Lightening The Load - 08.16.99

This last weekend, I had a personal moment of brightness. Granted, it was kind of rainy outside and I didn't really have anything that exciting on my list of things to-do, but with the lick of one stamp and a trip to the post-office, I did something that was a huge personal accomplishment for me; I sent in for the Publishers Clearinghouse.

OK, so I'm kidding. Actually, this last Saturday morning, I signed and sealed and sent the final check in paying off my student loans from college. It was a pretty big hit in the checkbook, but as soon as the envelope had left my hands and slid down the slot on route to that big repository of ill-repute, I really did feel a little bit more free.

Approximately 6 years ago, before I had even gone off to college, I was already worried about student loans. I was headed off to a small, liberal-arts school whose tuition was nearly as much as some of the Ivy leagues. I had a scholarship and a couple different work-studies (otherwise there would have been no way possible for me to go), but I still needed to do what almost every other kid does and take out loans to afford the rest. At the time, I had no idea what I was going to be doing after I graduated and wasn't even quite sure what I wanted to major in while I was there (I started out in Psychology, then ended up in Art with an emphasis in Photography), but I figured that I could pay off around 9,000 dollars or so over the course of the 10 years that I had to repay them.

Sometime just before my junior year, I went though a bit of a crisis (one of many) involving college. The price of attending the school had gone up drastically, but my scholarship hadn't, nor my work-study allotment. I had botched-up a class pretty bad my second semester (although not as bad as I had thought upon looking back at things), and I was even wondering whether I would go back. Not only did I keep my grade-point average from rising much, but it was going to cost me a lot more to go back the next year. After thinking about things long and hard, I decided to bite the bullet and go ahead with more loans.

By the time I graduated, I had accumilated around 16,000 dollars in student loans from two different institutions, and wondered how in the hell I was going to pay it all off. I immediately started thinking about exactly how much money it was and what I could have done with it instead, like purchase a car, etc. At first, I got mad with my situation, wondering why I had even done it all in the first place, putting myself so far into debt at such a young age. After awhile, though, I had to stop wondering and simply think of solutions to remedy the situation.

To make matters worse, I didn't have a job lined-up when I graduated. I had been working on several different leads around the time that I was graduating, but in the last two weeks before I walked across the stage and accepted my diploma, everything seemed to fizzle away into flakey offers and indecision on others part.

Like any completely humbled graduate, I moved back home and in with my family again. I couldn't bring myself to unpack any of my things from college, and basically lived out of a suitcase for the first few days that I was home. Luckily, I found a job quickly and within the next month, I had moved out into a place of my own. Unfortunately for me, this also meant that I was paying for all my own bills, and given the poor entry-level pay of the job that I had found, I couldn't make as large of payments as I would have liked on my loans. The bills arrived and I payed my minimums, but I never felt like I was gaining much ground on them.

Over the course of the next couple months, I made some concessions and learned to budget myself a bit more, and soon found that I was starting to make a bit of a dent in what I needed to pay off. After moving into a new apartment and quitting my job while finding a new one, things really started to role. I kept nearly my same old budget, but before I knew it, I had payed off all of my loans from one of the borrowing institutions. On my final check to them, I wrote exclamations behind my account number and saved the notes that they sent back to me thanking me for my repayment. I still had 10,000 to go, though.

If I had to give away one secret of it all, I guess that my best advice would be to live like a hermit. I'm a fairly big non-consumer anyway, but during the past two years (and two months) since I graduated, I kept a very strict monetary limit on what I could spend outside basic expenses every week. If I went over one week by 10 dollars, then I'd chill out the very next week and find different things to do to make up for what I had spent. It was a bit compulsive and strange (especially to friends I had who didn't owe anything), but it really did make things go a lot easier.

And so, two weeks ago, I called up the US government and enquired as to what my final payment would be. I knew I had the money in my account to finish it all off, but I needed to know the exact amount they needed to wipe the slate clean. Like the true geek that I am, I sampled the automated voice (sounding somewhat like a female version of a Kraftwerk vocodored sample) saying how much my final payment would be. I have no idea when or where I'll use it, but I needed to have a reminder of it just for posterity's sake.

Soon after I had mailed the envelope, I felt amazing, but I didn't really want to tell anyone. Two of the things I don't talk to hardly anyone (save two good friends) about are my finances or any of my intimate details (not that there are many). That night, though, I just had to do something to celebrate it all and bought myself a drink at the local club where some friends and I go out dancing. Because I rarely (meaning about 3 times a year) drink, I was pegged about why the occassion warranted a drink on my part and I eventually gave in. As I suspected, they really didn't understand the elation that I was going through (I told them that it was much bigger than a birthday), but congratulated me anyway.

So, I guess the question in the end is whether or not it was worth it. It's hard to put a price on things like education, because it's all so subjective (would I have learned the same things and gotten the same jobs had I gone to a cheaper school?), but I'd have to say that it was. Not only did I get a nicely-balanced education (I'm very much for the liberal-arts education after going through the program), but I met a lot of nice and interesting people (including professors) that I probably would have never known had I gone somewhere else. It's a hard thing to put a value on, but I know that I value them a hell of a lot more than I would a new car (besides, I've still got the trusty old school Volvo).