I think that we have only barely survived this weekend’s “arctic blast.” With wind chills in MRU town of -20F, I warned the Isis children that their mother is from a warm weather state. So, we would be hunkering down for the weekend and subsisting on whatever could be cooked together in a single pot. The kids were generally good sports about it, but this afternoon Little Isis started to come off the rails a little bit. He asked, “Can we go to Pancheros and get some normal food?” “Are you willing to risk going outside and having your butt cheeks freeze together?” I replied. The threat of a frostbitten rear end was enough to convince him to veto the trip to Pancheros. Instead, we cooked a pot of fish, beans and rice. Cooking like this lately as been reminiscent of being a kid, when the only choice really was to cook everything you could find in a pot and add rice. I also felt a little relieved to not have to ponder giving Pancheros my money. As StrangeSource has put it, I have become a “cheap ass bitch” lately.
There has been a lot of beans and rice, rice and beans lately and a lot of adjustments over the last year. Dipping my toe back into the blogosphere, I’m still not sure how much I want to share about the last year, but a cornerstone has been the quest to get Sallie Mae out of my life. I deferred my student loans while I was a graduate student and a postdoc, and then made the minimum required payments for the next couple of years as the pressures of job and family squeezed tighter. I didn’t struggle to make the payments, it felt selfish to pay more on them when there were so many things my family “needed.”
Then in August some things hit me in a major way. I watched someone close to me have a bit of a mental meltdown over their finances . I also seriously started going through the process of budgeting as a single mom with two kids in daycare and have sports and need clothes and do all the things that two kids do. I had negotiated a summer salary for the first few years of my time at MRU, and I started to realize that, if I didn’t get enough funding to keep covering my salary, things were going to get tight. I started to really resent the student loan payments I was making, and that they would contribute to my budget’s tightness if I lost my summer salary. I also calculated how much wealth I was losing by giving the money to Sallie Mae instead of investing it.
It’s funny, because I have listened to Dave Ramsey for about 15 years. I listen to him just about every afternoon as a sort of white noise and have otherwise taken pride in living debt free. But I hadn’t really thought about my student loan as being in the same category as the other types of debt he talks about. When I started listening to him, massive student loan debt wasn’t a problem and he frequently spoke to people who had car loans, subprime mortgages, home equity lines and massive credit card debt. I didn’t have consumer debt, other than a conventional mortgage. When I had taken out my student loans years before I found him, I’d been convinced by my college counselor that they were an investment and would return much more than their cost.
As everything started to churn in August, I started to hate my monthly loan payments and, more importantly, what they represent. Federal student loans are the one debt you can’t discharge in a bankruptcy. If you default, the federal government can make your life miserable. The amount of debt students are currently accruing is obscene, with stories of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt floating around. This is, in large part, because there is no debt-to-income calculation that happens in student loan lending. If you tried to take out a similarly sized mortgage with no job and no income and no equity, the bank would laugh you out the door, yet we saddle students with more debt than they can bear. I started to hear friends talk about being relieved that they could have their student loans forgiven after 25 years. 25 years, when their most important wealth building years have passed. And, the return on investment for taking the loan out in the first place may not be worth it. My student loan started to feel like the same sort of predatory debt as a subprime mortgage or high interest credit card. I didn’t have a lot of debt, but every time I looked at it, it felt like a tick and I abhorred everything it represented.
So, I decided that we were going to be gazelle intense and get it out of our lives. The idea of gazelle intensity comes from Proverbs 6:4-5, which says Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” The gazelle can outrun the cheetah by swerving and turning. It’s that intense because it’s the only one in the race whose hide is at stake. Sallie Mae is the predator, but there’s always something else to catch. The gazelle is running for its life.
Importantly, Sallie Mae and her lending buddies prey the hardest on people that are the most vulnerable – underrepresented populations, those that come from economically disadvantaged families and first generation students.
Me and the Isis family have worked together to pay off half of the student loans since August and we should be done this summer. It’s been an incredible lesson in contentment. What do we really need to be happy? When the TV went out, we didn’t replace it. Half of the light bulbs in the house are out, but we joke that it’ll lower the electricity bill. Little Isis laughed when he heard a song that said “budget” in the lyrics. We’ve played a lot more board games and eaten a lot more meat-free meals, but we’ve had a lot of fun. Importantly, I think my kids understand the reason for everything and we’ve had some important discussions about money and debt and saving.
I realized tonight that, for as proud of myself as I have been, I have one “child” who hasn’t benefited from these lessons. My youngest brother, who you may remember lived with me a couple of years ago, called me in a panic tonight. He was full of anxiety because, for the first time in his life, things were going well for him and he was bracing himself for everything to fall apart. He was terrified at the prospect that things would go bad. I realized that his insecurity was coming from a lack of a safety net and that he needed to stop living paycheck to paycheck and start tucking away an emergency fund. Kids from our barrio hood don’t learn how to handle money. They learn how to survive and he’s ready to move past that now.
So, baby steps. One baby step step at a time.