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The long and short of it is that the culture of debt in grad school supported my dumb decisions. The problem is both individual and systemic. Because the system gave active and vigorous windmill high-fives to my desire to avoid adulthood or cope with poverty and bad choices, there was no pushback on my decision to subsidize my very long and mostly pointless degree(s) over and over again with government money. I had to force myself to lift that rock and peer at the gross stuff, on my own, and because human beings like to avoid pain and embarrassment, it took me a long time to have the guts to do that. As in, years. And when I finally decided to leave, some still encouraged me to stick with it, just for a few more years.
But, now we’re there: we’re looking hard at our budget, we’re coming up with a plan to reduce our debt and be able to afford things like, ya know, FOOD, and it’s very painful. Ask yourself the last time you looked up your outstanding balance on student loans, or did the math on how much interest you pay on your credit card every month. It hurts.
It’s very easy to say yes to loans when you’re 22. You think, I will be done in 5 years. You think, This is an investment. And you think, as I mentioned before, that at some point you hit a threshold past which the amount of debt doesn’t really matter (a mountain is a mountain, right?).
But it does matter. Everest vs Mt. Hood matters. K2 versus McKinley fucking matters. There’s a world of difference between 60k and 20k in debt; between 120k and 70k. (Even if you don’t have debt going into grad school, how many grad students go debt-free during the average 8.2 years it takes to complete a PhD?)
Let’s say you only have student loan debt when you finish your degree (no credit card debt, even!), and you decide to aggressively pursue debt-free status. You are a very, very lucky PhD and you find a job in the midwest that pays 45k a year. You’re single and don’t have kids (or pets): bonus! You pull a Joe and share an apartment with a friend and are able to live on 25k a year, doing the rice and beans thing and keeping costs low. Putting 20k towards student loans, which doesn’t include interest and all that stuff, it will take this much of your life to repay the loan:
- 20k in loans = 1 year
- 40 k = 2 years
- 60k = 3 years
- 100k or more = 5+ years
Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.
So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.
Loans are only an investment if they pay off. Going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced degree that is highly unlikely to get you a job that pays more than an entry-level salary is idiotic. We are crazy for thinking this was the right thing to do. Because we end up on food stamps. Or we end up realizing we should have gone in a different direction in our careers and go back to school, again, for a different, practical degree (I know PhDs who are becoming librarians, midwives, doctors, high school teachers: they could have saved years of time, effort, and money without the scenic route through a PhD, although few will outright say that they regret the PhD). I’m starting to agree wholeheartedly with the boom-and-bust “higher ed bubble” theory because my decision to go to grad school parallels so closely the heartfelt and utterly misguided desires of folks who bought houses during the real estate bubble and ended up with homes worth less than the money owed on them. A PhD is worth so much less than the debt incurred to earn it. The PhD, in most cases, will cost you way more than it’s worth in debt and regret. But when you are inside the system, it’s surprisingly difficult to see the writing on the wall. People are so certain that they will regret quitting more than anything else that they stay on even when the thrill is gone. This is bonkers. Quitting is awesome. Quitting is freedom. Debt sucks. Debt is prison.
I’m in my early thirties and I have two daughters, a house, two Master’s degrees and a ton of worthless graduate credit hours. I have dreams for my daughters that may never be fulfilled. I have dreams for my own life that will be on hold indefinitely, and may go completely unfulfilled because the next decade or more of my existence is dedicated to paying for mistakes I made when I was young and willfully ignorant.
The Mamafesto is running a cool series of profiles titled This Is What A Feminist Looks Like. Jen’s profile is featured there today! The profiles offer a thought-provoking look at how a really diverse group of folks understand and live feminist identities.
Here’s an excerpt, and please click through to read not only Jen’s profile but the other fascinating, inspiring posts in this series!
“Has your (definition of) feminism changed over time? How?
In some ways, I think I’ve changed very little: the center of my feminism has always been about understanding systems of oppression, struggling to confront the ways I’ve internalized those oppressions, and making choices that disrupt rather than perpetuate those systems.
That said: I’m not the same person I was when I was 18, or 23, or 27, or 30. I’ve grown out my hair, but I still don’t shave my armpits. I’m not any more tolerant of sexism or other forms of oppression, but I’ve learned how to pick my battles. I have fewer opportunities for guerrilla activism and more opportunities to leverage my identity as a prof and push people to see the world on different terms. I have a much more nuanced understanding of issues like sex work, thanks largely to students and friends who have continued to challenge me. I have a keener sense of my own strengths and limitations,and a deeper appreciation of the role of feminist mentors.
And of course, becoming a mother to three girls has shifted my perspective and experience. Pregnancy and breastfeeding changed my relationship to my body. Just living my everyday life with little girls in tow provides ample opportunity for people to say sexist bullshit to me: I am still amazed that people think it’s okay to say things like “So does your husband want to keep trying for a boy?” Do they think I’m going to say, “Yes, because he finds our beautiful daughters who are STANDING RIGHT HERE inadequate.” And parenting girls has meant navigating popular culture and consumer culture on different terms: how do we feel about princesses, My Little Ponies, Barbie? What my partner and I want most is for our girls to grow up safe, healthy, and strong, and we’re raising them in a world that does not share those goals.”
Chat: If Our Daughters Want to Shave Our Heads, We Will Let Them (And other parenting lessons we learned from Will Smith)
Willow Smith shaved her head recently, and when Parade Magazine asked him about it, Will Smith said this:
“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”
Inspired by Will Smith (a phrase I never in a million years thought I would type), Lauren and Jen talk about setting boundaries and answering tough questions.
Lauren: So, would you let Dorothy shave her head?
Jen: I shaved my head, when I was 19.
A journal entry from January 2007:
I haven’t made any New Years Resolutions yet, and I’m not sure I will—2006 felt completely outside my grasp, like everything I reached for shifted location or shape just as put my hands on it. Maybe next year I’ll only search for what I really need, and not let myself be distracted by what’s easier or more possible. Maybe I’ll just own up to my desires for more of all the best things: more dancing, more nights under the stars, more parties, more sex, more honesty, more swimming naked, more live music, more writing, more beauty, more dark chocolate and tight jeans and long drives and unnecessary side trips to my favorite bridges and alleys.
I haven’t journaled much in the past 8 years, and I’m surprised to have found this little gem.
2006 had been a difficult year: I was 29, I had just started a new job, and right after my grandmother died I found out I was pregnant. I was flooded with grief and hope and loss and possibility and joy all mixed together. It was June. The peonies were blooming in my garden.
Dorothy was born in April 2007. I was 7 months pregnant when I was imagining dancing and skinny dipping and writing (!) and going to concerts. Continue reading
As noted, I tend to get going on a topic and then trail off (I never did wrap up my commentary on the Feminine Mystique; I never did follow through with all the Big Ideas I had for “This is Not a Lifestyle Blog” – but this is a blog, and there’s time!). Before it gets too far from my memory, I wanted to wrap up my series about growing up in the conservative south and my recent trip back “home.” (Read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)
When I last wrote, I’d been pretty thoroughly alienated from mainstream culture in Tulsa by a series of extremely negative interactions with conservative Christianity. Between that and poky grass, I was pretty much planning to get out of this place as quickly as humanly possibly. I began to elevate and romanticize the Midwest as the ideal and preferable alternative to the south. By age 15, I was using road atlases to plot an escape route and writing romance stories set on farms.
So what changed? Continue reading