I am a huge Cheryl Strayed fan. The following is an excerpt from her advice column book, Tiny Beautiful Things, which should be required reading for every person in the world. I relate to the following letter so much, and her response has been the single most influential thing in helping me to finally accept the reality of my debt, and to start to (slowly) crawl my way out from underneath it. I hope you find it similarly empowering.
My question is not about love or sex, but rather one of identity and striving for the best quality of life possible. I, as many other Americans, am struggling financially. Student loans are continuously on my mind and are the cause of almost every stress in my life.
My parents graciously cosigned for my student loans, however, I am being forced to consolidate in order to relieve them of this duty. I realize this is more out of necessity than spite, yet the situation greatly impacts my already poor financial situation and also my dream of attending graduate school. I’m so angry with my parents for putting me in this circumstance instead of supporting me to get a graduate degree for my dream job, and I feel selfish about that.
My relationship with my parents has always been rocky to the point that I’ve come to realize I’ll never get any emotional support from them. I am grateful they were able to help me with an undergraduate degree. However, I have never been close to them, and am often weary of their intentions. Our phone conversations are 100% concerning student loans rather than me as a person.
I struggle with student loans often defining me. I know my education, student loans, and occupation will define me to an extent. However, I am more than my job and these items combined. I am a twenty-five-year-old woman who strives for the greatest possible quality of life and to be the best person she can be. But more often than not, I am defined by my “student loan” identity. It is on my mind when I grab a beer, buy new clothes, and in general, live my life. I do not spend excessively and have always had careful money management. Yet this situation extends beyond any careful money management.
I have always reached to have a positive spin on life. I fell into a deep, dark hole a few years ago, and have crawled out slowly myself. I purposely changed what I didn’t like about my life. It wasn’t an easy process by any means, but I am finally in a place where I can breathe. Yet the stresses of student loans bear greatly, and I am having trouble keeping up any positive outlook.
Sugar, your perspective on life is always refreshing. I would love your perspective on this situation. I wish my parents would see me for the vibrant woman I am. I wish I could see myself as the vibrant young woman I strive to be and would like to be in the future.
Dear Wearing Thin,
I received zero funding from my parents for my undergraduate education (or from relatives of any sort, for that matter). It wasn’t that my mother and stepfather didn’t want to help me financially; it was that they couldn’t. There was never any question about whether I’d need to fend for myself financially once I was able to. I had to. So I did.
I got a job when I was fourteen and the money I earned went to things like clothes, school activity fees, a junked out car, gas, car insurance, movie tickets, mascara, and so on. My parents were incredibly generous people. Everything they had they shared with my siblings and me. They housed me, they fed me, and they went to great lengths to create wonderful Christmases, but, from a very young age, if I wanted something I usually had to buy it myself. My parents were strapped. Most winters there would be a couple of months so lean that my mother would have to go to the local food bank for groceries. In the years that the program was in place, my family received blocks of cheese and bags of powdered milk from the federal government. My health insurance all through my childhood was Medicaid—coverage for kids living in poverty.
I moved out of my parent’s house a month before my eighteenth birthday. With a combination of personal earnings, grants, scholarships, and student loans I funded the bachelor’s degree in English and women’s studies that I’m still paying for. As of today, I owe $4876. Over the years I’ve taken to saying—sometimes with astonishment, other times with anger, but mostly with a sense of resigned, distorted glee: “I’ll be paying off my student loans until I’m forty-three!”
But you know what? I’m waving to you from the shores of forty-three and the months are peeling away. It’s looking extremely likely that I’ll still be paying off my student loans when I’m forty-four.
Has this ruined my life? Has it kept me from pursuing happiness, my writing career, and ridiculously expensive cowboy boots? Has it compelled me to turn away from fantastically financially unsound expenditures on fancy dinners, travel, “organic” shampoo, and high-end preschools? Has it stopped me from adopting cats who immediately need thousands of dollars in veterinary care or funding dozens of friends’ artistic projects on Kickstarter or putting $20 bottles of wine on my credit card or getting bi-annual pedicures?
It has not.
I have carried the weight of my student loan debt for about half of my life now, but I have not been “defined by my ‘student loan’ identity.” I do not even know what a student loan identity is. Do you? What is a student loan identity?
It is, I guess, exactly what you’re stuck with if you can’t get some perspective on this matter, sweet pea. It’s the threadbare cape you’ve wrapped around yourself composed of self-pitying half-truth. And it absolutely will not serve you.
You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation—I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgment of you. You must separate the global injustice (why should some be shackled by student loan debt when others aren’t?) from the individual reality (I’ll be paying this damn bill forever).
As you and other long-time readers of this column may know, I’m a socialist at heart, but when it comes to the actual, individual way we live our lives, I adhere to an entirely pull-oneself-up-by-one’s-bootstraps creed. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.
You have driven out at least once already, Wearing Thin. You found yourself in a “deep, dark hole” a while back and then you courageously crawled out. You have to do it again. Your student loans will only hold you back if you allow them to. Yep, you have to figure out how to pay them. Yep, you can do that. Yep, it’s a pain in the ass. But it’s a pain in the ass that I promise will give you back more than you owe.
You know the best thing about paying your own bills? No one can tell you what to do with your money. You say your parents are emotionally unsupportive. You say you’re weary of their intentions. You say they don’t see you for the vibrant woman that you are. Well, the moment you sign that paper absolving them of their financial obligation to your debts, you are free. You may love them, you may despise them, you may choose to have whatever sort of relationship you choose to have with them, but you are no longer beholden to them in this one particular and important way. You are financially accountable only to yourself. If they express disdain for the jobs you have or the way you spend your money, you can rightly tell them it’s none of their damn business. They have absolutely no power over you in this regard. No one does. That’s a mighty liberating thing.
And it’s a hard thing too. I know, honey bun. I really, really, really do.
Many years ago, I ran into an acquaintance I’ll call Kate a few days after we both graduated college (though, in my case, I’m using the word “graduated” rather liberally—see The Future Has an Ancient Heart). Kate was with her parents, who’d not only paid for her entire education, but also for her junior year abroad in Spain, and her summer “educational opportunities” that included unpaid internships at places like GQ magazine and language immersions in France and fascinating archeological digs in God knows what fantastically interesting place. As we stood on the sidewalk chatting, I was informed that: a) Kate’s parents had given her a brand new car for her graduation present and b) Kate and her mother had spent the day shopping for the new wardrobe Kate would need for her first ever job.
Not that she had one, mind you. She was applying for jobs while living off of her parents’ money, of course. She was sending out her glorious resume that included the names of foreign countries and trendy magazines to places that were no doubt equally glorious and I knew without knowing something simply glorious would be the result.
It was all I could do not to sock her in the gut.
Unlike Kate, by then I’d had a job. In fact, I’d had sixteen jobs, not including the years I worked as a babysitter before I could legally be anyone’s employee. They were: janitor’s assistant (humiliatingly, at my high school), fast-food restaurant worker, laborer at a wildlife refuge, administrative assistant to a Realtor, English as a Second language tutor, lemonade cart attendant, small town newspaper reporter, canvasser for a leftie nonprofit, waitress at a Japanese restaurant, volunteer coordinator for a reproductive rights organization, berry picker on a farm, waitress at a vegetarian restaurant, “coffee girl” at an accounting firm, student-faculty conflict mediator, teacher’s assistant for a women’s studies class, and office temp at a half a dozen places that by and large did not resemble offices and did not engage me in work that struck me as remotely “officey,” but rather involved things such as standing on a concrete floor wearing a hairnet, a paper mask and gown, goggles, and plastic gloves and—with a pair of tweezers—placing two pipe-cleaners into a sterile box that came to me down a slow conveyer belt for eight excruciating hours a day.
During those years, I sometimes wept with rage. My dream was to be a writer. I wanted it so badly that it made my insides hurt. And to be a writer—I felt sure—I needed to have a big life. Which at the time meant to me amazing experiences such as the sort Kate had. I needed to experience culture and see the world. I needed to speak French and hang out with people who knew people who worked at GQ.
Instead I was forced, by accident of birth, to work one job after another in a desperate attempt to pay the bills. It was so damn unfair. Why did Kate get to study in Spain her junior year? Why did she get to write the word “France” on her resume? Why did she get her bachelor’s degree debt-free and then, on top of that, a new car? Why did she get two parents who would be her financial fall back for years to come and then—decades into a future, which has not yet come to pass—leave her an inheritance upon their deaths?
I didn’t get an inheritance! My mother died three months before I “graduated” college and all I got was her ancient, rusted-out Toyota that I quickly sold to a guy named Guy for $500.
So here’s the long and short of it, Wearing Thin: there is no why. You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding. And dear one, you and I both were granted a mighty generous hand.
Your parents helped you pay for your undergraduate education while you were a student and, presuming you didn’t graduate at twenty-five (a presumption which may or may not be correct), they also paid your monthly loan bill during the years immediately following your graduation. They’ve declined to continue to pay not because they wish to punish you, but because doing so would be difficult for them. This strikes me as perfectly reasonable and fair. You are an educated adult of sound mind, able body and resilient spirit who has absolutely no reason not to be financially self-sufficient, even if doing so requires you to earn money in ways you find unpleasant.
You say you’re grateful to your parents for helping you pay for your undergraduate education, but you don’t sound grateful to me. Almost every word in your letter tells me that you’re pissed off that you’re being required to take over your student loan payments. I point this out because I think it’s important that you acknowledge your anger for what it is. It does not rise out of gratitude. It rises out of the fact that you feel entitled to your parents’ money. You’re simply going to have to come to grips with the fact that you aren’t.
Your parents’ inability to continue paying your student loans will prevent you from realizing your “dream of attending graduate school” only if you let it. Are you really not going to pursue your dream because you now have one more bill than you had before? Are you truly so cowed by adversity?
You don’t mention what you’d like to study, but I assure you there are many ways to fund a graduation education. I know a whole lot of people—myself included—who did not go broke getting a graduate degree. There is funding for tuition remission at many schools, as well as grants, paid research and teaching assistantships, and—yes—the offer of more student loans. Perhaps more importantly in your case, there are numerous ways to either cancel portions of your student loan debt or defer payment. Financial difficulty, unemployment, attending school at least half-time (ie: graduate school!), working in certain professions, and serving in the Peace Corps or other community service jobs are some ways that you would be eligible for debt deferment or cancellation. I encourage you to investigate your options so you can make a plan that brings you peace of mind. There are many web sites that will elucidate what I have summarized above.
What I know for sure is that freaking out about your student loan debt is useless. You’ll be okay. It’s only money. And it was money well spent. Aside from the people I love, there is little I value more than my education. As soon as I pay off my undergraduate debt, Mr. Sugar and I intend to start saving for college for the baby Sugars. My dream is that they’ll have college experiences that resemble Kate’s more than mine. I want them to be able to focus on their studies instead of cramming them in around jobs. I want them to have a junior year abroad wherever they want to go. I want them to have cool internships that they could only take with parental financial support. I want them to go on cultural exchanges and interesting archeological digs. I want to fund all that stuff I never got to do because no one was able to fund me. I can imagine all they would gain from that.
But I can also imagine what they won’t get if Mr. Sugar and I manage to give them the college experience of my dreams.
Turns out, I learned a lot from not being able to go to France. Turns out, those days standing on the concrete floor wearing a hairnet, a paper mask and gown, goggles, and plastic gloves and—with a pair of tweezers—placing two pipe-cleaners into a sterile box that came to me down a slow conveyer belt for eight excruciating hours a day taught me something important I couldn’t have learned any other way. That job and the fifteen others I had before I graduated college were my own, personal “educational opportunities.” They changed my life for the better, though it took me a while to understand their worth.
They gave me faith in my own abilities. They offered me a unique view of worlds that were both exotic and familiar to me. They kept things in perspective. They pissed me off. They opened my mind to realities I didn’t know existed. They forced me to be resilient, to sacrifice, to see how little I knew, and also how much. They put me in close contact with people who could’ve funded the college educations of ten thousand kids and also with people who would’ve rightly fallen on the floor laughing had I complained to them about how unfair it was that after I got my degree I’d have this student loan I’d be paying off until I was forty-three.
They made my life big. They contributed to an education that money can’t buy.