Sallie Mae: Helping You Pay Less, So You Owe Them More

I think it’s underreported how incredibly nice the customer service agents at Sallie Mae can be about you not paying back your loan.

Like a lot of people, I took out loans for college, and after graduation, spent my early twenties not making enough money to pay down my debts.

Eventually I took a job at an internet-y, start-up-y, new media, digital-type company where I was nicely compensated, and I started making payments on my loans. I was laid off after 18 months.

When I called Sallie Mae to break the bad news, the customer service agent sighed and told me it was OK, pumpkin—I could put the loan into deferment.


I asked how long I could do that, and I don’t remember what she said, but she certainly didn’t seem to be sweating it, so I figured I wouldn’t either. Pay it back. Don’t pay it back. Pay a little on it. Defer it. Whatever.

I hung up the phone feeling like a fucking champion. I had faced a major financial fear, and it had been resolved thanks to a mutual agreement to not worry about it.

Two years passed, and the loan collected about $15,000 in interest. I got more full-time work and started paying my Sallie Mae bill again, but it looked kinda ugly, and I began to consider deferring it again. They’d let me do it so many times before. I once deferred paying back the loan for a year simply because it was the only way I could afford to deal with the amount of late-charges I’d racked up.

Go to the website, click a few buttons, watch the amount due that month fade to zero, and chuck those payment slips in the recycling bin.

Pondering that option, the other day I logged into and asked to reset my password—just how I do on the 26th of every month to pay the bill that is due on the 25th.

Right now I can pay a bill. And yet I cannot pay a bill. Paying a bill makes me upset. I get upset because seeing money that I have earned go toward something that will never go away feels futile. I looked at my outstanding balance and was struck by cold terror.

For about three months I’d been ignoring the $20 late charges and just paying the $247 due every month, thinking that the growing past-due balance would either disappear or get so big that it disappeared or… Obama? That $247, by the way, was only going to interest; it wasn’t even touching the principal.

So I called Sallie Mae to figure out what I’d done and what I could do. I started the call by telling the INCREDIBLY CHEERFUL agent that I’d been through periods when I couldn’t pay, but now I was ready to pay aggressively for however long it took to pay this thing down (hopefully not forever).

The agent told me I had set up a plan where I paid about as little as I could, but because of that, what I was paying was only going to interest, which was continuing to accrue. I could change the plan and pay more and some amount of it would go to the principal. This sounded good to me. This is what I wanted. I want to pay more, not less. But the agent kept bringing it back to paying less—so many times that it began to seem illogical to increase the monthly payment plan. I don’t think he was doing so for any other reason than he must get five billion calls every day from people who are like, oh my god, I cannot pay this bill. That’s gotta take a toll on a person.

In fairness, that’s been me for most of my relationship with Sallie Mae. But if a guy is telling you that you can lower your bill, and he seems really cool about it—shouldn’t you do that? Isn’t having a lower bill the point of life?

If I really dig in, maybe I can get the student loan bill lower than the cable bill.

It has taken me wa-a-a-ay too long to realize the difference between a loan payment and a cable bill. If you pay too much for your cable package you can cut back and get the plan that doesn’t include HBO, or you can cancel the whole thing. Don’t pay, and they cut your cable off. There’s no giant number that Time Warner has attached to your social security number that you need to pay down every month.

Loans, on the other hand, are a big number attached to your social security number, and you have to pay them back or the number gets bigger until you give them enough money to make it smaller. Buy some scratch-off tickets. Pack up your shit and disappear.

I’d figured this out with credit cards. Unlike Sallie Mae, credit card people are not very nice when you call them and ask for a lower monthly payment. Unless you can start throwing money at your credit card company in lump sums, you’re basically trapped in a cycle where your minimum payment goes only to interest forever and the amount you owe increases every month. They won’t help you. And so early on in my career as debtor, I paid off my credit cards.

But my experience with Salle Mae has been different. You can pay more to bring the debt down, but you could also pay less and bring the debt up, and they’re cool beans either way. You can also fill out a form and not pay it at all for a while.

Of course, I appreciate how nice the Sallie Mae customer service people have been to me.

I imagine they field a lot of rough calls.

I’ve definitely called them in rough times.

It’s just that there’s an institutional crack, a systemic fuck-up when no one—not even the people at Sallie Mae—acts like they expect these loans to be repaid. They’re just trying to figure out how to help you pay something toward your debt so you don’t get thrown out of a moving boxcar.

I am a person who has a lot of anxiety, embarrassment, and fear tied up in the debt that I owe. I will also admit to being kinda sorta clueless. So carrying all that baggage means that every few years when I experience a moment of clarity or something horrible happens to my ability to draw an income, I call up the owner of my student loan—and I get hosed.

You can’t get rid of student loans, not through bankruptcy or ever. If I’m allowed to grow a loan for YEARS after my education is complete, then who is the one making a living from my education? It’s not me.

Anyway, I visited the cold and logical after this latest call and figured out a way to not just make payments, but to start paying the thing off. My loan will probably be paid off in ten years. At that point I will have been out of school for 23 years, which is how old I was when I had to make my first payment to Sallie Mae.


Frank Smith lives in Brooklyn.


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