Hacking the Debtorsphere

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This is one of those posts that I've had brewing for a bit. In some ways, I feel like I've hit a milestone that's even more important than receiving tenure (!!) was for me last spring.

As of this month, I am no longer carrying any debt. No loans, no rotating balances on the credit cards. I am debt-free.

To provide a little context, let me repeat something I said the other night at dinner: I have been in debt for longer than I've been in academia. Yep. My entire adult life. And it's one of the things that grieves me mightily when I hear people talk about the cushy lives we lead. In preparation for a life in the professoriate, I spent 5+ years (and I was fast) earning less than 10,000 dollars a year. In Texas, the big perk I got for my TAship? In-state tuition. I made less than 10K, and had to pay for tuition out of that. Lucky me.

(A side-note: When I completed my dissertation, I had already taken my job at Old Dominion. I no longer had a TAship, and was living outside the state, and had to enroll for a mandatory 9 credits to complete my degree--I didn't need the credits, it was just a rule--and so I had to pay out-of-state tuition for them. I ended up having to pay something like $3500 to graduate. And as I told the representative from UTArlington who called me last night looking for donations, until I get a check for $3500 from UTA, UTA will not be seeing a check from me.)

Now, I'm not great with money. I overtip, I prefer to own the books I read and use in my research, and I generally subscribe to a philosophy of dinner karma, where the meals I buy for friends will roughly equal the number of meals they buy for me. I'd taken pretty solid control of my finances in the time I've been at Syracuse, gradually working my debt down (and correspondingly restoring my dismal credit rating) without feeling too put upon in terms of quality of life. I probably could have done it faster, if I'd really cracked down.

Anyhow, cushy lives. I guess I want to challenge the idea that our earning power offsets the financial hardships we have to endure to get to where we are, as is often the case for other professionals (lawyers, doctors, e.g.). It does eventually, but not nearly as quickly. Many of my friends still struggle with massive amounts of debt that for graduate students in the humanities is all but inevitable. We have the same taboos about talking about it that we do for all matters financial, but most of us still go through it, I suspect. And if their lives are anything like mine has been, graduate school debt is a dark cloud that hangs over each of us for a lot longer than it probably should. It's been a source of some personal shame for me, when in fact, it should be a source of shame for our institutions, who are more than content to exploit graduate student labor without even the mitigating factor of a living wage.

I don't have any grand solution to go with my personal celebration, although I wish I did. I can say that I spent part of this afternoon helping someone figure out some funding strategies for next year that don't involve loans, and I felt pretty good about that. I wish that I were in a position to be able to effect more change than I can right now--when I think of all the anxiety and stress that I experienced over my finances, I can't help but wonder how much more I could have done in their absence.

Guess I'm ready to start finding out. That is all.


This is GREAT NEWS! You know that I've experienced the same situation, and I'm just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is GREAT, GREAT. Celebrate.

Wow! What Jenny said! This is amazing and wonderful! Congratulations.

Whoa! No student loans? No car loan? No mortgage? That's amazing. I've gotten rid of the first two, but not the third.

Well, I'm probably going to go ahead and pick up a mortgage later this year, but that's an entirely different category in my mind, since I'll be building equity as I pay it down.

Personally, I'd wait a bit before buying, especially if you're thinking in terms (at least in part) about building equity. I have a feeling the value of houses are going to get lower sooner....

Anyway, congrats and I can very VERY much relate to what you're saying here, Collin. My wife and I were in PhD programs at the same time, from '93-96 (she until '97, technically) and I don't think we ever made between the two of us $20K. Without going into a lot of detail, I think we've been able to do okay, but we have certainly been living beyond our means until relatively recently.

No car loan around here right now, some student loans (but relatively modest), and a mortgage (which is one reason why I think about equity issues now). And my wife, the budget-keeper, is about to write a very large check to pay off the credit cards, a very satisfying thing. So like I said, I can kind of relate.

Of course, we're also getting ready to write some very large checks for a private school, which is a less satisfying thing....

Congratulations! I know that great feeling of writing that last check and owing no one anything.

I was having a conversation just yesterday on the investment/return and the comparison to other fields. It's something I think we as a field need to be more open about discussing.

Man, let me echo all the folks who've said "congrats." We'll be paying on student loans for years. My wife (4 yrs of Jesuit undegrad and 3 yrs of law school) and I (ditto on the undergrad plus 6 of grad school) won't be in your situation for some time. I suspect we're hardly alone in that respect, but, you're right, the subject rarely comes up.

Collin-- This is just wonderful. CONGRATS! I'm striving to be there, but I'll be about 93 when it happens. :-) Oh, and I'll be paying my requisite $3,500 in June (or for me, now, it's closer to $5,000).... then I'll get to start paying on those student loans. Lucky me.


Congratulations, Collin. You must feel great. I can relate--I bought my first house at the age of 50. Things are cushy now, but that was not so for a long, long time. And now that I'm looking at retirement, I see that all those lean years are going to get me in the end, too (pun intended of course). Wishing you the best--

Congrats! That's quite an accomplishment, for better or worse...

My husband and I both paid for our back-to-back MSI degrees at U of Michigan with loans and got in-state tuition rates (approximately half the out-state rate) in one of the graduate school's "cheaper" programs. Between us, we owe 60% more in student debt than our brand-new mortgage. In fact, my husband's monthly student loan repayment is more than our mortgage payment! That's more of a reflection of the low cost of real estate in Syracuse than the cost of education, but nonetheless, it just seems wrong.

Fortunately for us, that's all there is, and I'm no longer racking up educational debt. I had nearly paid off my undergrad debt when I started grad school, and I actually spent a year in national service to reduce my debt load by 25%. During that year in AmeriCorps, I earned less on a monthly basis than our apartment rent cost, and even had to go on food stamps. I don't expect my student debt will disappear before 2020, but I'm not in the humanities so I'm hoping my post-grad earning potential will support faster repayment.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on January 30, 2008 6:56 PM.

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