Love in the Time of Consumer Debt
He graduated from college at age 21 with no plan. Rather, his plan was to keep his three minimum wage part-time jobs and controlling girlfriend, a lifestyle that rendered him nearly invisible to his friends and family. He felt guilty for disappearing, so when he was able to hang out, all the pizza and beer in the world was on him. The girlfriend, shattered by a grisly family death, either couldn’t or didn’t work. He put all their bills on plastic and became the architect of the five digit consumer debt that defined his twenties.
This mismanaged generosity is his fatal flaw. When I met him, he was 25. Kindness poured out of him effortlessly. I’d known plenty of self-described nice guys who were more accurately misogynists or cowards. Here in my midst was a guy for whom unaffected niceness was just a matter of course. He had a valuable comic book collection, but would just as soon give a rare issue to a friend’s kid as keep it untouched in plastic. He was quietly vegetarian, and if pressed on the topic would explain that eating meat made him feel guilty, and so he didn’t. Despite being virtuous, he was not a snore. His jokes were dark and vulgar but never mean-spirited. I was a goner.
He admitted his secret to me a few weeks into dating; he was really, really ashamed of it, and no one else knew. By that point, he had secured a decent job with benefits that bored him to death. He had started aggressively paying down his debt, making confetti of all six cards and spending the same amount each month on rent as on interest. I moved away to go to graduate school. He stayed. I traveled to the Dominican Republic, Denmark, France, and Germany. He stayed. Sometimes I liked living and traveling alone. Other times I wished guiltily that I had a boyfriend who was less … entangled.
His job was at a university hospital, and his full-time status afforded him two free college classes per semester. For six years, he worked 40 hours a week and took classes in the evenings. Enthusiastic yet contrarian, he stood out from the gum-snapping “traditional students”. Why aren’t you in my graduate program? one professor wrote on a paper he’d turned in. Back when he was a 21-year-old textbook-clerk health-aide parking-attendant, he’d wanted to become a professor. To his surprise and mine, he discovered that as a 29-year-old debt-mired hospital tech, he still wanted to become a professor.
Weeks before his 31st birthday, he paid off the last of it. I wanted to hire a skywriter, basically, but we played it cool and just went out to dinner. His debt had been secret, after all, hidden from everyone but me.
Now he’s in a doctoral program that pays his tuition plus a small stipend. Times are lean but we feel free. For our honeymoon last fall, we went to Peru for two weeks and paid cash for the airfare, the backpacking trek to Machu Picchu, a few nights in a posh hotel, all of it.