How I Learned to Stop Obsessing About My Student Loans
God grant me the will to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the things I cannot. Is that how the prayer goes?
Late last year I knew that when it came to my finances, I was doing okay with the first part, but failing entirely on the second. It had been more than two years since I’d lived paycheck to paycheck, but I was still acting like it. Worse, I was obsessed with something I couldn’t change—at least not in a short-term way—my five-figure, mortgage-sized student loan debt.
When I finished grad school in 2010, I knew in theory that I would be paying my students loans until I was at least 30-something, if not 40-something. But the theoretical becomes very real when you know you’re never going back to school and this, as they say, is it.
I’m fortunate to have been employed since that graduation day, and in jobs that allow me to make my monthly payments with a decent cushion left over. But looking at the math made me crazy. What if I added $50 more a month? I typed in a lot of potential payments of my student loans, trying to get myself below a certain amount at milestones (30th birthday? This time next year?).
I imagined modest windfalls to see how I’d proportion it out, but be annoyed when I realized it wouldn’t make much of a dent. I confirmed it when I threw an entire tax rebate at the largest loan, and ended up saving, drumroll, $8 a month, on interest.
The obsession was good, for a while. My spreadsheets (oh I have multiple), tell me that I’m almost $5,000 ahead of where I should be from my original payment plan. And I’ve still been able to go on vacations and probably spend too much money at restaurants.
But if not prayers, economics should have taught me that at a certain point that the returns start to diminish.
I’d log in into my student loan account in the middle of the month, just to see where the total was. Never mind I’d already calculated how much I was paying each day in interest and had a calendar that told me where I’d be in 12 months, 24 months—hell 53 and half months. Why was I bothering looking at the balance?
But what was really scary was that I realized it was possible that my absent-minded obsession with paying off my student loans was likely losing me money. I calculated how I could get below a certain goal and ended up forgetting to pack a lunch. I spent more time looking for freelance ghost-writing I had no passion for instead of working to further my career, the very thing I’d spent my future money on.
I’m not a resolution-type person, but the new year brought a good excuse for a new mindset. I decided to stop checking and calculating—as cold-turkey as I could. Everything was set to be automatic, so I could spend my time better.
The Serenity prayer, it turns out, is a much-more compelling version than my half-remembered attempt. It’s the often-used mantra of many 12-step groups. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
It’s going better, but old habits, especially Internet history habits, die hard. When I sat down to write this, it was because I woke up from the same over-calculating auto-pilot that had wasted so much of my 2012. There I was, looking at the largest loan’s balance in the middle of the month. I closed the window, shut the computer and slowly, slowly walked away.