Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Number Part II

This won't make much sense if you haven't already read Part I.

I finished my BA in December of 2003, and since I had spent the last two to three years worrying about my debt, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life.  My mother kept insisting that I work in a bank, because that's what she does; and my dad tried to hired me to sell life insurance with him.  I may have made many poor choices in the past, but I'm still very glad I turned down my dad's job offer--even with this debt.

When I was growing up, my mother always told me that it didn't matter what your degree was, just that you had one.  That had been true when she was in college, but I quickly found out that a BA in English is not the rare gift I wanted to believe it was.

My academic advisor suggested that I apply to the school's MFA program.  Even though my GPA was abysmal, I got in on the strength of my writing portfolio, and began my illustrious career as a grad student.  I took out student loans to cover the cost of tuition, and the amount of overage I got went toward my credit card debt.

I was still working full-time at Barnes & Noble (well, full-time, but considered part time so I got no benefits of any kind), and part-time at a local television station.  Since MFA classes only met once a week, I could still handle the work schedule and school.

I kept that up for two semesters, and then quit Barnes & Noble and picked up more hours at the tv station plus got a graduate assistantship.  I took out the maximum $10,000 in loans every semester, and put the overage toward my debt and my living expenses.  Despite the fact that I was working all the time, I earned very little money per hour and lived in a rather expensive apartment.  Actually, the apartment itself was dirt cheap, but the utilities bills were insane.  North Dakota winters--you need a lot of heat to survive those.

So five semesters of grad school equals $50,000 in student loans, and once I graduated, I still had no idea what to do with my life.  The purpose of getting an MFA was to get better as a writer and learn about the publishing industry.  What I learned about the publishing industry is that I am a terrible editor, and though I applied to jobs all over the place, I never got any nibbles, and started to realize that my heart just wasn't into it.

I got a job at the Fargo Public Library, and realized that that was what I actually wanted to do with my life.  I had loved working at Barnes & Noble, but I hated constantly up-selling people and trying to meet sales goals.  The library was a good fit.

Unfortunately, earning $7.25/hour working as a library assistant wasn't going to cut it.  So I decided to take the plunge back into grad school and get a Masters in Library and Information Sciences.  I spent a year researching programs and saving money.  I got a third job in a coffee shop, and every penny went into savings.  My student loans were in forebearance at that point, and I was trying to pay the interest on them, but was more concerned with saving.

There are only about 55 accredited MLIS programs in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, and none of them were within a regional tuition distance for me.  This was just at the beginning of the surge in online programs, but there were too few at that point, and plus, I wanted to get out of Fargo, and even though I know how convenient online classes are, I just don't learn well that way.

So I moved to Rhode Island and paid out-of-state tuition for four semesters of grad school.  For those keeping track, that's another $40,000, and since it was out-of-state tuition, there was no lovely overage check, and I often had to make up the difference once all those fees got added in.  I worked two-to-three jobs the entire time I was in grad school, and tried not to completely drain my savings account, but between commuting, rent, wanting to make friends and socialize and buying apartment stuff (I'd left everything behind when I left Fargo), it seemed like there was just never enough extra.

After graduating, it took me a six months to find a job at all, and the one that I found was only 19 hours a week, which didn't quite cover my cost of living.  The loans sat in forebearance accruing interest until we arrive at today where they top out at $99,923 and accrue about $30 in interest every. single. day.

I'm trying to keep up with the interest, and hopefully start paying down the principal soon, but I know that I will never be able to pay back the full amount.  I could focus all my savings energies on paying back these loans, but then I wouldn't have an emergency fund, I'd have no savings of any kind and I'd really be no better off.  Right now, I'm paying what I can, saving what I can, and waiting for the loans to be forgiven in ten years.

So there it is, the bad and the ugly with a little bit of good sprinkled throughout.  If I could change things, make better choices, I would, but I can't and I'm not going to beat myself up about it.  Whether this information undermines my integrity as a personal finance blogger, that's up to you, but I feel a little bit lighter.

Come on, what's your number?


  1. Love that you made this public! Just recently found your blog- it's good to have company with the debtmonster.

    Our number is $125,000. We are currently down to 57,000 and working ourselves to the bone to pay off every single dime. I am a social worker; boyfriend recently finished pharmacy school. Before I met him, as a social worker, I was barely hanging on- no thought of being able to pay that amount off (granted, I am combining both of our loans in that figure).

    Two incomes help tremendously- especially if you learn the hard skills of scraping by on one (meager-ish) one first.

    Hang in there, you aren't alone.


  2. I graduated with $30,000...I think the biggest mistake you made was going to MFA school when you weren't even sure thats what you wanted to do. After college, I applied almost every year to grad school simply because I had NO clue what I wanted to do and that's what all my friends were doing (going to grad school). The first year out of college I took a creative writing course at a local community college and thought I wanted to apply to the UCI MFA program. The next year, I applied to journalism school at USC. I got in but balked at the $50,000 a YEAR for school (I said hell no!). Then the next year I applied to law school...I mean, obviously I was just confused. During all this time though, I kept working my way up the corporate ladder, switching jobs several times, gaining valuable experience and making AMAZING connections (one of my former bosses is on Forbes' Billionaire lists). I now work for a company where I can see myself retiring, and they have offered to pay for 70% of grad school. SOOO I finally applied to an MPA program, and am really looking forward to it because I feel like I've finally figured out what I want to do. I'm 28.