I sat down to work on our family budget yesterday and it was… unpleasant.
I am not a math person. I’m not a person who thinks well in this way. I worked extremely hard to get an A in basic college algebra. It takes considerable effort and a lot of repetition for me to do math right, and even then, my brain trends towards the unrealistically optimistic. I’m a “round up” kind of gal. I had been working on a budget for awhile, here and there, using estimations of biweekly payments, etc etc — estimations that I thought were very conservative. But, I was off by about $600, which is a lot of money to “find” in an already dramatically scaled back “Lauren quit grad school and ruined our lives” plan.
I’m not the only one facing the harsh reality of the real world economy, versus the grad school economy. A much-circulated Chronicle article about PhDs on food stamps makes it clear that whether you finish or not, the transition from grad school economics to real world economics is devastating to a lot of people. And if you have the stomach to read the comments, you’ll note that many of them are a variation on the theme of “They got what they deserved” or “How could they be so stupid?” or “What part of ‘loan’ did they not understand?”
And it’s true, it’s insane that we all fell for it and made chronically bad choices when it comes to economics. But, here’s the thing: everyone else was doing it. First of all, insane willingness to take on debt has staggeringly obvious precedence in every facet of American life from the housing bubble to the net bubble to the national debt. PhDs aren’t the only ones being blithering idiots in a culture predicated on getting what you want right now and paying for it, literally and figuratively, later on.
But beyond that, I think in grad school there is a special economic culture; or at least, I felt like I was part of a strange little world in which there were different economic expectations and rules. The sort of unspoken rule I — and many of my peers — operated on went along the lines of, “If I’m going to be paying this debt off for the rest of my life, the amount of debt I’m in really doesn’t matter.”
(I know, it’s a horrifyingly stupid statement. I’m not proud of it, I’m not promoting it — I’m trying to explain something here.)
I came into grad school with undergrad debt: not a lot, but some. In grad school, I accrued an approximate fuckton of additional debt in the form of Stafford Loans. There was simply no other way to do all of these things at the same time:
- Make adequate progress in coursework.
- Teach writing half-time, an immensely time consuming task with an income that is good but not great.
- Pay for childcare, which was our #1 outgoing expense (more than rent/mortgage).
- Buy Christmas presents; get a haircut; get new tires, etc.
For me, debt was a vicious cycle that we tried to break out of over and over again without success. Every time we swore we would NOT TAKE OUT LOANS THIS YEAR, I’d realize that Hey! I had another freakin’ baby, and she needs a babysitter if I’m going to PASS MY CLASSES this semester and get ONE STEP CLOSER TO COMPS, or if I’m going to GRADE ANYTHING EVAR. And here come the loans to cover that gap between my husband’s salary, my very modest TA income, and our financial needs so I could work, for free, which is basically what you have to do to make progress in coursework or on a dissertation (sometimes you even pay for that privilege). The further into grad school I got, the more free hours I required to work on research projects, draft conference papers, etc etc. That’s why I never did any of those things: I could not afford enough time for it.
There’s a mentality that if you take out a lot of loans, it means you’ll finish your degree faster (because you’ll have more time), but that has never been true: there is simply not enough time to make huge leaps forward as a grad student while you are also teaching and living a regular life (maybe if you get a fellowship, which is a scenario in which you get paid to do your own research). And once you realize that, it’s too late: your whole life is predicated on that influx of 5k 0r 8k twice a year, and you keep thinking “I’ll finish next year” or “Just one more semester” and before you know it, you’re 100k or more in debt just like me.
For years, I’ve had a double consciousness about debt and budgeting, because while I lived in the Grad School Economy, I became painfully aware of the Real World Economy (you know: only spend what you earn, debt will crush and destroy you, you must pay for things — that Real World) around the time I had my first grad school crisis. In 2007, I decided to quit my American Studies PhD program and I floundered mightily when trying to determine what to do next. I wanted very very very badly to have a baby, and looking at the numbers for the first time, it was clear that if I didn’t work and we had a baby (or even if I did — see above wrt childcare costs) there was no way to avoid crushing poverty, not to mention we would be without health insurance. Unless… I stayed in school. If I stayed in school, I could keep a part-time teaching appointment, maintain our family’s health insurance (thank you, grad student union), and be a mother, and maybe work towards some kind of meaningful employment rather than be a clerk at a grocery store (which was my husband’s job at the time, having been kicked out of his own PhD program). So that’s what I did.
But, that first real look at our budget was a painful wakeup and I spent a lot of time listening to the Dave Ramsey Show in the middle of the night while I nursed my newborn daughter. And while I disagree with him in nearly every way when it comes to politics and religion, I found his money logic ironclad, persuasive, and acutely embarrassing. One day, a girl called Dave to ask about buying a new versus used car. She was living with her parents and had over 100k in student loan debt, but she couldn’t find a job because she had a degree in eastern Japenese architecture or something obscure, and there weren’t many jobs in her field. She wanted a new car because she thought it would be more reliable. His response was in a nutshell, “Buy a shitty car you can afford, and get a fucking job.” (Wish I could link to this for you, but I can’t find it!)
How familiar does that sound? To a person in the Grad Student Economy, it makes sense: she worked hard to earn a degree in a field she loved, she was trying to find a job, and she needed a car. Is it a stinkin’ privileged perspective? Absolutely. So is mine, so is yours: we still believe we deserve a job we love, because we have worked very hard for what we’ve achieved. You can call me stupid for taking out so many loans, but don’t for a secondsay I didn’t work my ass off teaching, tutoring, adjuncting, writing, and mothering for the past eight years. We work very hard in an economy designed for utter failure. And because there is still a lot of smoke-blowing BS in academia — I know it because I was reassured time and time again by professors and friends that despite the abysmal market, surely there would be something for me, surely, at a Community College, or a state school, or anywhere — we would rather believe that it will all work out in the end, and we continue living as if it will and often put off the pain by sticking around an extra year, or whatever. When faced with the Real World Economy of very limited jobs and, even when there are jobs, very limited income, it is a bit stupefying and there’s tremendous mental whiplash.
(To be continued)