Logan: Mike. Can I tell you a story about one of my very first adult memories?
Logan: Okay. So about two weeks after I graduated from college, I flew to LA. Some friends had a three-month sublet and they invited me to join them, and so I did that. My friend Greg picked me up in his Camaro, still filled with detritus from his cross-country drive, and we drove to meet our friends at a house they were staying in.
That afternoon we went to the bank to get a cashiers check so we could pay for our sublet. We used my bank and I withdrew my cash (which was my dad’s cash) and combined it with their cash and then got the check made out the apartment complex. It was a lot of money—thousands of dollars—more than I’d dealt with before and I remember being stressed out as I filled out the paperwork while standing in line. There must have been a deadline, maybe the bank was closing. I’m sure we were running late. That is how we do things.
I finally got the check, and I went outside and met my friends in the parking lot. I showed Greg the check and he said: “This says ‘Five Star Suites.’” And I said, I know, “‘Five Star Suites.’” And he said, no, “Five Star Suites.” And I was like, “What is your problem, I know what it says.” And then he said, “LOOK AT THE DAMN CHECK.”
And it did not say “Five Star Suites.” It said “Five Star Sweets,” all typed out and pretty. In my haste, I had spelled, like, the third easiest word to spell in the English language wrong. I had to go back in, stand in line again, and explain my very stupid mistake to the woman. She fixed it, but not without an eye roll. Sometimes when I’m really tired I can still laugh uncontrollably at this until I almost pee my pants.
That’s how I became a grownup, Mike Dang.
Mike: Hahaha. You should write a about post this!
Logan: (THIS IS A CHAT)
Mike: Ooooooh. I did not realize we had started!
Logan: I thought the punctuation would TIP YOU OFF. And the drastic reduction of typos. I say reduction and not elimination because, well. I AM ONLY HUMAN.
Mike: I’m trying to think of when I first remember thinking, “I am an adult now,” because I’ve felt like one for a very long time. It was probably when I graduated high school and left home, and started being financially independent. I think money plays a huge role in how much you feel like an adult. Because for most of your life up to that point, your parents or someone else has been earning money and supporting you. So, I guess when I signed on the dotted line for those student loans and moved out of my parents’ house, I made the transition.
Logan: So, the Five Star Sweets thing was just one of those moments for me. I’ve had a lot of them. I’m still having them. There hasn’t been that one moment that divides the pre-parents and post-parents thing for me. I still get help from my parents in a lot of ways, and I’m sure that I will for a long time. It seems to me that for a lot of people, though, signing off on their student loans would be the first adult step. Do you ever regret getting them? Did you know what you were getting yourself into?
Mike: I’ve never regretted getting them. And yes, I knew what I was getting myself into. But, I also think I had it better a decade ago than students are having it today, because college costs have shot up so dramatically.
The thing about my student loans is that they are there, and I have to pay them every month, but they have never prevented me from living. I go on trips. I quit jobs. I live alone in a studio in New York. I will pay them until I am in my 40s, and that is fine.
Logan: Right. I guess I’ve just been thinking that for a lot of people, they ARE the first step in adulthood, and … what a step.
Mike: For me, adulthood is more about independence than anything else. Being able to figure out things on your own. Money plays a big part in that, but also, you know, just being able to come across a problem and solving it without any hand-holding.
Logan:You seem really okay with your college loans. I know a lot of people don’t feel the same way. They feel like these things are going to ruin their lives. A friend told me today that she’ll never pay them off. Actually she said, “I WILL NEVER PAY THEM OFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF.”
How do you avoid that attitude?
Mike: Because I know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When I say I am going to pay until I am in my 40s, that’s not a random thought, that’s a calculation. I’m guessing the people you know don’t see an end to them?
Honestly, if I did not go to Columbia for grad school, I would not have moved to New York, and you and I would have never met, and this website probably would have never existed. So what I’m saying is that for me, it was money well-spent. A lot of people don’t feel that way.
Logan: Right. What would you say to someone who felt like their education hadn’t given them what it promised? Someone who was still paying for it and will still be paying it for a long time?
Mike: I would say that I understand that it is a very hard thing to feel like you have this giant monster tied to your back. And that, yes, it seems like it’s unfair. It seems unfair that some of us are rich, and that some of us are poor. That some of us got to leave college debt-free because our parents or someone else paid for our educations, and that some of us had to take out enormous loans to get the same access to education. And for those of us with these massive debt loads, we have these really dark days when we resent the monster on our back.
A few years ago, during my brief period of unemployment during the recession, I lived every day in those dark moments where I resented having to pay a student loan bill every month while I was collecting unemployment money that was barely paying for my basic living expenses. I stayed up at night wondering what I’d do if the next job never came. I thought about my mother’s disappointment in my career choices, and heard it in her voice when I talked to her on the phone. I felt ashamed. It was a struggle. It felt like a terrible black hole I would never climb out of. I spent a lot of days eating beans.
But to make a long story short: I climbed out of it. The next job came. The bills were paid. The monster on my back was still there, but I didn’t really feel it there anymore. So to this person, what I’m saying is: You will fall into a hole and believe that the monster is crushing you. But you will also climb out of that hole, and realize that you are a resilient human being. You will become one of those people who understand struggle and sacrifice, and you will become a better person because of it.
Logan: But can they really? My understanding is that many people have taken out loans with such interest rates that they will never, ever pay them off.
Mike: So I think the varying degrees of burden certainly depends on what you owe and at what interest rate. My current burden is $60,000, and my interest rates are between 2.25 and 5 percent. I’ve managed to make my loan payments a less noticeable burden for me working as a writer.
There are stories of students with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt that are reported practically every other week somewhere on the Internet. Much of it has to do with the fact that they are either unemployed, or not in jobs that pay very well, so they’re mostly paying interest and very little principal. I have friends, for example, who went to law school, and now are finding it difficult to get jobs and are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And it is an enormous, enormous burden, but it doesn’t mean their lives are over. They are struggling, but they are not out on the street. They are figuring out how to make it work. And yes, half of the battle will have to be done through reform, by making repayment plans more feasible with enormous debt loads, to create forgiveness programs, and to get college costs under control for future generations. It’s something we’ll have to fix together.
And I do believe that people are resilient. I mean, when my parents were in their 20s, they escaped a war-torn country and came to the U.S. with zero money, and they’ve come really far. We come across enormous difficulties in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we don’t figure out ways to overcome them.