described as a burden but no one elaborated that it was something that hindered life decisions. People talk about it like an oil change — it’s necessary and inconvenient but the car still runs.
I recently had to stop working due to severe nerve issues. So, not only am I having to worry about my general health and well-being, but about how my health has put me behind with my loans. It’s really stressful. I try to only allow myself a designated amount of time to stress about it. Otherwise, it can be consuming. It’s something I definitely think about daily. Now. it’s health, loans, and finding a job. They are all intertwined, so when one is off, all three seem more stressful.
Without debt, I would have a lot more freedom. Whenever I’m looking for a job now, I have to consider not only if can I afford to live in whatever city it’s in, but if I can do so with my student loans. Would this job prolong my debt? Should I take a higher-paying job I’m not passionate about? [Without my student debt] I would be able to move where I want, work for a smaller company that does something I really care about, or maybe start my own company. I see a lot of jobs that I would love but I know I would not be able to afford everything with my loans. My stress level would be down. The choices I would make regarding major life decisions would be more about what made me happy and less about how I could afford everything.
“I think about my student loans every day.”
I attended two land grant universities for my bachelor and graduate degrees and racked up a total balance of approximately $65,000 for both. Since graduating two years ago, I have paid down a little over $25,000 in loans and interest through family assistance and through my own income. However, it will take another ten years to pay them off.
I think about my student loans every day. I keep both of my degrees framed and in my living room to remind myself why I have to show up to work, refrain from frivolous spending, and overpay on my monthly balance. I’d love to put more money in retirement, build a stock portfolio, and buy a house in the next few years, but becoming a functioning member of our financial system seems exceedingly out of reach.
I have a number of friends with little to no student debt and I am envious of them nearly every time we interact — especially my friends who paid for college with a tuition check from mom and dad. Without the overhead of student-loan payment, every month they can presumably afford better apartments, fun vacations, and other mainstays of millennial culture; they are also the ones settling down, getting married, and buying homes. I don’t know where I would fit into this picture if I didn’t have debt.
Being saddled with any form of debt is exhausting, but student-loan debt is its own beast. I felt like I did all the right thing by getting in-state tuition and scholarships, and went about getting my education in a financially responsible way. And yet, I’m hindered by a loan balance that can feel stifling when I realize how far away I am from paying it off.