Tag Archives: budget

Let’s Talk about Debt, Part 3: Debt & Regret

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

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.


Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 2: The Catch 22 of Grad School Economics

The impossibility of the Grad School Economy really hit home for me last summer (2011). We’d just moved to a bigger place after squashing into a 2-bedroom apartment for years. Like the woman in the Grad School to Welfare article, we live outside our university town because it is more affordable. My daughters were 3 years old and 18 months old at the time, and I was gearing up to take my comprehensive exams in the fall. Because summers in the past have been terribly tight (more on that in a minute), I took a job as a part-time writing tutor at my University. We could only afford half-time childcare for the girls, which meant they spent the mornings at school and I either tutored or worked towards comps during that time: this meant commuting between their schools, my school, and our house all between the hours of 7:30 am and 12:30 pm. So, my schedule looked something like this:

7:30 Leave with both girls and all my school stuff to take Kid 2 to infant daycare in nearby town.

7:50 Drop off Kid 2, drive Kid 1 to hippie daycare for preschoolers in university town.

8:15 Arrive at writing center, check email, tutor anxious grad students on mind-bending dissertations about standardized outcomes language in nursing or African-American porter unions or bio-mathematics.

10:30 Finish tutoring, get out comps stuff and start getting head into game. Read articles, look up references, start taking notes/drafting.

12:00 I just got into a writing rhythm, but I have to pack up and race to hippie daycare because I’m already running late.

12:20 Drive to nearby town to pick up Kid 2 as fast as possible, because if they fall asleep in the car on the way home, then they won’t nap, and if they won’t nap then I am SOL in terms of work time.

12:40 Drive home with the radio blaring to keep kids awake. They scream in my face.

1:00 Shovel food into their gaping maws as fast as possible, nurse one or both to sleep. Get comps stuff out, find where I’d left off, and start drafting or note-taking, while feeding myself with my non-dominant hand.

2:15 Shit! Someone is setting off firecrackers. Please don’t wake up please don’t wake up. If they wake up, I am ruined. RUINED.

3:15 They slept and I got a paragraph of summary written. Now it’s time to be a Mom, fix dinner, clean up, do bath time, and do bedtime.

8:45 They’re asleep! Now I have to decide if I’m going to work some more, have sex with my very neglected husband (oh yeah, that guy), or go to sleep.

9:15 Sleep wins.

Other than being completely crazy-making, the Catch 22 of this economy flummoxed me:

  • If I wanted more time to write, then I needed to have more money to pay for childcare.
  • If I needed more money for childcare, then I needed to spend more time working on a job that paid.
  • If I spent more time working at a job that paid (tutoring, nannying, adjuncting 1-2 sections at a local CC, all of which I’ve done as a grad student), then I had no time to write.
  • If I spent more time writing during “free” time (evenings and weekends), then my marriage collapsed like a dying star and I became a stranger to my children.

We know firsthand how painful and terrifying it can be to go broke. We went broke in 2010, the first summer after our second baby was born. I was too exhausted and clueless and desperate to calculate the full cost of childcare for two children. The pregnancy was a surprise, and I wanted to prove that I could balance family and school, so I was bound and determined to have a sitter for the girls and get some work done (any work, progress is progress, right?). But my summer income is zero: my TAship was a 10-month contract, and July and August are always tight. By the time I realized that there was simply no way for us to afford childcare for two young kids relying solely on my husband’s salary, it was too late to regroup and come up with an alternative plan. I pulled both girls out of childcare and spent that summer as a stay-at-home-mom, letting go of all work time to take care of my family and painstakingly attend to our budget. We made it, but it was extremely stressful, and I lost a lot of momentum towards comping, which was what I felt I needed to do so I could get to the part where I made actual money.

But after that, we prioritized money over grad school progress to avoid repeating that experience: I tutored in the summer, and taught anywhere from 1 to 3 additional courses each semester (in contrast to my usual one). My husband got a promotion at his not-beloved-but-solid job; he also works a second, part-time job every other weekend.

Focusing on income cost me dearly as I struggled to prepare for comps in 2010-2012. I deferred again in Fall 2010, and again in Spring 2011. Last summer, I was determined to comp in September, but Grad School Economics made that impossible. My adviser was skeptical that I would be ready to comp in the spring (2012). I was absolutely determined to make it work, and I took drastic measures to sprint my way towards comps readiness: I hired a cleaning lady, put my kids in daycare full-time, and started writing nights and weekends. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often immediately scrapping what I’d just spent weeks on. I was still floundering with topics and focus: maybe I was just not academically ready to comp at this time, but I didn’t really have the time to come to that realization, nor did I have the time to concentrate and solve that problem. I was out of time: I needed to comp as soon as fucking possible. I was dug in and furiously working away in a not-very-productive manner, but I knew that our family could not sustain this life for long, so I thought if I really hammered at it and got through comps, I could slow back down after that, maybe even work a part-time job while I dissertated and the girls got into school, whatever. I needed to get over this ENORMOUS mountain.

But at my first meeting with my adviser in the spring semester of 2012, it became clear that I was nowhere near ready for comps and had miles to go before I slept. I’d lost my way and would have to work harder, for longer, to reorient myself and get back on track. I was not up for that. It felt impossible to continue in this way, so I quit.

(To be continued!)

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 1: the Real World Economy versus the Grad School Economy

Lauren Does Math and Has a Brainsplosion

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.” Continue reading