Trapped By School Debt

This blog post first appeared over at - you can read more about Allison there! 

Photo Credit: Ángelo González, Creative Commons

I can’t tell you how many people I meet who want to live a life of meaning, want to do something that matters, but they feel like they can’t because they’re racked with school debt.

I wish I could say I have no idea what that feels like.

But I do.

Just to be totally transparent, I have just under $50,000 in debt after graduate school —

and, according to American Student Assistance, I’m in the top 10 percent for students with my level of education (needless to say, I’m curious how many of the people in my 10% have a degree they’re not using — because that’s me).

I’m a huge advocate for education (my graduate degree is in education) but I also find the conversation about the debt we so willing take on to get our degrees (with the promise “it will be worth it”) really compelling. I’ve had my fair share of moments where I’ve wondered if my debt was “worth it.”

I guess there are some things I wish I would have known before I took on my debt.

I wish I would have known school debt cannot be compartmentalized to one part of my life.

When Darrell and I first started talking about getting married, I hadn’t told him about my loans yet (we were only dating, after all, and I rarely told anyone about how much debt I had). I was actually nervous that, when I told him, he wouldn’t want to marry me.

Of course, my fears were unjustified. When I finally did admit to him the size of my total debt, he barely blinked. But the point is I didn’t think about how debt would impact other parts of my life —

My relationships, my day-to-day work, and my ability to do things like travel, or change jobs.

I wish I would have known how a degree isn’t the only way to get an education.

I don’t know that this would have changed my decision about how I got my education, my undergraduate degree at least, but I wish I would have thought about how far $1000 could go at a bookstore, or for online courses, or for an apprenticeship.

I wish I would have taken into account less expensive options.

I was so set on going to “the best” universities (relatively speaking) I didn’t think about how/if my choice of institution would really impact my long-term career goals. I don’t know if I really thought about my long term career goals (I know, that sounds crazy, but I also know I’m not alone).

I just wanted to get a degree for a degree’s sake.

I’m just not sure I would do it the same way over again, given the hindsight I have now. I’m not sure if my degree has paid for itself.

I wish I would have known this was not Monopoly money.

I came from a family culture where everyone just goes to college. My dad was highly educated, and education was a high value for my family, so there was never any question if I would go to college or not.

And there was never any question about where I was “allowed” to go. The sky was the limit.

On the one hand, I’m indescribably grateful for that mentality. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without the unconditional support of my parents. On the other hand, sometimes I wish I would have thought more practically about what it actually meant to take on that much debt.

I wish every time I received a statement, I would have thought about it as actual dollar bills, rather than just numbers on a piece of paper. I wish I would have thought to myself:

This is $20,000 real dollars I will actually have to pay back later.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Mostly because I’m thinking it too. You’re thinking, “All this hindsight is great, but it doesn’t do me much good if I’m already in debt.”

“What am I supposed to do now?”

What if I’m in a dead-end job I hate that’s promising to pay off my debt in 10 years? Do I have to stay?

What if I want to go to Africa and work on a clean water initiative? Should I defer my loans?

What if I want to quit my full-time job to start my own business? Do I have to wait?

What if I want to move overseas and teach at a school? How am I supposed to do them with this debt looming over my head?

These are questions I’ve asked myself, too, and I keep meeting people who are wondering the same things. I wish I could just wave a magic wand and get rid of your school debt for you so you could go do the amazing things you want to do with your life.

(Okay, I guess I wish I had a magic wand for mine, too).

But unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.

I’ve tried all kinds of different options.

I’ve worked a job I didn’t like that promised to pay my debt (I only lasted three years). I deferred my school debt to go on a crazy year-long road trip. Now, I’m trying something new. I’m actually paying it off (revolutionary, I know).

I’ve felt so trapped by my school debt in the past, I’ve tried to find ways to skirt around it, to duck out from under it, or to just get a break from carrying the heavy weight for a second.

But the thing I’m finding is that the best way to get rid of the debt is to get rid of the debt — FAST.

That’s the only way I won’t have to carry it anymore.

So I’m taking jobs I don’t really want to take. I’d rather be writing or working on something creative, or starting something of my own. Instead, I’m taking a realistic look at the assets I have (a graduate degree) and using that asset to pay off my loan.

Also, Darrell and I are living under our means.

We could move into a bigger apartment, but we don’t. We could buy new furniture, but we don’t. We could update our wardrobes, but we don’t. I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying this to paint a realistic picture of what it looks like to attack debt fast.

Gazelle like intensity. That’s what Dave Ramsey calls it.

And I think, for the first time in my life, when it comes to my school loans, I might actually have it.


Do you have that? What are you doing about your school loans? To reply, Click HERE.