We take out student loans casually, and then rail against having them for years.
I knew grad school would be expensive, but I don’t think anyone is able to comprehend what $70,000 of debt truly means, without personal experience. My $16,000 loan from college had been a non-issue in my life—mostly because I was on a low, interest-only repayment plan—and I wasn’t worried. I was going to increase my earning potential! I got into a great school! This was going to be worth it.
By the time I finished my master’s degree in 2011, that “nonissue” undergrad loan had grown to $20,000, and I had $50,000 of brand-new debt to pile on top of it. This felt like a real, burdensome amount of money that I owed now. My first bill informed me that I was saddled with minimum monthly payments of roughly $700 for the next 10 years, with an astoundingly high portion going to interest.
So I took the high-achieving drive that had gotten me into that expensive school, and devoted it to paying off my loans as soon as possible. I created spreadsheets evaluating various snowball approaches and projecting my anticipated date of freedom. I took subsidized public transit to work. I brown-bagged. I said no to trips and dinners out. I looked forward to applying my tax refund to loans. I saved very little. When bored or impatient, I mentally pulled up my credit card bill and bank account balance, and calculated how much I could put toward the loans that month. I was spending a lot of my life bored or impatient.
Now I’m only weeks away from paying off my loans, after just three and a half years—wildly exceeding all of my projections. When focused, you find a way. By the end I was putting more than $2,000 to the loans (enough money to buy a pretty fancy vacation) every single month. I always figured when the loans were gone we’d splurge for a month and would celebrate with a trip, or a week of fancy dinners, or skydiving because the loans were GONE.
This is the biggest goal I have ever set, requiring dedication over several years. I am grateful that I brought home enough money to make so much progress so quickly. Statisticians are paid well, even in the public sector. I sacrificed, but I’m also lucky. I thought the day I made my final payment would be one of the best days of my life.
However, it turns out that what they say about change being scary is true, even when it is an undeniably good change! I’m only weeks away from making my final payment, but I’m not dancing under the stars. There’s no wild trip planned. I’m actually starting to have some completely unanticipated worries.
I’m married, and my husband has always been on the same page as me in prioritizing our loan payoff. But what if our values start to diverge now that we are out of debt? I want to save boatloads of money, so I’m free to walk away from a job if it becomes terrible. My husband, in theory, is on board with this, but I do worry that it’ll be harder to convince him to keep living a frugal life when the loans are gone. Retirement and savings are less of a motivator than hair-on-fire debt, and over the years we’ve delayed a lot of our wants to some undefined date in the future. He’s a public school teacher in an underappreciated field, so he understands the appeal of an emergency fund, but he also really wants a fancy mountain bike. It was easy to delay our wants when we knew it was short-term sacrifice, but what will happen now that we are gearing up for the rest of our financial lives? Money represents both freedom and fun for us, but in differing proportions.
Relatedly, I don’t want to fall prey to the hulking monster of lifestyle inflation. I keep a running list on my phone, of things I’ll buy some day when money is better. Some have been deleted, but some I want more than ever: leather boots, a new bike (yeah, my husband is not alone in this), prescription sunglasses. Money is better now, but I worry that if I start buying things I want, I’ll keep wanting more.
I’m also a little worried about putting all of our money in the stock market via our company-sponsored retirement accounts. We have watched our net worth steadily creep up past $0, thanks to the guaranteed return of paying off moderately-high interest debt (6-8% is a bummer, my friends). Investing introduces an element of risk that isn’t there when paying off debt. Of course, with risk comes reward, and being able to invest at a young age is a good thing, but I’ll have to learn to stomach sudden swings in our financial health that have nothing to do with our own actions or decisions. We can sacrifice and scrimp and save and then lose everything, in the short-term at least.
I’m also feeling weird about sharing such a major victory with friends. I don’t want this to be a time when money starts being an issue in my relationships. I am still totally down for $2 beers and will probably always be frugal (cheap), but what if friends start feeling weird about the money discrepancy now that I’m out of debt? Money between friends was simpler when everyone was poor.
I don’t know where my mind will wander in quiet moments of doing the dishes or biking to work. I have spent years focused on this, staring at my payoff projection spreadsheet, figuring out how to find another $100 in the monthly budget. I’m relieved to be free of that mental anchor, but I don’t know what will take its place. I feel a little like an Olympic athlete who just won a gold medal and now doesn’t know what to do with herself.
Of course, no one feels sorry for the gold medal winner, and no one should feel sorry for me. I am so grateful that I’ve been able to do this. I know many of my friends are still faced with substantial loans. I was able to live on my salary and put all of my husband’s salary towards the loans, which would not have been possible if I weren’t married, and to someone who shares my values and long-term goals. I am grateful to be in a position where we can give more to charity and mooch less off family. I’m lucky, I’m happy, I’m proud—but this still doesn’t feel like the greatest day of my life.
Jessie is an aspiring minimalist, frugal feminist, writer and statistician. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and dog and writes at MindfulRiot.com