My Student Debt Sent Me to Therapy

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By: Alexa Goins | Photo: Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Can I let you in on a little secret? For the past four years, I’ve been obsessed with my student loan debt. The first time I checked the balance on my Nelnet account was during the spring semester of my senior year. I was holed up in my dorm room while my roommate and I discussed our student debt, something I (and many of my peers) had been actively ignoring while we earned our degrees. I remember logging into my account for the first time and being horrified at the number staring back at me. I’d never seen that much money in my life. I’d also gotten a pretty hefty scholarship to the private liberal arts college I attended so I was shocked I’d had to take on that much student debt to cover the rest of the tuition costs. How would I possibly pay it all back? 

Looking back four years post-grad, I see that moment as the beginning of an incredibly toxic obsession. I’ve brought my loan balance down from around $45,000 to $15,000 and am on track to be debt free by the end of 2020. This puts me 6 years ahead of a 10-year standard repayment plan. But the real question is at what cost? 

I’ve brought my loan balance down from around $45,000 to $15,000 and am on track to be debt free by the end of 2020… But the real question is at what cost?

People are literally fleeing the country to avoid paying their student loans. Others are unable to pay them back, defaulting and having their wages garnished (more on that below). And then there are those, like me, obsessed with repayment, sometimes to the detriment of our mental health. All of this points to a larger problem about the state of education in the U.S., but that’s a story for another day.

What Happens If You Default on Your Student Debt?

Defaulting on your student loans can be scary to say the least. For federal student loans, default happens when you don’t pay on your loans for nine months (or 270 days). Typically, late payments and defaults show up on your credit report and remain there for seven years. You may face wage garnishment and have your tax returns withheld if you fall into default. If you’re unable to make a payment, you can avoid defaulting by applying for forbearance. While default can feel like the end of the world (or at least the end of your financial life), it’s not! You can rebuild your credit and get back on track. Experian has some great tips on how to bounce back if you’ve defaulted on your student loans. We recommend checking them out! [

Like most who are unfamiliar with personal finance, I tried to educate myself and create a game plan to dig my way out of debt as soon as possible upon graduation. It took me awhile to get situated in a full-time position so I spent the first year and a half out of school on deferment and then on an income-based repayment plan with a monthly payment of approximately $0. In that year and a half, I lived abroad, traveled and worked part-time. It was blissful but my debt loomed in my mind and eventually brought me back home to reality. When I finally found a full-time job in the U.S., I made a plan to chip away at the debt. I also purchased a used car which took my total debt load up to around $52,000. 

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I studied the advice of a certain popular personal finance guru who will not be named. I stopped hanging out with friends to save money and my social life disappeared. My dad warned me that this man’s advice was not for us (as in his advice wasn’t very nuanced and did not account for the financial impact of systemic racism). As usual, my dad quickly proved to be right. Emergencies popped up and my lack of savings beyond the plan’s suggested $1,000 knocked me off course. This point in my debt-free journey wasn’t just incredibly discouraging because of a lack of progress, I was anxious and ashamed. 

I started having panic attacks regularly and was constantly checking my bank balances and Nelnet account. My friends and roommate seemed irritated because I never wanted to hang out anymore. I was stressing myself out by taking on too much freelance work on the side. I had so many passions and hobbies I wanted to explore but was putting on hold, like taking hip hop and yoga classes. 

Finally, I took my dad’s advice and worked on building up my savings to $5,000 then $10,000. I paid off my car. I continued to stick to a budget and be frugal but I also had a social life and short-term and long-term savings. I started investing in myself through a gym membership and therapy. I began to feel a bit freer. Eventually, I landed a job in my hometown which allowed me to nearly double my salary and make faster progress. I moved in with my parents for 7 months to pay it down faster. Then, moved out when I started to crave independence again. I beat myself up about this decision for a couple days but remind myself that my present happiness is important too. And, living alone makes me really, really happy. 

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The plan I originally followed seemed to be like my only hope at the time because it was the most popular one I could find online. But personal finance is personal. I learned I’m not motivated by shame so I found voices in the personal finance space who don’t use shame-based messaging and instead try to encourage. If you, like me, are a perfectionist, it may be freeing to know you don’t have to follow anyone else’s plan perfectly. Just do what works for you. Take a few tips from that guru and a few more from that other expert. You don’t have to stick to the advice or plan of one person (no matter what the Innanets say). I can’t lie, there are days my mental health is still shit because of my obsession with my student loans. But, reflecting on my own experiences and through conversations with friends and family, I’m able to move my thoughts away from obsessing and back into a place of balance. 

Personal finance is personal... I’m not motivated by shame so I found voices in the personal finance space who don’t use shame-based messaging and instead try to encourage. - Alexa Goins Click To Tweet

That being said, here are a few tips that helped me stop obsessing so much about my debt (take them with a grain of salt or apply them in a way that works for you): 

Consider what you’re giving up 

If you’ve ever been in debt, you’ve probably noticed the obsession surrounding it in the personal finance community. People pledge their allegiance to following the plan of this expert or that one. Then they get “gazelle intense” in their efforts. They get a second job. They obsess. They stop seeing friends. They obsess. They sell whatever they can. They obsess. They make payment after payment, sacrifice after sacrifice. Depending on one’s debt load and income, this cycle can go on for years. I’d argue for most people it does. The journey to debt freedom is going to take some time so it’s important to figure out what you can reasonably give up during this time. The emphasis here is on being “reasonable.” Are you willing to sacrifice your weekends for a second job? Are you willing to sacrifice your annual trip to see your long distance bestie? Make a list of the joy-making things you absolutely aren’t willing to give up and a list of the things you can. This will help you see your finances in terms of personal values and priorities and hopefully remove some of the stress-inducing aspects of budgeting. 

Don’t be afraid to change plans 

I’m not going to downplay the incredible feat it is when people pay off a large amount of debt in a relatively short amount of time. It’s pretty flipping incredible and all of us who have done this should be proud of what we’ve accomplished. But, it’s also important to pause and ask if the plan we’re on is working for us holistically. Is it working for you mentally, physically, financially, spiritually, emotionally, and socially? If you need to change plans, do it and don’t apologize for it, even if it means sticking to the standard 10-year repayment plan. 

Is the plan we’re on working for us holistically? Is it working for you mentally, physically, financially, spiritually, emotionally, and socially? - Alexa Goins Click To Tweet

Prioritize your mental health and wellbeing 

2020 has shown us life is too damn short to not prioritize  our own wellbeing, loving our lives and the people around us. If debt is causing mental health issues (panic attacks, anxiety, depression, shame, etc.), it might be time to reevaluate or slow down your repayment. Seeing a therapist can also help you invest in yourself and learn how to manage any mental health issues related to your debt or otherwise. 

Gain confidence by saving 

A lot of the pop personal finance advice tells you to prioritize debt payoff over saving for emergencies or short or long-term goals. Through my own experiences, I’ve learned that prioritizing my savings goals alongside my debt payoff goals is most beneficial for me. Having a substantial amount of savings in your account can be confidence-boosting and make you feel less anxious on your debt payoff journey. You’ll be able to sleep a little easier at night knowing you can cover any emergencies that come up or that you’re on your way to having the funds to buy a house, go to grad school or for another long-term savings goal.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat after me: I am more than my student loan debt. 

We all are. 

When we learn to take the shame out of personal finance, we give ourselves a chance to feel mentally healthier and accomplish our financial goals more easily. That’s something worth celebrating. Where are you on your journey towards debt freedom? How does your debt impact your mental health? Let us know in the comments down below!

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