A Body Is a Bill to Pay
My identity changed when I opened that envelope. I stood in my dusty kitchen, pantries bare, blinded by all those zeroes in the sum I owed. I’d already sworn off using the window air conditioning unit that came in the apartment’s living room. No matter how muggy the night, I had to keep the electricity bill low. After this first one, these student debt bills were sure to arrive on the fourteenth of every month. I was running out of corners to cut.
I received that first bill on the day after I graduated. I was living off a few spoonfuls of peanut butter a day, working multiple jobs, paying rent myself. What was I paying off, anyway? An archaic degree (print journalism in 2008!) with no practical application, and access to a social circle that never quite accepted an East Coast gal from a blue-collar town.
Before we met in person, my freshman year suitemates had invited me to an email chain to introduce ourselves. They shared their anxieties: Would our bedding match? Should we go purple paisley in the bathroom? I told them I’d already picked up an extra-long twin deal at Target and my black and red bedding was final. They wrote back that it sounded strange.
Once we were face-to-face, they reiterated my strangeness. My accent made me sound stupid. My clothing made me look cheap. They tried a euphemism for my short black hair with orange bangs: “Doesn’t fit [my] personality.” They bought me outfits on occasion, which I accepted out of necessity, and they knew it. They copped to snooping through my bathroom and dresser drawers, because they were curious. All they found were ratty, frayed garments from the cheapest store at the mall. (I came to college poor. I was told studying hard would break me out of it.)
When I accepted their gifts, they cooed over me like I was a baby. When my only winter coat lost all its buttons and I had to trap myself in it with safety pins, they laughed.
I learned that it wasn’t just my roommates when an Orange County classmate overheard me say that I had extended family in Riverside. She felt more than comfortable interjecting, “Everybody knows that town is dirty.”
I am the only one I know who went to our mid-range Catholic university and paid out of pocket. Even my friends with a passion for social justice shrugged it off when their parents signed over checks for $17,000 per semester, covered a credit card for “emergencies” (2 a.m. Jimmy John’s), and purchased a new wardrobe each semester from the Gap. Phones and phone plans, family vacations, Sephora makeup as a treat.
Hunger and homelessness are present on college campuses; students facing these and other hardships have lower graduation rates than their more affluent peers. In spite of all I learned about exploring ideas and gathering data at my time in undergrad, I did not even think to research these trends while I was living them.
I was too ashamed. I was the financial outlier among my randomly assigned roommates, my study groups, my club-mates with similar passions for environmental, feminist, and queer activism. I hid or glossed over the ways I struggled as best I could.
Still, something shifted in me that summer after graduation. It looked to me like everyone’s lives continued as normal while I was eyeing what was in their garbage cans, noticing the fries they skipped in an attempt to lose weight before the engagement party. I tried to get enough calories to make it through the day. You’re goddamn right I plucked their fries back out of the trash.
I can see now that I likely wasn’t alone. The trend of universities opening food pantries to feed their own hungry students is just one of many indicators that out-of-classroom life impacts a student’s success in school.
Perhaps I didn’t know the right people. Perhaps the shame I felt from 2004 to 2008 was felt by others, and we perpetuated a mutual silence.
Is it encouraging that college campus food pantries make national news? Erasing the stigma of food insecurity for students while they earn a BA is certainly desirable. But why are so many students hungry and ashamed in the first place? I was too absorbed in maintaining good grades and taking advantage of campus life during the time I was there to ask that question aloud.
What are college campuses supposed to be, and who belongs there? I didn’t find what I’d expected and I have been paying dearly for it ever since.
The student debt bubble started before I got to college and persists today, but I also had the distinct bad luck to graduate at the start of the 2008 Great Recession. Before the recession, student debt amounted to $671 billion in the US. It has since risen to $1.5 trillion according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The degree I earned should never have cost $130,000 before interest. It certainly hasn’t helped my earning potential. When I filed my taxes in 2006, I learned that my income for that year, even with multiple part-time jobs year-round, had only been $6,000. How in God’s name was I supposed to pay $130,000 over four years?
This insanity has only been compounded by the seediness of my lender, apparently a state institution. Government, but not federal, and that’s important—no income-based repayment plans, no deferments for hardship. No deferments for National Community Service, like Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. Or for graduate studies.
No deferments for death. I checked. My parents, as cosigners, would still get billed in the event of my untimely demise.
My parents, my parents—every busybody wants to know about my parents’ role in all this.
The plain fact is my parents don’t help their four children pay for college, or anything after their eighteenth birthdays. This is justified as a principle of independence and responsibility. It’s also out of necessity. They couldn’t, even if they wanted to, but how convenient that they don’t want to.
I share this to illuminate the fact that I am paying. I have always been paying. There is no one else who will pay the monthly bill for a cool thousand dollars. Every month, no exceptions.
Okay, $1,000 per month, for ten years, should get me out, right? But that doesn’t factor in interest, which was steep, and criminally miscalculated (and my payments misapplied) by my primary lender. (Although I have three loan lenders to cover my undergrad degree, which I took the traditional four academic years to complete. I did so with honors, though that certainly hasn’t mattered. This is not and has never been about merit.)
I say “criminal” not as a flourish. I took one student lender to court, so add those fees into the mix. I called out of work and wore my Job Interview Pants Suit and met with my lender in County Court six times over the course of a year. I was called to testify in front of the judge once and described the food pantries and soup kitchens I’d eaten in to be able to save all of my income for the lenders. I knew I had to pay, I said, and I wanted to do it from money I earned. But I knew that something about this lender was wrong.
My mom sat in the back of the courtroom, sobbing openly but quietly while her blue eyeliner ran. My voice never quavered.
It isn’t any consolation, but the judge’s opinion was in my favor—I had been overcharged in interest, for years. My reward for this time and effort was to continue to pay $1,000 per month, only now the lender would apply it properly and the State’s attorney wouldn’t collect quite as steep a fee from each of my payments.
I still have to pay more at the end of that ordeal than I was originally indebted for, due to lawyers’ fees, payments for filing, and other words I don’t understand, but it wouldn’t matter if I did. I have to keep paying.
Defeated, emaciated, and without a single bra to my name (I simply couldn’t afford to buy them anymore), I moved back in with my parents after eight years on my own. Once home I worked, sometimes three official jobs (meaning I was on the books, paying taxes) while juggling other ventures: cleaning houses for cash, freelance writing for earnings over PayPal. All of that effort amounted to just about $1,000 per month, which I dutifully doled out to student loan lenders.
I saved nothing, advanced to nowhere, and wore clothes from secondhand stores, garage sales, and “free stores.” I ate the yogurts and frozen rice milk mac-and-cheese and pre-made alfalfa sandwiches that expired from the food co-op that employed me twenty hours a week. Sometimes I had to call out of work because I didn’t have enough gas in the tank to get there.
Of course there was The Dream: one single, full-time job, with a salary and healthcare and paid time off, and especially paid sick days. I had a BA, dammit, great references, and a solid work history since high school.
I applied to career-track jobs. I shelled out money for straw-colored slacks and coneflower blouses. I tamed my hair and eyebrows, then paid the unforgivable price to have my alma mater forward my transcripts to potential employers. Squeezing these small but important tasks into an eighty or ninety-hour workweek is no small feat. Remember I had to forgo income to even show up at a job interview. I could have been working instead. When the interviews did not lead to offers, I risked falling short of paying Sallie Mae or Navient or my heinous primary lender that I am still too terrified to name.
I dragged my failing body through this death march for three years. My body rebelled—I had stomach bugs, coupled with weight gains, upper respiratory infections, and on-the-job sprains and bruises without legal recourse. I once cracked my ribs trying to move a plastic tub of organic kale from one fridge to another because the walls of the store were too narrow. I still feel that ache in the marrow of my bones whenever I recall it. Yet, I finished that shift and clocked in the next day.
No doubt a day off once a week, let alone two, would have helped my immune system bounce back. The injuries to morale were worse.
I couldn’t afford shoes that fit, or hot meals, or strep tests, even at Minute Clinic. Sure, I was in my parents’ basement; their lack of rental fees was the full extent of their help. And it is helpful, and it is significant.
My adult siblings and I drifted in and out of our childhood home, often leaving before we were secure and returning only when the only next step would have been a shelter. We ran out of bedrooms and fought over couches on which to sleep. For years we were strung out on retail or food service shifts, aching for privacy. Stay where you’re uncomfortable, leave before you’re ready: it’s a grueling dance.
Back at the organic foods co-op, I spent most of my time threatening to call the cops on leering older hippies who wouldn’t stop hitting on college-aged volunteers. One bandana-wearing degenerate would rattle the gates after hours, slip dollar bills under the door, then insist I had just sold him chocolate so I’d better unlock the gate to hand him his goods. He told me he’d pick the lock if I didn’t let him in.
A toothless drifter who volunteered doing maintenance work in exchange for sandwiches and a back alley to smoke cigarettes in screamed and threatened a female employee, then refused to leave the premises. After this, I insisted that I would not be in the store alone with him at night. I was afraid for my safety. This of course infuriated him. I locked myself in the bottom level of the store to get away from his reeking body and foul temper. He told me he’d pick the lock if I didn’t let him in.
This list goes on.
And that is the phenomenon of having to hold on to a job you hate but cannot afford to quit. I thought the point of a college education was to keep me out of no-win scenarios like that, but the cost of higher education trapped me in those bitter days.
Another long-term impact of the 2008 Recession has been the dearth of those high-paying jobs that were supposed to justify the exorbitant cost of a college degree. CNN Money has called my cohort “The Lost Generation,” likely never to recuperate from the income lost during the recession, and still unable to gain new ground in the decade after.
I had the debt for sure, but a job that could pay a living wage to keep apace of its repayment seemed an ephemeral hope. And oh, I could sing you a song about being lost.
I was barely hanging on, with long work days resulting in nothing saved or even gained. Then after months of nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, I gave in to dental pain so excruciating I couldn’t sleep for a week. Though I had no health insurance and no emergency funds, I booked an appointment at a cosmetic dentist. (No one else would see me.) It turned out that a wisdom tooth I had been too poor to get pulled was infected, and the infection was spreading. The dentist begged me not to leave that day, by God he’d pull it out himself if he had to, and skip the oral surgeon referral entirely.
I maxed out a credit card to pay for that extraction. There was just enough credit left for the antibiotics. Nothing left for the painkillers.
My parents treated me to the Percocets after making it abundantly clear that this was a loan to be repaid as soon as possible, and that they were inconvenienced by having to swing by a pharmacy. They went out for Thai first, while my local anesthesia wore off and the new hole in my mouth seared.
I was alive, but worse off. What could I do, pick up more work to pay off this medical expense? I was just about out of hours in the day, every day, to fit shifts in. I returned to work (all of my jobs) the day after the emergency tooth extraction. Missing two shifts for the procedure made financial solvency that much further away.
I wrote a suicide note and downed too many pills. It didn’t work. I woke up at 4 a.m. on a day that was to bring me shifts at three different employers, back to back to back. My aching laborer’s body wouldn’t stop pumping blood and respirating and living, so what the hell, why not stay.
I puked and tried to fall back asleep, but was soon shaken awake by a mother who said she loved me from before I was born. She begged me not to do it. I’d changed my mind, but forgot to destroy the note. I told her to leave me alone so I could sleep before work.
It was then that I knew there would be no easy out. I had to keep working and keep paying because my stubborn body wouldn’t die, and as long as I had a body I had a bill to pay.
Therapy after a suicide attempt? Not in my family.
We never talked about it again. We never will.
Instead of counseling, the day after the attempt I reported to work, dazed by Percocet withdrawal and unable to focus. On the playground of the after-school program or stocking shelves in the health food store, the world had a pinkish tint. I was convinced this wasn’t real, just some uncomfortable dream. But the day dragged along. No relief or neat ending for me.
I was twenty-seven years old, sick and skinny. Recovering from an infection, but also sick of being eager-eyed, smiley, and alert. I decided to be someone else.
With a stitch still in my gums and my latest attempt to quit smoking a failure, I met a friend of a friend at a bar. I wasn’t even drinking because of my antibiotics.
I knew he was green-eyed trouble because all he could talk about was his French ex-fiancé, his gallivanting in European cities, his apparent need to go home with me that night. I shrugged it off. He read my physical and emotional numbness as cool. Oh, fine. If I couldn’t be dead, I could at least be cool.
As a person who worked because I needed the money, who took on jobs that required manual labor though I was a woman with a college degree, I was intriguing to him. I told him I didn’t have time to date him, only time for work. He brought me hummus platters and figs and gourmet Tex-Mex and cigarettes, offered to pay me a wage to call out of work and go to the beach with him.
I was offended, but I accepted those meals.
I let myself be his curiosity, a gritty realistic phase, a Depressive Pixie Dead Girl. He asked me to teach him about poetry and punk rock. (Goddammit I am a metalhead.) He didn’t listen to punk bands but his French ex took him to a Social Distortion concert once and he liked the look. I introduced him to basement shows and dive bars where he worried people would think he wasn’t cool enough to pull off Docs. I let him shop for a new subculture because being rich and successful can be so dull. I became an outfit for him to try on and discard at the end of an evening. I would commodify my life’s experience, I would sell out anything, if I thought it would get me free of debt in the end.
All I had to do was ignore my instincts and preferences at all times. All I had to do were things so perverse I will not write about them here, because I can’t yet bring them up in therapy to process. None of it released me from the work or the debt, a pity for me. I wish I could have seen that then.
One curious thing about people with money is that the stakes are never high and nothing is urgent. He drifted between well-paying jobs in tech and it didn’t matter when he’d grow bored and leave because someone always paid his rent. He crashed a car and then drove something new home from the Mazda dealer. He dropped an iPhone so an even newer one appeared in the mail.
I watched him not fail while he barely tried. For one year, for two. His forty-year-old sister got an allowance she blew on coke and yoga classes to “look cute.” His brother sought out blind-drunk women at parties and actually said phrases like “nice rack.” I loathed them, but I held on—I thought things might improve.
He said he’d help me with grad classes online, he’d buy me a new laptop, he’d pay off my student debt. I clung because we both knew he could, if he chose, make my debt go away.
He just never got around to making that payment. He promised me he would; he assured my parents he would. (My parents, still convinced that if I make a good marriage, all of my problems will melt away.) He showed me pictures of MacBooks he could afford and said would be delivered to me. They didn’t arrive this week, or the next, but they would when he got around to it. How nice to fantasize about what is already possible. But getting what you want wakes you from the dream.
I took on more emotional labor, comforting him after his well-paying job made the slightest demand, cooking meals to accommodate his food allergies, affirming the hell out of every choice or Facebook post or public utterance he made.
He earned and saved for our future wedding and then he wanted to break up. I wasn’t interesting any more. Only starving, nihilistic girls on antibiotics could be fascinating. Time to hobo through Europe again, seeking out his favorite brand: the edgy, the raw, the authentic.
One suggestion I field from those with no or less debt is: Can’t you just get married and have your husband pay down that debt?
If you want my real response: I tried and it wasn’t worth it.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, women bear a higher average of student debt overall in the US, while also earning less than male counterparts in the workforce. As a vocal feminist, I am mortified to admit any desperate attempt to conform to a traditionally cishet and unhappy romantic relationship when I heard one false promise that my debt could go away.
I am certainly not comforted by the data which shows that nearly $900 billion of the $1.4 trillion of student debt in the US is held by women. Women of color hold the highest average debt out of any group of undergraduates.
Still, it begs the question: How, exactly, are women supposed to survive in this landscape? I’ve worked three jobs while sacrificing my food budget to make payments, I’ve tried subservience to a partner who knew exactly what he had dangling over me. I tried to die to get out of this debt.
But I’m still here, and so is a tens-of-thousands-of-dollars balance.
My dream job is not starving to death. My fantasy is to live within my means.
I haven’t learned a single lesson in the past ten years about the value of a dollar or what work means. I have experienced the numbness of waiting for a bus during a snowstorm to take me to a food pantry, while praying that service isn’t interrupted. I have broken down crying in a banker’s office, begging them to reverse an overdraft charge because my groceries cost eighteen more cents than I thought they would. (The teller’s response: “I’ll pray for you.”) I have lived a full year with only one pair of closed-toe shoes: black snow boots that a friend bought in a St. Vinny’s, then left behind when she moved. Snow boots in all weather, or the blisters of dollar store flips-flops, for a calendar year.
Reader, I have achieved it—an entry-level staff job at a university. Cadillac health insurance, holidays off, vacation days I accrue with no plan on spending.
Because I don’t have the money to travel. I earn a salary and more than half of it goes to student loans. The other half goes to rent, groceries and my used and failing car—a requirement for the job.
In addition to that forty-hours-a-week dream job, I am a secret shopper through a third-party evaluation company, I clean a house via Craigslist once a week for cash, and I am a beer promo girl. I only buy groceries with coupons or if they qualify for rebate apps.
At the halfway mark, I can almost envision life after debt. It will still contain losses. I’ve been priced out of childbirth; I’ll be in my mid-forties when I am finally free of this debt, considered far too high-risk for any attempts at pregnancy. I’ve vowed I will never go into debt again, not for a house or even a car. I won’t have the work left in me to pay it off. (I don’t have it now.)
I will pay off my student loans and then I will leave. The career track. Social media. A world of credit scores. This is the promise I have made myself. My reward for twenty hard and lean years of repayment will be quiet and peace off the grid.
I realize I am able-bodied enough to work myself like this. My 2000 Impala isn’t a luxury vehicle, but it gets me to all of these opportunities. Certainly being white and youngish serves me well enough because people hire me, on the books and off.
I’m not alone in reckoning with how one undergraduate degree has robbed me of any chance at savings or stability. One way to view this is through home ownership, a cultural touchstone of adulthood, but perhaps more importantly, a fundamental way that Americans build wealth. According to CNBC, 83% of twenty-two to thirty-five year olds with student debt report student debt as the primary reason they aren’t home-owners.
This is especially disturbing considering the way the DeVos-led Department of Education is dismantling consumer protections to guard students from predatory college lenders right now. The gulf between college graduates who can achieve financial stability and those who cannot is likely to widen if the current standards, imperfect though they are, are obliterated.
So often I feel defeated by the dissonance: I was encouraged to earn a degree to strengthen my future job prospects and to take steps to enjoy financial independence; instead I find myself ensnared in the morass of student debt. So I will not offer policy suggestions here. How could I claim to be an expert on anything bigger than myself? Since university ended I’ve done little else than work, run my body down, and work some more. The despair has caused me physical harm and mental anguish, and I am not the only one.
It’s difficult enough to plan for my own future, one woman with one body in this mess. I am heartened, but more often overwhelmed, hearing stories from others in my same boat. We will reach our forties, pay off the debt, and have zero savings.
A lost generation, a generation of zeroes. An army of workers with naught to show for decades of labor. But zero doesn’t necessarily mean invisible. And it doesn’t mean silent. This zero votes; this zero writes; this zero is sick of feeling embarrassed at being caught in a monstrous spinning wheel she did not create.
Shame kept me quiet and hungry in college and over most years that have come after. But I’m tired now, too tired to keep up appearances. (Zeroes have no value and thus nothing to lose.)
So here goes: attending university ruined my life! Avoid student debt like the plague! If it’s too late for you, if you are a zero, too, let us make our senators and governors and college administrations listen to the ways that debt has stolen from us.
If my body is a bill to pay, my voice will be singing the receipts.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.