Monday, October 20, 2014

Where is the champion of those saddled with student loans?

Let me start off by saying, I recognize, no one made me take out student loans. They were the only way I could afford graduate school, and I was grateful for the opportunity to go. Despite my debit of $49,500 upon graduation I did not regret my decision (although I did regret not trying harder to find scholarship options). I was fortunate enough to start working at a full-time job exactly 6 months after graduation - precisely when I became responsible for repayment. Everything was great.

Not long after I began working the government instituted a policy of loan forgiveness for anyone who worked in civil service. Although I qualified, as an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after crunching the numbers I saw I was ineligible because I made too much - a back handed compliment if there ever was one. I felt like the stereotyped middle class - making too much money to qualify for any assistance, but not enough that I actually could afford all of my expenses and have room to breath at the end of every month.

Ultimately, I was a vision of the American work ethic - hard work paid off in the form of an increased salary, something I know many, many people go without (including some of my coworkers who were denied even a cost of living adjustment for years). With this added income I increased my student loan payments to more than was required. I felt good that I was saving money by reducing the amount I would have to pay back over time in interest. At the rate I was going I would be able to pay off my loans a few years early. I wouldn't be able to afford buying a house at the same time as  many of my peers, but at least I would have this albatross off from around my neck.

To make a long story short, I decided to pursue my dream in life, a luxurious first world privilege if there ever was one. I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job and was able to negotiate a reduction in my monthly student loan payment - roughly half of what I had been paying. I was able to make these payments every month over the last two years. Sometimes I didn't know how I was going to do it, but always something came through - be it a tax refund, a surprise job, etc. Then, a couple of months ago I started a new, full-time job, something I hadn't had since I took my leave of absence two years prior. I'm in a completely different field, something that has absolutely nothing to do with either of my degrees. At first I was resentful I had these loans - what was the point if I'm working in an unrelated field. I expressed these feelings to an older woman in my neighborhood I spend time with (older in age but not spirit), and she corrected me - saying that my anger at my loans was misplaced. Of course, she was right. I was mad that while I finally had more money to my name than I had for a long time, I still couldn't spend it the way my friends did (vacations, cars, even going out to eat), because I had my loans to pay. This is an idea worth exploring another time, but tangential to the issue at hand.

I had been thinking about how to manage my loans. Friends told me about companies that would buy out my loans and let me pay them back at a lower interest rate. It was something I was considering, but was hoping to wait until I got some sort of a raise - at least enough of an income that I could approach an American financial institution asking for a loan and not be laughed away. But, the clock that we forget is always ticking in life caught up to me. Last month I received an email informing me that since it had been two years, not only would my student loans increase to what they had been previously, when the amount was contingent on an income that was roughly three times what I'm making now, but that there would be an extra amount added each month, to make up for the full amount I had not been paying. Essentially, I was told I would have to pay almost three times what I would had been paying. Not just once - but every month until I paid off my loans. The amount demanded by my student loan provider was about half of my take-home pay. I did not worry about this - how could they expect me to come up with this? I submitted a request for a reduction in my monthly payment, happily sharing my previously embarrassingly small salary, brimming with confidence that my request would be accepted.

My only response ended up being a notification that the massive monthly payment was successfully extracted from my bank account. I gasped in horror - what should have lasted me three months, which was plenty of time for there to be miraculous influxes of money here and there to allow me to continue my payments - had suddenly vanished. I frantically took to social media, asking for help what to do. More than a few people, with varying degrees of seriousness, suggested I withdraw all my assets from the US and just forget about the debt. Since I was living abroad without any plans to move back, what did my credit score there matter any way? While it sounded satisfying in my state of panicked anger, it was not a real solution for me. I acquired this debt honestly, and willingly, and so shall I pay it back.

So why am I here? Because my consternation is not unique to me. Perhaps my financial hardship was acquired in a uniquely fun way, but it is the same hardship shared with so many Americans around my age today. Saddled with a debt that cannot be vanquished the way so many others can. Student loans are not, or at least should not, be considered more impervious than vanity purchases on credit cards. Why can private loans be renegotiated for more favorable rates, while something that was undertaken for edification, be more rigid that the financial obligations of income taxes. How is it that a society that is so fiercely proud of the right to an education, and the idea that one can improve their lot in life through education, subject those that can't meet the expectations of repayment to a fate worse than many crimes. Try getting a job, let alone being able to rent an apartment or lease a car if you have on your credit report that you failed to pay back your student loans.

At the end of the day, I'm not disappointed in the choices I've made. I'm disappointed that as a society we are able to effect changes that are so meaningful to people's every day lives in a positive way - yet the problem of student loan debts continues to cripple not only those bearing them, but society as a whole. While corporate 'people' were quickly bailed out, in order to prevent the economic fallout on the nation, our economy is quietly stifled by a problem that no one is able to rally for a solution. How much more stimulated would the economy be if there was a stimulus package helping to reduce the interest rate for student loans - allowing them to be paid off faster. Why do economic packages from Congress need to be 'shovel ready', couldn't they be just as valuable if they freed up Americans from bondage to miserable jobs or liberated them from their parent's basement because they could finally afford their own place? Where is the champion of this movement? I'll tell you - probably working two jobs just to make ends meet.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Red Solo Cup Moment

I reached a milestone in my adult life tonight: I left a party early.

Ok, this might not seem like an actual thing to have emotions over, I realize. I'm a person who really enjoys parties: meeting new people, hearing different points of view, generally expanding my horizons. When you add the social lubricant of alcohol things get interesting real quick.

Truth be told, nowadays I prefer to spend my evenings being insufferably productive: doing yoga, learning something new, cleaning my apartment. However, in the spirit of the new year, I was inspired to go outside my routine and try new things. So, when a friend asked if I wanted to come out, I ignored my initial reaction of 'no' in favor of 'ok but I might want to leave inappropriately soon after we arrive." We agreed my response to her invitation was odd but fair.

After walking 23 mins longer than promised, we finally got there, me awkwardly sweating from carrying a backpack, plus pushing my bike and myself uphill. The host offered to make me a drink: my options consisting of vodka, coke zero, or a combination of the two. I declined, feeling like the only successful prodigy of Nancy Reagan's campaign in a room full of people forgoing the mixer because it was a waste of space in their cup. Then I just felt old, realizing that most people there were born after Reagan finished his presidency.

Having established I'm ok coming to a party and being a wet blanket, I looked around to see if there was anyone to strike up a conversation with. There were a bunch of guys calling each other 'bro' in one corner and talking excitedly about something, so I decide to head in the other direction and sat across from a guy thoughtfully watching fashion models walk down a runway. It was jarring for the simple reason most of my friends don't have a television in their homes anymore - either due to its pervasive effect, or the fact you can watch everything online. Hipsters and haredi people really have a lot in common.

"I really enjoy the thought-provoking storyline," I said deadpan. For some reason I thought being sarcastic would be a good way to begin my new friendship.

He smiled uncertainly and explained that it was, "For the ambiance more than the plot."

"Looking to spice up your wardrobe?"I asked with a raised eyebrow before realizing this is probably not the way to talk to a complete stranger. I instantly regretted not having a cup full of vodka instead of stupid water.

"No, I mean.." he trailed off as his eye remain transfixed at the women hypnotically walking up and down runways.

I looked around the party; it was something I would have enjoyed when I was their age. But it was more than that - I had already checked off this box in the bingo game of life. I started getting practical on myself: how much could I accomplish at a pregaming for the night when I had no intention of drinking or going bar hopping? When was the last time I pregamed for anything? What was I really doing there?

I started furiously looking at my phone in order to be engaged in something. At that point I realized if I had to look at my phone to be entertained, I might as well just leave. If I'm not there for the people, then I'm not really at the party. Not only that, but I had come so far on my journey in life, why go back to a stage that I had left in favor of loftier, more long term goals?

While having my coming-of-age moment I got a text: it was a friend inviting me to brunch in her sukkah the next morning. This is what I wanted - not necessarily more carbs, but time in the sukkah, focusing on the holiday, the spiritual. Something that wouldn't give me a hangover the next day, although perhaps another kind of regret when my skirts won't zip after the holiday season finishes.

With that, I put away my phone and picked up my bag. I said my farewells, making sure to thank the host for his tap water, and began the uphill bike ride home. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was in much better shape than I anticipated, and was able to climb the hills with minimal distress. It was reaffirming - a timely reminder that the efforts we put in over time to work hard and get better at anything do pay off as long as you are consistent. Whether it is climbing hills on your road bike or leaving certain types of events or behaviors in your past, change is possible.