Over the past few years, the amount of “millennial hate” that has been strewn across the internet has pissed me off.
I begrudge the fact that I even fall into the “millennial” category, but, being born in 1986, I fall into the age bracket of all of the varying definitions of the group.
Apparently, I am the reason that the napkin industry is in trouble. We (almost) killed the wine cork. Fabric softener. The McWrap. And countless other things. We have murdered them in cold, entitled blood, beating them with our participation trophies.
I’m not going to turn this into a think-piece about why hating millennials is unfair and the judgment slung at so many of us is unwarranted. All that has been done before, with stats and such up the wazoo to prove that we actually just have a really rough go of things and so many of us are over-educated and under-employed, drowning in college debt.
But I am going to tell you about my own experience, and how unbelievably difficult it is to get out of that debt pit once you fall down it.
I am lucky. Super lucky. Growing up, my dad had a fairly well-paying job, and my mom stayed home to homeschool my sister and me. We lived in a nice house. My dad worked more than was perhaps ideal due to his demanding job, but we still managed to take occasional family vacations around the U.S.
So when I was a young, idyllic 17 year old, set on attending a private Christian college that cost $30,000 a year for tuition, room and board, to achieve a theatre degree, I didn’t quite know the impact of student loans. I took out student loans, but my parents told me that they would help me pay them, and I was able to get a handful of scholarships to assist with the costs, as well.
But in the fall of my senior year of high school, my dad was suddenly let go from his job at a company he had worked for, for over 35 years. It was a huge blow to the family, and threw a whole bunch of question marks into the mix.
We met with the financial aid office, but there was the issue of my father receiving his severance package as a lump sum, therefore giving the appearance that he made a lot of money that year and throwing him into a very high tax bracket. Perhaps it could be re-evaluated later, but at the moment, we were kind of screwed regarding any additional assistance.
Over the course of my college career, my dad went through bouts of employment, unemployment, and under-employment. While my family was able to make it work, I knew that it also meant I was going to be more personally saddled with these student loans.
The most expensive outfits I’ll ever wear
Just writing that makes me wince. I am still so privileged. I was able to attend a four year college. And then I was then able to get my MFA with a tuition waiver and a small monthly stipend. I had to take out some smaller loans to help me with rent and art supplies and textbooks, but I was able to make it out of grad school without contributing significantly more to my towering student debt.
I had a private loan that my parents had agreed to pay on while I was in undergrad and grad school, but six months after I graduated with my MFA, I had to start taking on the rest of them.
I had moved to Chicago and started working at a musical theatre in the suburbs. It paid a better hourly wage than anywhere else in the city for my position, but this was during the height of the ridiculous gas prices, climbing above $4 a gallon. Add the tolls I had to pay to drive there, and I was sometimes spending $400-$500 a month just in commuting, not to mention the wear and tear on my poor car and the 3-5 hours a day of wasted time sitting in traffic and nearly getting killed daily by the dreadful drivers.
But I had fallen in love with my now ex wife, and she lived and worked in the city. Coupled with the fact that I didn’t really want to live in the suburbs, I swallowed this extra expense and time-suck of a commute. For four years.
But I didn’t always have to commute out there, because, especially at the beginning, I could be laid off for three weeks at a time. That wasn’t really enough time for me to find other gigs, or the other gigs I was eligible for didn’t happen to coincide with my free time. So that added to my financial stress. Even when I was the draper in the costume shop, they still weren’t willing to guarantee me nine months of full time employment, let alone benefits. And neither was any place else in the city.
When I was fully saddled with my student loan bills, I had to pay $550 a month. That was nearly as much as rent for me. Thankfully, I was able to get on a health insurance plan with my ex, so I didn’t have to pay for that as well. That was a huge blessing.
When the reality of adulting in the real world fully hit me, I became grateful that I had something to fall back on.
I didn’t mean to get so deep into credit card debt. But I had to prioritize. I still had good credit, and I needed good credit to rent an apartment. My parents were unable to cosign for me, so I had to protect it. I paid my rent on time. I paid my student loans on time. I paid all of the important bills I needed to pay, and was just able to keep up with it.
But sometimes that didn’t leave me with enough money for things like…food. Or gas. Or any incidentals I might ever need, like new pants or my antidepressants. Ya know…frivolities and fripperies.
Thank goodness for Visa.
When I was able to make overtime, I’d try my hardest to put some extra on the credit card payments to pay them down. But then I’d have to put in a couple thousand dollars in repairs on my car to get me to work, and then I’d be back at square one. Or worse.
My credit card debt hovered around the $6,000-$7,000 range for the majority of the last six years.
And then I got divorced and moved across the country. I was still paying rent back in Chicago for far too long while my ex struggled to find a new roommate. I paid a friend while I lived with them for two months in Washington DC where I had a temporary gig until I found my current job. And then I got my current job and paid my deposit and first month’s rent to my new landlord. In November 2015, I paid rent for three apartments. Not to mention the moving expenses. Of course, that set me back as well.
In January 2016, my credit card debt was the highest it had ever been, $9,000. I applied for another credit card with a different bank and transferred as much of the balance as I could so I would have over a year of no interest on that chunk of money to just try and help me pay it down.
And no one ever told me about the income based repayment plan for student loans. Just before my divorce, I had done that and was able to lower one of my loans by $100 a month. (Unfortunately, half of my loans are private and not eligible for that.)
But even with a full time job, employed by a university, with a MFA, living in a tiny studio apartment owned by a friend of my boss, paying less for rent than basically anywhere else in this city, I was barely scraping by.
I was determined to not add to my debt. I created a budget. It was tough but doable.
And then I did my annual re-application for my income based repayment plan for my student loans last August.
And they told me that, because of my divorce, I now had to pay TWICE as much as I had been “because there used to be two in your household, and now there is one.” Except they never asked me about her income. How does this math make sense? There’s half as many people to help pay it now. But they told me that was the lowest they could go. And that was that.
So I re-did my budget.
And I realized that, after my student loans, my phone bill, my rent (utilities included), my credit card minimum payments, my car insurance (thank goodness my car is paid off…), and my Netflix (because seriously, life has to be worth living, right?) I had….
Sixty dollars a month.
For food. For gas. For clothing. For food for my Dumpstercat. For toothpaste. For toilet paper. For my antidepressant. (-$16 with insurance, so just say $44 left for everything else I just mentioned.) For any other incidentals.
Skipping my hypothetical daily latte isn’t gonna get me out of this.
Fuck fuck fuck.
This is why I can’t buy your Lularoe leggings or your shakes or your supplements, friends. I kinda snapped at a friend this spring who was trying to sell me some probiotic supplements when she told me that I could get all the products for “only $3 a day” and she pushed it a bit, and I told her as gently as I could that was twice my available money for the month so, respectfully, “affordable” for her meant a very different thing than it meant for me.
At least I got paid year round, and so my summer job was “extra” over what I earned monthly. At least I had put aside a bit of money over the summer, but if I had known that my student loans were going to double, I wouldn’t have bought as many clothes for my now much smaller frame. Perhaps I would have made do with jeans four sizes too big, eh? I wouldn’t have gone out quite as much as I had with my friends. Buying maybe one $4 gin and tonic once a week instead of two. I wouldn’t have treated myself to basic human joys for those eight weeks if I knew that it meant that I was going to be this way for the next nine months. I wouldn’t have tried to put quite so much on my credit card payments, feeling like I could finally get somewhere with my debt. I would have saved more.
Not to mention the fact that just paying my credit card minimum payments wasn’t going to EVER get me anywhere.
SoFi won’t even let me consolidate and refinance my loans without a cosigner. Believe me. I’ve tried. Twice. I’m too poor to get help getting out of debt. Just think about the irony of that for a while.
I felt completely buried in my debt, and like it was impossible to get out. I didn’t know how I could even start trying to get ahead.
My coworker had a part time job working at a local store in the mall, but that meant she was always working at least 60+ hours a week. But thinking that over, earning minimum wage at a soul-sucking retail job and being chronically exhausted and having no life wasn’t worth the extra $500 a month it would net me. Judge me if you want.
I did, however, look into selling used socks and underwear online (it’s a surprisingly thriving market…) and webcamming, but all of that seemed like a lot to set up with P.O. boxes and various non-paypal payment methods (it’s all seriously quite a process…) and the fact that maybe I eventually want to teach one day. And the only place I could apprentice to be a professional domme (which I only semi-jokingly said throughout grad school would be my backup plan for employment) was over an hour away.
I mean, there was that one time in grad school I went as “choose your own fantasy” sexy secretary/teacher/librarian for Halloween… (please note my “naughty stick” labeled as such…)
So, given these options, I came up with a game plan:
- Live as frugally as possible, continuing on with the couponing, cooking, buying fresh ingredients from the local international food store, stockpiling things when I could get them as close to free as possible (within reason)
- Try as hard as hell to not add any more debt to my credit cards
- Pray that my car behaves itself, and make sure that I bring it for regular oil changes, tire rotations, and anything to breathe extra life into my 2006 Ford Fusion with 160,000 miles on it
- Hope for overtime
The potential for overtime was new, a nice perk for me because of the new mandate to pay overtime to salaried employees who earn under $47,476 a year. Although my boss tried her hardest to keep this from happening, with our work load for the spring semester, we were allowed to work overtime to get our projects done. And, because of this, I was finally able to throw some extra money towards my credit card payments.
This January, my credit card debt was at $8,000, and I was able to pay it down $1,500 with my overtime from that semester.
I was getting somewhere, and it was such a relief to have the balance lower than it had been since I had gotten married in 2014.
I started doing the calculations. I was going to do some major damage over the summer to that debt, because of my “bonus” 9 weeks of employment and my new eligibility for more overtime at that job as well.
This summer, sure, I treated myself to some new quality shoes (I decided I needed to invest in “adult” shoes) and the occasional brunches with my friends (because DAMMIT I’M WORTH IT SOMETIMES) but I’ve also been able to smash my credit card balance down to $3,000, as well as amass $1000 in savings for emergencies.
I’ll be retreating back into my “school year budget” now, but this now means that my minimum payment is less than half what it was, so I could feasibly pay EXTRA. And, if the season allows, I may get some more overtime pay to help chip that away even more.
But I’m still holding my breath. My car has been behaving far too much for far too long. Any time now, I could be shopping for a replacement, and I’ll have to see if I can afford a down payment and monthly car payments.
Anything could happen and ruin all of that progress I’ve made over the past 7 months and put me right back where I started, once again, stuck in the pit of minimum payments and inescapable debt.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch my student loan debt. I don’t even think about that, besides making the minimum payments. I just swallow the fact that I’ll be paying on those for theoretically as long as I’m alive. I don’t worry about them, because the idea of my still-extant $45,690 worth of loans from undergrad, nearly 10 years out, is too much to handle. That’s still a good chunk more than my yearly gross income. I can’t fathom that kind of money.
So that’s what being a millennial is like. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I had some help from my family. I now have a job with health insurance. I have an MFA. I’m employed full time at a university doing a job I went to school for. But, unless I luck into a significantly better position because someone has retired or died and will most likely have to move across the country again, this is what it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.
If my cycle seems unbreakable, how much worse is it for those who grow up in poor families? Who don’t have anything higher than a high-school education? Who aren’t qualified for anything more than a minimum wage job? Who have kids? I can’t even imagine. I’m glad I don’t have to.
And still, I feel so guilty because I bought brunch. Or new shoes. Or I don’t want to get a mind-numbing part time job to supplement my income and never see my cat or boyfriend or bed or happiness. Like allowing myself these little luxuries in life is somehow keeping me in this cycle. The media would have me believe it. It’s all my fault, because I’m a millennial. I’ve brought this upon myself because I’m lazy and selfish and entitled and think that the world should belong to me.
All I want is to see a way out of this debt, dude. I’m not even asking to buy a house. I know that I could never afford something like that. Home ownership is an impossibility to me, and yet I’m to blame for its downfall.
…but my credit score is still fucking AMAZING. At least I can cling to that.