Is There Anyone on Earth With As Much Debt As Me?

Thanks to my grandparents, I finished undergrad with zero debt. But then I went to grad school and got two degrees. One is a law degree (quite useful), the other is basically a conversation piece. (My boss: “Did you actually earn that degree, or did you buy the diploma on eBay?”) For these, I have just over $239,000 in student loan debt, down from the approximately $253,000 I started with.

I have a lot of feelings about my debt. Mostly I am ashamed that I complain about it. Because as huge as it is, my personal privilege is correspondingly huge. I didn’t waste my money. I bought myself a present and now I am paying for it by leveraging the present—I have a job! And my job is REALLY GOOD. My job makes even my ludicrous debt totally manageable with money to spare to live comfortably. So I am ashamed that I feel the burden at all when compared to what so most people face, I live in the penthouse at Number One Easy Street. And yet I still bitch and moan.

I really thought I knew what I was getting into, though I completely did not at all. Somehow I thought my payments would be around $1800 a month in a 10-year repayment plan, which seemed tough but not impossible. I was wrong about that: Ten-year repayment requires just over $3,000 per month. But even then I really didn’t think about it too much, at first. When I started law school in 2006, my plan was to do public interest work. I knew there were a lot of programs that helped public interest lawyers pay off their school loans, so I figured that’s how I’d make it work.

Then 2008 blah blah blah, the public interest market for law jobs became nonexistent unless you went or Harvard or could do it for free or you wanted to move to Kentucky. I did not want to move to Kentucky. So I went to a firm. And here I am.

It’s hard to decide how much to structure my life around getting rid of my debt. When I finished law school, I had every intention of staying in my super cheap student’s apartment and continuing to drive my beat up old car, complete with its leaky, broken sunroof and unpredictable starting. I planned on putting as much money towards my debt as possible.

But bedbugs (eeeegh, so horrible, and SO EXPENSIVE) took me out of the apartment. Peer pressure got me into a new car. A bad investment chipped away a bit here; a shopping binge for (totally necessary!) work clothes chipped away a bit there. I got slightly fancier cable, because all I want to watch are the movie channels anyway. I bought a flatscreen TV.

And suddenly I find myself locked into my life. Suddenly I could not afford to make much less than I do now, despite being a single person whose only dependent is a very fat and insistent cat. I have obligations. The absolute minimum payment I can get away with paying per month on the loan is $2,300 per month. And that’s for the next 30 years. I’m currently paying $2,500.

I guess this is what they mean when they talk about golden handcuffs. Or is this completely NOT A BIG DEAL and I should stop complaining? I do not know.

I should probably just be insanely grateful that I have the resources to deal with this (I am); live as austerely as possible (I don’t); and throw every penny I have into getting this monkey off my back until it’s gone (I am not doing that).

And this is where my thoughts trail off into swirls of self-recriminations, justifications, and a very strong desire for a very large drink. There’s something I’ve wondered wondered about for some time: Is there anyone else on earth with as much student loan debt as me? Put another way, how many actual total idiots does this world contain?

I’m just curious.


M.L. is a lawyer.


31 Comments / Post A Comment

sockhopbop (#764)

This post (which I liked a lot) made me want to know what the eBay degree is in! An MA in Shetland Pony Wrangling? A PhD in Bon Jovi Karaoke? I would get a degree in any of those things.

kellyography (#250)

@sockhopbop A doctoral exercise in Underwater Basket Weaving.

sockhopbop (#764)

@kellyography That ref sent me Googling to find out how that joke got started; I learned so much!

I know a dual-doctor couple with $500,000 in student loans. You’re not the only one.

MalPal (#1,200)

@TheclaAndTheSeals That is absolutely insane. What is wrong with this country?

lemons! (#384)

I think being burdened by your debt even though you make a lot of money is reasonable. It’s still a burden to feel as if you must continually make money. It’s still a shame you couldn’t go into the less lucrative but more soulful side of law because of that pressure. There’s always somebody worse off, but it’s the whole sharing in experience that creates change.

“Here at Gaye, Green & Franklin, we practice the more soulful side of law.”

lemons! (#384)

@Reginal T. Squirge Can I get a witness?!?

The fact is, you can afford to pay for it. Should that change — should you lose your job or take a lower paying job — then you likely qualify for federal programs that mean your payments would adjust downward accordingly (or to zero). So why worry?

Sorbee (#2,256)

SING IT. My financial situation is slightly different, but so much of what OP wrote resonates. When my husband went back to school for his JD in 2007, the economy hadn’t yet tanked and the legal job market hadn’t hit the skids. When he got out in 2011, jobs were scarce and he hasn’t found a legal job in the years since. He’s working for a non-profit, making like, no money, but since we’re married my (admittedly cushy) income gets factored into the loan repayment calculator.

It’s not even my debt! But I’m stuck with the feeling that I can’t afford to switch careers and take a paycut/go back to school for a Master’s when there’s this debt lodestone on our future. GAH. MONEY!

ladybug (#2,583)

@Sorbee Weird, I didn’t think my pay got factored into my husband’s repayment. But maybe it helps I don’t make much money? I sorta feel like our life is never going to start because of bad job market/pay following HUGE TERRIBLE LAW SCHOOL LOANS. My husband finished in 2008, and things are only maybe slightly marginally looking up? Anyway, I’m in school again myself (working full time too) to get into a career that will likely stand the test of time if nothing else.

@ladybug If you’re married, you can avoid having your spouse’s income count for IBR calculation purposes by being “married filing separately.” Yes, you lose a bunch of useful deductions (EIC, child care, tuition, student loan interest) and you get utterly SCREWED on Roth IRA contributions, but depending on your spouse’s income, it can even out.

Sorbee (#2,256)

@spectacularisms Community property state here. Married filing separately doesn’t help us a bit :(

@Sorbee Ugh, that is the worst… Honestly even in equitable distribution jurisdictions like the one I live in, my husband and I regularly contemplate divorcing for the tax breaks. We are only 95% joking. Seriously it’s absurd how the tax code screws you if you aren’t in a 1950s (one spouse non-working) marriage.

Sorbee (#2,256)

@spectacularisms Taking this opportunity to pile on the tax code: Aside from student loan deduction (obvs) we get like, zero tax breaks. As a couple, we are solidly middle class renters and there is NOTHING in the tax code for us. I spent years as a CPA working on other people’s taxes and I am still gobsmacked at the benefits other people (who, um, CLEARLY didn’t need it from the looks of their AGI) got from itemizing stuff. Taxes are seriously effed up.

You’re not alone! I used to work with a woman who had $200,000 in debt for a BA and two MAs from a very prestigious art school. Last I heard she was moving to Central America to “disappear”.

Tuna Surprise (#118)

I graduated from law school in 2004 with a little more than $110k in student loans. I more or less took a big law job to pay off my loans (which I finished paying off in 2012).

The issue with big loans/big job are two fold:
1. you end up taking a job that you don’t particularly love
2. you end up buying into a lifestyle you cant give up.

People will take big paying jobs and think “oh, I’ll just do this for a few years to pay back my loans.” But the problem with the law is that you are only a fungible commodity for the first year or two after law school. After you’ve started to become trained in one area of the law, it is nearly impossible to make a career change (especially in a bad economy). I’m at the 8th year associate level and personally, I’d prefer to do a different kind of law, with less hours and more personal fulfillment. But the job opportunities just aren’t there. I’m lucky to just be employed in the field I’m specialized in.

The harder part (for some people), is buying into the lifestyle. Once you start working at a big firm, your social life starts to get focused on people who make as much (or much more) than you. It starts off slow but becomes all consuming. When I was a student, I would wait for hours in line at a cheap brunch place or do free movies in the park. But once I started working 60-80 hours a week, I don’t have the time or patience to do stuff like that anymore. So you start paying $28 for eggs because you just want to eat. Or you take a taxi because it will be quicker and you’re tired from working until 2 am. And now your suit you got at H&M looks cheap next to everyone else’s nice clothes. And you need an apartment closer to work because those precious hours between 1 am and 9 am when you aren’t at work don’t need to be spent on the R train. So you get a nice place in the Village. And it goes on and on.

I was complaining to my boss the other day about being burned out on the law and he said “you can’t give up the money”. I’m not 100% sure if that’s true. My biggest money spenders are things like travel and housing. And if I had a better job with more time off I would be happy to go back to shoe string travel or more remote housing. But at this point I haven’t found something better to do.

This is all rambling but it’s all just to say, taking a high paying job solved the problem of loan repayment but it didn’t solve all my problems.

Piranha (#3,136)

@Tuna Surprise I have so many thoughts on this (not really organized, though)!! I graduated in 2005 with about $70k in loans. I started out at a firm in a small city with low cost-of-living, but that paid nearly New York salaries. Seven years later, I’m in the same inexpensive city, but now work at a satellite office of a biglaw NY firm, and so make a NY salary, but my living expenses are not even close to what they would be in Manhattan. I’m not immune to lifestyle creep, but living in a cheap place (plus, working all the time and so not having time to shop or eat out) keeps it in check.
I don’t entirely agree that it’s impossible to make a career change after your first few years of working. After seven years of experience in transactional work, it would be hard to switch to litigation or vice versa. But if you’re a litigator, for example, the skills you develop (writing, research, argument, insane attention to detail) are transferable to other litigation specialties. Many of my colleagues have gone from commercial lit to become public defenders or prosecutors, or shifted from the narrow litigation specialty I practice in into a different area, or remained in our litigation specialty but moved to a lifestyle firm, even in this economy. Others have come to my city after a few years at prestige New York firms in search of a more affordable lifestyle and slightly better hours. And, a surprising number of my classmates from law school have gone from corporate law to opening their own shops and doing family law or DUI cases – one of my friends did this very early in his career and is doing splendidly, I believe he spends much of his time on the beach.
So, what has worked for me financially and professionally (personal life is a mess, sadly) is:
(1) giving up the opportunity to live in an awesome place with awesome people and awesome things to do in order to save money (and time – my commute is 5 minutes) by living in a not-very-fun place with not very much to do;
(2) having non-lawyer friends, because I don’t feel pressure to spend more money than I can afford, and they remind me of the world outside of the biglaw bubble; and
(3) not spending money on clothes because nobody notices them anyway.

BornSecular (#2,245)

Wow that seems like a lot of debt to me. My mortgage is half of that. But, I picked my school based on how much in scholarships I was offered. I had no other criteria. Thus, I graduated after 5 years with $0 of debt. I know I am not the norm.

@BornSecular I tend to disagree with that where law school is concerned. T14 for $250k is STILL worth more than Northwest South Nowhere College of Law for free, because with a J.D. from NSNCL you probably won’t get a job and will end up exactly where you started except 3 years older.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@spectacularisms That’s what they tell you to spend all that money at the fancy school, isn’t it? Do you think those other law schools would still exist if no one was working? People from Georgetown love to say Temple Law School is a joke. That makes me laugh because I know plenty of lawyers who went to Temple and working. As lawyers.

themegnapkin (#444)

@spectacularisms it really depends what you’re going for. If you want to work at a big firm, then the name of your law school matters a lot. If you’re interested in different options (not necessarily less sought-after options – good non-profit environmental law jobs are really hard to get), then the prestige factor is less important, and other things, like commitment to the cause is more important. What’s a huge problem, though, is that less prestigious =/= less expensive. A few lucky ones get scholarships, but most people still end up paying $250k for Northwest South Nowhere College of Law, and end up nowhere.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@spectacularisms I would disagree that any law school is worth any amount of money this year. Have you read the news? Half of grads aren’t getting jobs and going to a fancy school does NOT guarantee you any kind of legal job, let alone a good one.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@josefinastrummer Most people I know from Georgetown have never even heard of Temple, but everyone I know in Philadelphia thinks it’s equivalent to Harvard, if not better, so there you go. I know a lot of Temple grads that are employed as lawyers, but almost all of them are in Philadelphia or other parts of PA.

francesfrances (#1,522)

This is going to sound so first world, but I feel for you because, I mean, you have this fancy lawyer job and make all this money, but $2,500 a month goes to loans, not to a fancy lawyer lifestyle or savings or a nice vacation or your future, or even to doing/buying nice things for people. I imagine that is a lot of pressure, and that you are working pretty damn hard and not getting to enjoy the rewards in a way that our culture says you should. And that kind of sucks, right? Like your life has this big disclaimer: “Yes, I make this much money, BUT….”

Good job, keep working hard. You’ll pay it off, and it sounds like you have a good cable package to get you through it!

margaretcatwood (#2,236)

M.L., i’m in the same boat as you! my debt is right up there with yours, and i graduated law school in 2009. after two years of sketchy, unstable employement, i finally found a decent lawyer job (not a biglaw associate). while it pays me a decent enough salary for NYC, i can still barely chip away at my loans.

if someone had told me this would happen before i had gone to law school, i never would have gone.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

Argh, no! Golden handcuffs can’t mean “being shackled by massive debt to X job,” can it?? I thought golden handcuffs referred to a really well paying, comfortable job that you maybe don’t particularly love but don’t want to leave because it’s so financially comfortable. Debt-shackling is more like lead handcuffs.

Nathan (#3,674)

you’re not the only one. i have 250,000 and i make 110-120,000 a year before taxes. i’m actually clinically depressed over this matter and hopefully will pull myself out of this mental rut soon.

Try having that much debt because you went to a fancy private college for undergrad, and got a stupid liberal arts degree and it took longer than 4 years for no good reason, and now you work in the music industry and HAHAH you will actually never make enough to pay it all back HAHAHA no you’re not the only idiot, and compared to me you’re not an idiot at all.

illnona (#4,783)

Sooo, I’m kind of in this situation. Not quite the $2300, but probably proportionate. I work a job I moderately like and have upgraded my life to match my ridiculous salary and suddenly a 6-figure salary seems small in comparison to my expenses. I can’t believe I’m this person…then I feel guilty for self-pity.

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