What I Learned From Having Student Debt

Hello Kepler! By Eleonora Arosio / @eleonoraarosio
Hello Kepler!
By Eleonora Arosio / @eleonoraarosio

Have Your Debt, And Pay It Too—by Anne Proulx

As I approach the big three-zero, my anxiety about paying off student debt has quickly bumped it to the top of my financial priority list. I have $87,475.93 left to pay from four years of undergrad at NYU. I’ve made significant progress but to be honest, I don’t know (or want to know) the original total because, quite frankly, it was too much. I distinctly remember having an all-out meltdown after seeing my repayment plan for the first time. The minimum was $1200, and that was supposed to happen monthly. For literally decades. What about rent? Bills? Food? Clothes? Fun? Even though I had a vague idea of what I was getting into when I co-signed those loans at age seventeen, to say I felt utterly screwed would be an understatement.

Because jobs were few and far between after the 2008 financial crisis, and journalism gigs paid very little if at all, I worked around the clock to make ends meet. By day, I was a litigation paralegal at a well-to-do small firm in midtown. By night, I was a permalancer—full-time freelancing, without benefits—for a big publishing house. The firm was for money and benefits, and permalancing in web production allowed me to stay in journalism. I was averaging about four to five hours of sleep during the week, and oversleeping on weekends, but not thinking too much of it because I was young, living in New York, and I was making my loan payments. Whenever I got stressed or sad about wiring another grand-plus away, my then-boyfriend reminded me how lucky I was to procure the means to pay them off.

 
“I fantasize every single month about how much extra money I’d have without the debt. What could I do? Where could I go?”
 

Interestingly enough, I think my massive debt has challenged me to become a higher earner. It’s forced me to get comfortable asking uncomfortable questions about salary and raises. I quickly learned how to best position myself for a raise or a promotion, and that has served me well in my career. It’s because of this student debt mentality that I out-earn many of my peers and even my husband, who used to work in finance but transitioned to startups about three years ago.

While I’m grateful for the know-how, I fantasize every single month about how much extra money I’d have without the debt. What could I do? Where could I go? Who would I even be?

It can feel downright debilitating sometimes. Student debt is the reason I go in and out of credit card debt (when really, at my salary, there’s no reason for that). It’s why I love reading debt repayment success stories, and why I’m tempted to go to budgeting extremes with a lean rice and beans budget. Some people get high off saving money, but I’d be so depressed living that life especially in New York. I have friends I want to see, food I want to eat, and yoga I want to do. To me, some self-care is needed to stay sane.

But this year, riding off the success of saving for and paying for my wedding, I finally decided to “crush” my loans by paying at least double the minimum $700 each month. If I kept going at minimum, I wouldn’t be debt-free until I was 60, and that’s simultaneously horrifying, sad, and unimaginable. Many financial advisors say it’s “good debt” and to pay it off more slowly because my interest rates aren’t too high, but the emotional burden of debt is too great for me to bear. Plus, I’m in my prime. I don’t want to work around the clock forever, and I don’t know how long I’ll be earning as much as I am now. It may be faulty logic, but it’s what I need to be free.

Was NYU worth it? Yes. Would I do it all the same? Probably. NYU was essential to my New York experience and my identity. I made lasting friendships, met my husband, and started my career in the best city in the world. It’s challenged me to look at the long-haul, to speak up for myself, and to have self-discipline. So even as I consider the burden of the debt I have left to pay, I realize that for me, the decision was the right one. Which leaves me wondering: Who knew student debt could be so enriching?

 

Eleonora Arosio is a freelance illustrator based in Amsterdam, but keeps changing her base around the world. Born in 1992, she started being passionate about drawing from an early age. Many years after that, she graduated in fine arts from NABA Academy in Milan and started dedicating herself to illustrations, mainly focusing her work on everyday life from a woman’s ironic point of view.

This essay originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here or read How a Free Education Shaped My Life and How to Be in Charge of Your Finances and Your Future.

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