Several of my life’s biggest events hit me in quick succession: I got engaged, then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died a month before my wedding, and I used the life insurance money to pay off my student loans. The debt that loomed over our relationship for my entire adult life was all of a sudden gone. And so was she. I was financially liberated, grieving, and furious things had to be this way.
Taking on the debt was largely my mother’s idea in the first place. I remember sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office staring at my list of “dream,” “target,” and “safety” schools, thinking about a new life in Philadelphia or Berkeley or Ithaca. I didn’t know how we’d pay for it, or even if we should. The counselor waved away my worries and told me to apply early to Penn. “You can’t put a price on a good education,” she said.
My mother nodded in agreement. She believed in the redeeming power of a good education, and sacrificed everything to guide me through the top rankings of U.S. News and World Report. She slept with a copy of The Fiske Guide to Colleges on her pillow and took me on campus tours starting in middle school.
My mother told me she had wanted to go to Brown and find a cure for cancer, but her parents wouldn’t even help her fill out the application. Was Brown really known for its medical school? I asked, but she ignored me — she had Ivy-ray vision and there was nothing I could do about it. She believed the right education would carry us out of the middle class. It’s hard to blame her for believing the story America loves to tell itself.
Her plan for me began when I was nine years old. She enrolled me in D.C.’s fanciest all-girls private school with access to writers-in-residence, a state-of-the-art rock climbing wall, and a tuition I never thought to ask her about. From fourth through 12th grade, she paid in the ballpark of $20,000 per year by cobbling together paychecks, scholarships, and loans. We ate 7-11 hot dogs for dinner as we navigated the two hours of D.C. traffic back to our home in Maryland. We moved closer to the city as my mother worked her way up from positions in pharmaceutical sales to a director-level role at the Food and Drug Administration.
When the variety of college-loan paperwork came my senior year of high school, I signed and she co-signed. I was headed to the University of Pennsylvania, where the tuition runs about $40,000 per year. The loans were for a godawful amount of money that, maybe, I don’t know, 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to take out.
I double-majored in classics and American history. After graduating, I moved to New York with almost three times a student-loan borrower’s average debt: $55,000 in federal loans and $20,000 in private.
It began to feel like Citibank, which owned my private loans, was taunting me specifically as the interest grew.
Forty-five million Americans owe more than $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, with bachelor’s degree holders owing a median of $25,000 at graduation. About 12 percent of loans are delinquent or in default. Many of those who do make their payments are only paying down the interest.
The crisis has a far-reaching impact for my generation. We are not contributing to savings or retirement. We are concentrating in high-cost coastal cities, where there are many jobs, but where rent outpaces wages. We are not buying houses: A report from the Urban Institute found that “for millennials ages 25 to 34, homeownership is eight percentage points lower than baby boomers at that age and 8.4 points lower than Generation X.” We are having children, if any, later in life than any previous generation.
It began to feel like Citibank, which owned my private loans, was taunting me specifically as the interest grew. The Citibank skyscraper loomed over me those weekends I walked up the gravel path to MoMA PS1. As Citi Bike stations sprouted up around New York, I wasn’t even able to try one out, as the bank required a $101 security deposit hold on a credit card.
Yoked together, my mother and I shared a chaotic relationship with the debt. She emailed me to ask if I was “making a budget” whenever Citibank dinged her credit. I called her and cried when my paycheck was levied. I assumed if I worked hard, I would get to the point at which paying the monthly amounts on my loans would be an option, and I would be able to breathe. I was incredibly naive about finances — I once worked an extra project at my publishing job and didn’t know I had to report on my taxes. A few years later, the IRS sent me a fat letter that said I owed $10,000. “Oh, well, you’ve got to pay your taxes,” my mother said. She asked me again about the status of my budget.
Debt takes more from families than just money. The German word for debt, “schuld,” also translates as “guilt.” As David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, said in an interview with Naked Capitalism, “in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word.” In Walter Benjamin’s Capitalism and Religion, the philosopher wrote that “capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.” Debt is framed as a moral issue, and the lenders define the language and the terms. You are morally obligated to pay what you borrowed, and your time and relationships are packaged into the interest rate. My mother and I were weighed down by this guilt and, with each defaulted loan, plagued by the feeling that one of us was failing the other.
She wanted the best for me, but her version of the best was never realistic, and we were never in tune. She begged me to take the LSAT. Do people apply to law school when they haven’t paid for undergrad? I asked. And aren’t there very few jobs for lawyers? Not if you go to Harvard, she said. She forwarded me the LinkedIn e-newsletter every day, which was written in a language I didn’t understand. “Playing sports will help you reach the C-Suite,” she’d type, “so remember to talk about your rowing.” “Read these tips on maintaining positive body language during your meetings.” C-Suite? She was interrupting me faxing my boss his flight options.
My mother cried the day she helped her twenty-five-year-old daughter move into a windowless basement room held together with plywood walls in Bushwick. But I was ecstatic. At $550 a month, I was practically making money.
Occasionally, I turned to consignment to make a few extra bucks. Once when my mother asked if she could borrow a very basic Gap denim jacket, I told her that I traded it for cash at Beacon’s Closet. “Caroline!” She exclaimed. “Henleys do not sell their clothes!”
My undergrad peers probably weren’t selling theirs. Some of my friends were in finance, and told wild stories over drinks of the haphazard schemes hedge funds were using with the recent government bailout money.
We were as paralyzed by this news as I was paralyzed by my debt, and we took the only approach we were familiar with: not confronting it at all.
I grew accustomed to all of the things the debt would stop me from doing. My boyfriend and I had been together for eight years and the only thing keeping us from taking any next steps was money. Finally, we decided that wasn’t a good enough reason — he bought a ring and we decided to plan a wedding, as frugally as possible. For the first time, I was looking forward to making one of my mother’s much-loved budgets.
The month after we got engaged, she called to tell me she was sick. She’d never been a smoker, but some rare gene mutation had been discovered, and she had stage-four lung cancer. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It means… it means I’m going to be around a good while longer,” she said. A simple Google search would have told me that this was not true, but we were in shock and denial. We were as paralyzed by this news as I was paralyzed by my debt, and we took the only approach we were familiar with: not confronting it at all.
One night on the phone, as we were talking through the catering menu for the wedding, she confessed, “Honey, I’m worried I won’t be able to chip in as much as I promised. The chemo is more expensive than I thought.” I could only reply, “No, no, no, Mom.” Not because I wanted a more expensive dress, or a more elaborate party. I was horrified by the thought that money could create a wedge between us; that she would ever think I would prioritize a party over her health. But perhaps that’s how it seemed to her, since I could only talk about the one subject and not the other.
A month before the wedding, my brother called. I knew something was wrong, because he never called me. I took it, and he was sobbing on the other end. “She’s gone. She’s gone.”
“What? No. Where did... where did she go?”
My mother left her bed to answer the doorbell, he told me, and collapsed on the stairs. Blood clot, a side effect of chemo. The delivery man who rang the bell gave up on anyone answering the door and left the get-well-soon flowers on the front porch.
Suddenly, my mother was gone. And every fight, every tense conversation, every email I couldn’t bring myself to answer felt like time that was stolen from us.
By this time, I was working a solid job, ironically, at a university, one of New York City’s largest employers. I could do it, I could get ahead of this thing, I thought. I could pick up when the creditors called, I could make everybody happy. But it didn’t matter anymore.
Before my mother had cancer, we joked that when she died, decades in the future, she would bequeath her debt to me. But that was not the case. My mother had a life insurance policy at her government job, and she had paid off half the mortgage on her $600,000 house. In the next few months of paperwork and grief, I was faced with the dissolution of ten years of financial and emotional trauma.
After my honeymoon, I traced the company that owned my federal debt. I called American Education Services, and they gave me the name of a collections agency I had never heard of. I was prepared to transfer this unknown company $30,000 that day.
“I’d like to pay the whole thing,” I told the representative, a person I no longer feared. “Bet you don’t hear that very often!”
The woman’s voice on the other end of the phone softened when I explained how I got the money. “She’s taking care of you, even after she’s gone,” the woman said. I wondered if perhaps she was more accustomed to hearing this than I originally assumed.
What would my adult relationship with my mother have looked like if it wasn’t shaped by debt and guilt?
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s recent “Final Student Loan Payments and Broader Household Borrowing” report is one of the few sources on completed payments. The data debunks the archetype of the big banks’ favorite mythical, under-caffeinated model citizen — the one who forgoes the pleasure of a daily coffee in the name of fiscal responsibility.
The CFPB’s Office of Research analyzed credit behaviors of 270,000 borrowers who paid off their final student loan payments between 2013 and 2017. The analysis found that the final payments, whether made at the front-end or tail-end of the original payment plan, were abrupt, and these “single, large final payments were a median of 55 times larger than the scheduled payment.” Ninety-four percent of final payments were paid as lump sums, versus the six percent completed in the designated final monthly scheduled amount.
“The simultaneous reduction in credit card and other student loan balances suggests that increased wealth or income could be influencing when borrowers pay off student loans, reduce credit card balances, and purchase homes… The results suggest that the timing of many student loan payoffs may be determined by life events such as household formation or jumps in income or wealth (which cannot be observed in this study), though transaction costs, rules of thumb, or inertia may also play a role.”
How did 94 percent of our country’s most responsible borrowers all of a sudden get access to cash? If it was paid using carefully earned personal savings, you’d expect a more gradual repayment. The data suggests a simple, but rare-seeming, solution: windfall. Perhaps their parents decided to wipe their kids’ slates clean. Or perhaps a family member died, and passed on the assets.
As my fellow, newly-paid-off-through-tragedy borrowers settle their families’ estates and rifle through the lives of their recently departed, I wonder if they think the college debt was worth the trade for a full life’s inheritance. Death cancels all engagements, it forces the living to stop, take a breather, and reassess what’s important in life. I wonder if others feel the same resentment over all that time lost to stress and guilt. I wonder if they also let down their mothers, choosing to avoid a visit home to talk odd jobs and magical budgets to absolve the sin of debt.
What if college had been free? What would my adult relationship with my mother have looked like if it wasn’t shaped by debt and guilt? I have an idea.
Neither of us left the country during this time — travel hardly fit into the budget — until a startup I was working for offered to fly me out to Prague in 2014. We seized the opportunity. From Prague I’d take a RyanAir flight to Rome, where she’d meet me for a long weekend. It was the first time I’d seen all the ruins I studied 10 years before. I played tour guide, bouncing around the city with her and preaching factoids about the Ancient Romans that may or may not have been true. I made my mother sit through an hour and a half video about Trajan’s Column; I forced her to walk around the full perimeter of the Vatican on the hunt for a pizza place that Anthony Bourdain recommended, which we never found. It was the best three days of my life. She had a pretty good time, too.
This is what student loan debt takes from us — not just our paychecks but our relationships and our ability to have full lives with the people we love. When my guidance counselor told me you can’t put a price on a good education, she was dead wrong. The price of mine was the powerlessness I felt that day discussing the chemo and wedding payments with my mother, the loneliness I feel without her now, and living with the knowledge that there was so much left unsaid between us.