My Big Dumb Debt Story and What I’ve Learned

I’ve never written about personal finance here before. But why the hell not? I write about my kids, my marriage, my hypochrondriac freakouts. This isn’t so much a “mom blog” as it is a “I’m-ignoring-my-toddler’s-temper-tantrum-may-as-well-blog” kind of blog. So I’m just gonna write about whatever. Including our student loan debt and our struggles to get out from under it. Cool? Cool.

And post funny pictures of chickens because obviously

My name is Sarah. And I have student loan debt. When I graduated from college, the number was astounding — almost $62,000. My husband was smarter than I and got more scholarships, so his debt load was smaller, but still substantial — about $30,000. Thankfully, my husband’s debt (if you want to qualify it as “his debt” and “my debt”) is already gone. One of the reasons I love my husband so much is that he works hard for what he wants. He’s steadfast and dependable and when he sets a goal for himself, he hustles to get it accomplished (sexy, right?) When he graduated college in 2007, he moved back in with his parents and threw nearly all of his monthly income at his debt load. He paid off his debt in just over two years. By the time we left on our honeymoon, he was completely debt free. He was responsible. Sexily responsible.

I, however, was not that responsible. Until I graduated, I gave absolutely no thought to how much debt I was taking on, or how much it would cost me per month to repay. The thought hardly ever occurred to me. All I knew was that I was going to college, and college cost money. The government was offering money, so I took it. And I would figure out how to pay them back later. How I would ever pay back sixty grand with an English degree, I never bothered to think about.

I realize that now.

I don’t think I could have given any less thought to my debt load if I had tried. I went out of my way at every step to avoid talking about debt or how much my college was costing me. When my dad told me flat-out my sophomore year that I should consider transferring, I was like but dad, this school has free breakfast during finals! This school is the BEST!. When other students would live off-campus to save money, I just lived wherever was closer to class. And the entrance counseling for federal aid? LOL. I just clicked and guessed and tried my hardest not to absorb anything it was telling me. I didn’t get the terms I was agreeing to, I didn’t know how I’d pay it back, and I tried my hardest not to think about it.

My reaction to the loan counseling: TL;DR

Denial. It’s a helluva drug.

So I’d have to say the first lesson I learned from my extraordinarily stupid foray into student debt, is that you have to treat debt like it’s a communicable disease. Do anything you can to avoid it. Work late, work overtime, live off campus — live in a box, for God’s sake. Just don’t take on debt if you could ever possibly help it. And I could have. If I had gone to a cheaper school, or had applied for more scholarships, maybe I could have escaped with less debt, or maybe none at all, since my parents paid for some of my schooling. But I did literally no thinking ahead and just applied to whatever school had the major I wanted. (I ended up switching majors like four times anyway, so that criteria was pretty useless in the end.) Actually, scratch that — I applied to my college because it had my major, but I enrolled because I liked the campus, the school was in the middle of a big city I wanted to explore, and there was a statue of Mother Theresa in one of their lobbies. Not kidding. I thought it was a sign from God, and maybe it was, since I met my husband during our time at the school newspaper. Still — don’t do what I did. Don’t base one of the biggest investments on your life on the fact that you like its lobby.

Seriously cannot believe I just wrote that sentence.

Anywho. If taking on debt is a necessity, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it, and you’ve done everything possible to minimize it as much as you can, then for the love of God, do what my husband did and throw as much money as you can at it, as quickly as possible, to crawl out from under it. The minimum payment is not your friend. Before we were married, Lou made probably $2k a month, if that. And every month he wrote a check for at least $1500, and usually more like $1700 or $1800. He paid his phone bill, bought his train ticket to work, and we occasionally went out for Thai food. That was it. His debt was gone in two years, and he saved thousands of bucks in interest as a result.

If I could do it all again, I would do what my little brother did. Our parents were generous enough to pay for a portion of our college; they saved up some money and divided it among my brothers and I equally. To this day, I still don’t know how much he gave me, because like a dumb ass, I never bothered to ask. Money was taboo and I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so when my dad said I could afford a year or two at Loyola, I enrolled with no questions asked. Awesome, I thought. I’ll ride on whatever my dad gives me, and then sign up for loans when it’s gone. And that’s exactly what I did. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Jake, on the other hand, learned how much my dad was planning on giving him, exactly, to the cent. After high school, he delayed college for two years while he put himself through community college and worked full-time at Burger King to pay for school. He got all of his core credits completed for cheap, with his Burger King earnings, and all the while built up his photography portfolio in his spare time. When his core was complete, he applied for a scholarship at Columbia with that same portfolio, and won it. Between my parents’ generosity, the school’s scholarship, and his unbelievable hustle, he was able to go to his dream school and graduate with almost no debt. Jake had a plan, a budget, and ambition.

Meanwhile, I’m like

When I got married, I got the balls to look up my loan amounts on the National Student Aid website, and boy was that a rotten surprise. I think the final total was somewhere around $62k, although I was too buy puking and passing out to really let it sink in. Ouch.

Right in the net worth.

I felt awful. My husband had worked so hard to pay down his debt and he had done a fantastic job. Now he was $60k in the hole again. I had buried my head in the sand instead of taking on an extra job and throwing extra money at it to bring down the total, and now we were both stuck paying it off for years to come — maybe even decades. Oh hell no, I thought. I want babies. I want a house. Ain’t nobody got time for this. I had my epiphany about four years too late, but at least I had it: Student debt sucks. Any kind of debt sucks. We had stuff to do. A life to live. Babies to raise. And Sallie Mae didn’t factor into any of that.

Me and Sallie Mae. She’s a harsh mistress.

So, Lou and I started throwing money at Sallie Mae like a cheap stripper. Every cent we made went right to her, and we hated it, but we made incredible progress in a very short amount of time. After I finished school and got pregnant with June, my parents invited us to live with them so that we could pay down our debt, and we accepted graciously. Two years later we’re still living here, still throwing money at our loans (we actually paid the minimums for a year, so we could save up for a second car) and I’m psyched to say we have “only” $23k left to go. Right now Lou and I are doing everything possible to save more and pay everything off quicker — I clip coupons, I make my own laundry soap, I cloth diaper, I freelance. And Lou as I write this is working overtime at his office, on a Saturday, so we can get that much closer to living our dream as homeowners. I’m proud of how hard we’ve worked and how far we’ve come, but we came by these successes the hard way.

So. Student debt blows. And I have a lot of it because I didn’t make the smartest decisions. Don’t do what I did. Plan. And save. And work your ass off. Pay more than the minimums. And get rid of it as quickly as possible.

I’ll be over here, paying off my own debt, rooting for you.


We Need to Talk about Antidepressants

The fall of my senior year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. Until recently, I didn’t even know what happened to me could be considered a nervous breakdown. When I hear that term, I think of a padded cell and a 5150 hold. I think of a complete psychotic break — like running around the streets naked and smearing feces on cars, or something. That didn’t happen with me. Instead, I spent a week huddled under my electric blanket, feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, convinced I was dying of Swine Flu, crying and eating cereal and watching Frasier on an endless loop. This was triggered by the PTSD I developed after studying abroad the previous semester.


A “nervous breakdown,” according to MayoClinic, refers to a stressful situation when someone is unable to function in day-to-day life. It’s really helpful for me to read that definition out loud to myself. It helps me realize, to this day, that yes, things were that bad. Until recently, I kind of just referred to that time in my head as the week I binged on Lifetime Original movies and drank a lot of wine and missed a lot of class. As it turns out, I wasn’t just “having a bad week.” I wasn’t just “feeling stressed” or “feeling sick.” I had completely ceased to function in the world. I had a full-on nervous breakdown. And maybe had I known I was careening toward a breakdown, I wouldn’t have been so reluctant to start taking some medicine.

Pretty much verbatim what I told my roommates and coworkers

So after my full-on, hiding-under-the-covers nervous breakdown, I finally admitted that yeah, maybe I wasn’t doing so well with just therapy and a bottle of wine. And perhaps — just perhaps — I needed to kick it up a notch.

Up until that point, my therapist had been cautiously suggesting that I try an anti-depressant. And for months she had respectfully nodded and hadn’t pressed me when I all but laughed in her face. Well, I didn’t quite laugh in her face, but I made it clear that the thought of taking medicine was ridiculous. Hello? I thought. Haven’t you been paying attention? I freak the fuck out when I have to urinate, and I’ve been urinating for my entire life. If I start getting weird symptoms because of these pills, I’m going to have a heart attack. I’m going to start obsessing every time I take them. I’m going to start feeling imaginary symptoms. I’ll over-think every twinge, every cramp, every unfamiliar ache. It’ll make my anxiety worse. So for months we’d do a cat-and-mouse where the subject of meeting a psychiatrist (for medicine) would come up and I’d awkwardly try to side-step. And by side-step I’d be like:

But after that week in October, I felt like it was very literally my last option. Either I could take some medicine and hope that it worked, or I’d cease to function like a normal human. And that kind of panic — that flu-like feeling of sickness — is simply unsustainable. I’m not saying I was suicidal. But I really don’t know how much more of that I could have taken. So when I went crying to the campus nurse about how I had the Swine Flu and all my “Swine Flu” symptoms turned out to be anxiety induced, that blessed nurse scheduled a therapy session for me immediately. And from there I saw the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist guy gave me two things — and I feel like it’s important for me to tell you what they were, at the risk of sounding like a druggie, because every week or so I’ll get an e-mail or an instant message with someone asking me about anti-anxiety drugs and what they’re like. There’s a definite undercurrent of shame, and fear, and, well, anxiety about what the side effects are going to be — which was totally my preoccupation before I started trying them. So. Psychiatrist guy (who looked curiously like Tobias Funke) gave me xanax, which has short-term effects and calms you down in the midst of an anxiety attack, and started me on Zoloft, which is an anti-depressant. Basically, untreated anxiety or PTSD feels like you’ve got your hand on a hot skillet and you can’t take it off. You’re expected to function as though everything is fine, but inside you’re thinking HOLY SHIT THIS HURTS I CANT FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE BURNING IT BURNSSSSSSS!!!! Xanax is like splashing some cold water on the skillet — a temporary relief, but your hand is still on the skillet, and it’ll heat right back up again in a few minutes. Zoloft is like someone coming up behind you and turning off the burner — gradually, the anxiety goes away, and you start acting and feeling more like your normal self.

Seriously. Can you tell I was an English major?

So I started the zoloft that day. And I’d be lying if I said I had about a million tiny little anxiety freakouts and IBS flareups wondering what the side-effects would be. And I did get side-effects — nausea, primarily — for a few weeks until it started to kick in. And boy, did it kick in.

About a month after I started taking it, sometime in the first week of December — about ten months after the incident that spurred my PTSD — I woke up one morning and I felt lighter. Physically lighter. My limbs were looser. And the biggest difference was that I could breathe. It was a totally unparalleled feeling and I’m sure I looked like a complete dumbass, because I would just walk around campus and take deep, long breaths, sucking all the cold air into my lungs that I possibly could. It felt wonderful. I hadn’t even noticed until the anxiety went away how completely crushing it was. A weight had literally been lifted, and I felt joyously free. Right in time for finals. And then winter break.

When I went home for winter break, the primary feeling I felt was utter bliss. I’m not kidding. It always really irks me when people refer to anti-depressants as “happy pills,” because they make me functional, not happy. But this period was the exception — I had been living under the crushing weight of PTSD for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to just feel normal. I could take big, deep breaths. I could  hear the doorbell ring or the blender turn on without hiding under my covers. I could wake up and actually feel excited about the day, instead of dreading all the millions of little noises and random events that would trigger an episode. I spent the whole winter vacation in my parents’ house, absolutely blissed out, reading books and lying on the couch and just feeling like I had gotten my life back. I could talk about my anxiety triggers without actually feeling triggered. I could think about India without feeling like I was dizzy or short of breath. I could ride in a car or a train without willing myself not to jump out of it. It was heaven.

Oh, it felt so good

I kind of sound like a druggie, don’t I? Obviously, anti-depressants aren’t for everyone. And Zoloft, specifically, is not for everyone, I’m sure. I wasn’t high or anything, but getting your life back after ten months in hell? Oh, it was wonderful. I couldn’t breathe deeply enough.

And then — I got depressed.

Stay tuned.