Buried under student loan debt: One post-grad's story

Linda calls me up first thing in the morning just about every single day. She rings with such regularity, in fact, that I hardly need to set an alarm clock anymore. I'm usually too groggy to answer, but when I check my voicemail, I can picture the dimple-bursting smile on her face as she chirps away about all the wonderful opportunities I have today.

Bruce, he usually checks in just before noon to tell me about all the great new options that have recently become available to me -- another injection of optimism to brighten my day after lunch. And Robert, he's the most recent addition to the group. He's my mid-afternoon man, and although he's a bit more brusque and business-like than the others, I'm growing to count on him just the same.

These aren't my friends, relatives or acquaintances: They're student loan representatives and debt collection agents, and, like so many graduates before me, they've become a regular fixture in my post-college life. Every single day, I receive calls from people whose job it is to ask me why I can't pay my bills, although I've come to understand that they don't have any real interest in the answers.

How did I get here, you ask? I came to this point the same way most debt-addled souls in their mid-20s do: I went to college at a private university, and I picked up a couple of credit cards along the way.

When I graduated from Loyola University Chicago last May with a bachelor's degree in journalism, I walked out the doors with a monkey on my back. I owe slightly more than $39,000 in federal student loans, both subsidized and un-subsidized. Although the amount raised four eyebrows from my parents, I can't say I felt blindsided. After all, a four-year degree from Loyola costs more than $125,000, and that's only the tuition. Factor in room and board (although I lived off-campus during my stay, rent still adds in just the same), books and fees ... given the astronomical cost of my education, I almost felt lucky to get away with under $40K.

I was able to borrow so much without resorting to private loans, by the way, because I took a couple of years off during the course of my undergraduate education after initially attending Michigan State University out of high school. As a result, I was old enough during my last two years in college to file for student loans without claiming my parents' income. This turned out to be both a blessing, because I avoided the hassles and pitfalls of dealing with private student lenders, and perhaps a bit of a curse, because I felt free to borrow the maximum each year. After all, when the federal government offers you extra money for expenses and living costs, all you have to do to get it in hand, really, is not turn it down. At times, I felt like a kid in a candy store ... or a poor student in a money store, at least. Free school books, you say? I'll surely pay you next fall for a photography manual today.

So anyway, my monkey is a rather massive monkey -- more like a silverback gorilla, I suppose. Except for my loans come from four different lenders, some of whom don't offer loan consolidation, so that's four monthly payments to manage -- and, like many other fiscally immature students, I maxed out a couple of credit cards by the time I was 20-years-old and made meaningless minimum payments for the next five years. Six monkeys, then. And this story soon takes a detour into Oz, because, as it turns out, those monkeys have wings to take flight.

Upon graduation, I never had most students' luxury of six months' grace to muster funds for the coming barrage of loan bills. Since I took time off from school after my years at Michigan State, I used my grace period from those loans while living at home and trying to figure out what I might major in when I returned to college. Sure enough, my loan payments kicked right back in upon finishing school. I got my first bill in June, for $150, and almost immediately, something had to give. I was still living on my own in Chicago on the coffee shop wages that scraped me through my education, and didn't have money for food sometimes, let alone more bills. $150 may not sound insurmountable, but when you're already working full-time and stretched to the max, it makes all the difference.

So, after living like a scrupulous American debtor my whole life, making minimum monthly payments with i's dotted and t's crossed, I finally just gave up. I stopped paying my credit card bills to make room for the loans, and, within a month, the calls started pouring in. I picked up the phone the first couple of times, but what was there to say? My creditors and I stood at a fundamental impasse: They demanded money, I had none.

Then, last December, the big monkey came knocking. My Citibank student loans from Loyola came due, and my monthly payments, all loans told, ballooned to more than $600 per month. Like so many graduates in the current economy, I've yet to land a full-time job in my field of choice, and it doesn't help that I chose a field that some commentators consider obsolete as a career. I'm still pouring coffee to support myself, and I make about $1,300 a month between that and my freelance writing. My rent and utilities clock in at around $600 per month, and if I made my student loan payments on-time each month ... well, you do the math. $100 a month for food, cable, transportation and other living expenses? There's not enough ramen noodles in the world.

Still, my student lenders denied my forbearance requests and began sending me a procession of ever-growing bills. At that point, trying to figure out where to send a couple of hundred dollars each month is like deciding which of the circling sharks to throw bread crumbs at. Sometimes, the demands can seem comical: "You failed to pay $400 last month. Send $800 this month to bring your account up to date." Why not make it a couple thousand? Why not just send me a bill for "one bazillion dollars?" I recently filled out the forms for an economic hardship deferment, which is pretty much my last option to avoid default for the time being. If I do default, I may not be able to apply for student loans if I decide to attend graduate school. Cross your fingers while I watch the mail.

So, here I stand: 26 and staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. I think it bothers me a bit less than it would most people. Certainly, my credit is trashed. Sometimes I catch the recent commercials that portray bad credit scores as untrained, unruly house pets and wonder what my credit might look like. Some sort of rancid, bug-eyed sewer rat, I imagine. Thankfully, I have no immediate plans to start a family, and little current interest in owning property. I haven't owned a car in a couple of years, and I rarely miss the burden. If I can straighten this out and rehabilitate my credit by the time I'm 35, put me down as "tickled pink."

I find myself able to talk about this so readily, I suppose, because debt and default no longer seem to carry the stigma of laziness or misanthropy as they once did, at least among younger people. I'm not so sure that our collective acceptance of debt as a fact of life is a good thing, but it's part and parcel of the skyward trajectory in college tuition and early credit card debt. We're a generation of debtors, and oftentimes, we even bond over it. I once spent an hour with a coffee shop co-worker commiserating about our mutual dealings with collection agencies. She graduated college with a degree in theater, fell behind on her payments and rode the same train I'm currently on all the way to the last stop -- her student lenders sued her for non-payment and won a court order for wage garnishment. While we talked, a third co-worker got a call from a debt collector who got a hold of his work number, as if to offer a timely punctuation to the point.

All week, Money College has focused on the ongoing, losing battle against rising tuition costs. Well, this is my view from the front lines -- although, as war casualties go, I admit I'm probably the guy who sticks his head up out of the trench and into the crossfire at the end of the film "All Quiet On The Western Front." I'll likely spend most of my adult life working down that $39,000, and I expect to pay tens of thousands more in interest. For now, the phone calls still come every day. I rarely pick up the phone for unknown numbers anymore, and I have to turn my ringer off if I want to sleep in or take a nap.

I might've kept costs down by attending community college, and working two jobs, and employing the many innovative strategies Money College writers lay out each week, but I didn't, just as most students don't. I'm the archetype that expert sources in the "Tuition Ignition" series kept talking about -- I took out a tower of loans and went to an expensive private school, which I loved for the most part. I made wonderful memories and met brilliant, passionate professors and peers whom I still keep in touch with.

Is all of that worth $39,000?

How am I supposed to say? The decisions come quick, and the implications unfurl over a lifetime. So far, the only money I've made at journalism comes from my column here at WalletPop, which has garnered me $1,225. That's a lot of articles to write to reach $39,000. Would I do it all again? Ask me when I'm 50. And then maybe again when I'm 75.

And if any of this sounds like a sob story ... well, don't cry for me, Argentina. I'm not alone, and just like everybody else, I signed on the dotted lines the day I went to college.

Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at steven.t.kent@gmail.com.
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