I am broke. No, not Hannah Horvath from HBO’s hit series “Girls” broke–with well-off parents attempting to teach their spoiled daughter the ins and outs of fiscal responsibility—but broke broke. Like maybe you’ll have to forgo dinner this week broke. And with my heaping helping of utter destitution comes a lethargy and sadness so thick that I have stopped leaving the house. Because I can’t fuckin’ afford it.
How did this happen you ask? It all started with a tiny liberal arts college called Simon’s Rock. Sister school of Bard, this artsy haven of privileged youth was a glimmering oasis amidst my suburban Long Island upbringing. During a visit, I discovered that other kids my age were passionate about things outside the sphere of sunless tanning and discreet eating disorders. I met a handful of the students, fell in love with a dread-locked white kid who could quote Plato, took a scenic hike to a llama farm and decided this was the place for me. As an ever-instant gratification kind of girl seeking refuge from my home-town and a challenging environment, I decided I would not be returning for my Senior year of High School (Simon’s Rock is an early college–no High School diploma? No problem!). I did not, however, do the research that generally comes with college applications. In fact I applied on a Tuesday, got accepted the following Thursday, and packed up my life and moved to Western Massachusetts that Saturday in time for my first day of class that Monday.
Simon’s Rock is a private institution that costs upwards of $50K a year. The combined income of my parents afforded me a modicum of financial assistance. I got a couple of scholarships. The rest of that first year was paid for in rolled quarters. Literally. My mother had somehow managed to stock away thirty thousand bones in the bank that she’d accumulated in quarters for more than twenty years and it paid off. But only that first year. The next three years I took out loans, I signed my life away to FAFSA and Sallie Mae, and ultimately, I brushed it off. ‘So I’ll have to pay like fifty bucks a month or something when I graduate. Doesn’t matter, I’ll be rich by then anyway,’ was how I framed it in my mind.
Come the week before graduation, I get called into the fiscal office. Anne, the mild-mannered director of financial aid pulls out a chair. “You might want to sit down, honey,” she says. She’s holding a huge stack of papers. She squeezes my hand. Then, item by item, she shows me what the next twenty years of my life are probably going to look like: I might get away with a year or two of putting off my loans, but after that, Sallie Mae owns my ass, and she’s in the market for over $100,000 of my wages.
After graduation, I work a series of minimum wage jobs and defer my payments for as long as possible. My financially struggling parents have long-since cut me off and I am barely getting by, my food stamp card my only means of luxury. My friends, about 99% of whom got free rides to college are back-packing through Europe, road-tripping across country, living off the cuff somewhere remote maxing out their parents’ gold cards. The best thing that happens to me that year is a car accident caused by someone else that results in a $25,000 settlement. I don’t go to Sephora and buy out the store like I want to. I put a grand in the bank and the rest towards my loans. I decide after a depressingly stagnant fifteen months, to move to Northampton, MA, home to Smith College and a local art and music scene. I’m writing a lot lately. I make other writer friends. I get a job in Human Service. I adopt an orphaned dog. I get a few writing gigs. I still live paycheck to paycheck. But I’m making it.
2010 rolls around and I am ignoring five phone calls from Sallie Mae a day. My food stamps get cut off because I make over $10/hr, barely. I am only just managing myself independently and I’m not even paying my loans. I am starting to panic. Then they start calling my family members. They start calling my old neighbors back on Long Island. I get a disgruntled Facebook message from an acquaintance from High School that I haven’t spoken to in almost eight years: “Pay your goddamn bills. Some woman named Sallie is looking for you.” I know that I can’t put it off any longer. One night, after racking my brain for a solution and deciding that no, I can’t in good conscious offer hand-job services on Craigslist, I answer the phone. After being referred out, transferred and suffering through the most inappropriately cheerful music imaginable, my lip is already trembling when my “case-worker” Michael takes my call. I plead with him, “Listen, Mike,” I say, “Is there anything I can do to extend my deferment just a little longer? Can I get by paying twenty bucks a month? I’m desperate here.”
Mike, a soccer-coach kind of nice guy, tells me that with my already sky-high interest rates, the best I’m gonna do at my already dismal level of debt is pay upwards of $300 a month which they can break up bi-weekly. It’s my only option. He apologizes profusely, as I have started sobbing on the other end now, and says, “If it makes you feel better, student debt is at the highest rate it has ever been.” It doesn’t. I hang up the phone and my new life begins as someone who no longer has fun.
And so here I am. Broke, depressed, and continually down and out, trying to justify buying new pants and knowing that the only way that’s gonna happen is if they split down the seam. My friends all have jobs and busy lives, but they do not have debts. Their college degrees were paid for and for the most part, they are living normal lives of late twenty-somethings in an upper-middle class area. They buy new clothes whenever they feel like it, they go out to bars and restaurants on the weekends, they shop at Whole Foods and the local co-op because they can afford it. And I am eating out of a can tonight. And tomorrow night. And the night after that. Approaching my 27th year, many of my peers are encroaching on age-appropriate milestones like buying their first house, planning marriages and starting families. I am wondering if I will make it through the month. I cannot afford a therapist, but I know that I’m depressed.
In an effort to be pro-active, I decide to map out my budget. It looks like this:
Monthly Income: $1,320
Rent Including Utilities: Approx $450
Monthly Car Insurance Payment: $93
Dental Bill: $100
Phone Bill: $88
Student Loan: $298
This makes me feel worse. I realize that I have less than $72 a week to survive on. As I commute to work and driving is a major part of my job, this is enough for me to buy gas, feed my dog, and buy a couple of staple items at the expired foods store downtown. My clients who survive on SSI and disability have more spending money at their disposal than I do. Every week I over-draft my account so I can make up for the week ahead. Every time my mother asks me if I’m doing okay, I cry. In the last year my father has given me $200 but it was not worth his guilt trip. For the third time since getting hired at my current job, I try to apply for food stamps once more. For the third time, they turn me away. Student loans are not taken into account, no matter how much they’re costing you.
The clerk at the Transitional Assistance office gives me a sideways up and down, “You should be able to provide for yourself,” she says, chewing her gum like cud. I refrain from putting my fist through the glass panel that separates us. I work a fixed-wage government job. There are no raises. A promotion means getting a Master’s. I can’t even afford to apply to grad school, let alone get the degree. Another weekend goes by, and I’m still staring loathsomely at my ceiling. Things are pretty dismal. But my dog still loves me.
I want there to be some positive conclusion. I learned how to market myself in some fantastic new way that is starting to pay off! I chose a $20,000 scratch ticket! That hand-job idea was a goldmine! But, there is no happy ending. My friends continuously ask me to go out and I’ve started lying because I’m tired of using the same old broke excuse. “I’m sick.” “I’ve got too much work to do.” “I hate that place.” So I stay home, night after night envisioning my friends fanning themselves with wads of cash and ordering a third cocktail. I watch kids’ movies on my VHS player. I snuggle with my dog. I try to think good thoughts, Peter Pan style. I’ll eventually go to a fully-funded grad school program and I’ll get a break from my loans for long enough to find a decent paying job. One day I’ll get a lucky break and I can just pay it off in one chunk. I’ll stumble upon some fantastic opportunity that solves all my problems. And because I am catastrophically crippled by a hopeful demeanor, I honestly believe that one day, things will miraculously work out.
But what about today? What about tomorrow. I just wanna buy new pants and show them off in public. I just wanna eat a fancy-ass salad and buy a mother-fucking margarita. Is that too much to ask, Sallie? You covetous whore.