90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:

Question 3

Do you have student loan or credit card debt?

Photo prompt #3: Take a picture of the most expensive thing you own.

I was asked to take a picture of the most expensive thing I own. What is the most expensive thing I own?

My apartment? No, I rent. My car? No, even though I got a reasonably priced used car, I am years of loan payments away from owning that. My laptop? No, I had to take out a loan to buy that, too. My bike? Maybe, but I didn’t buy it: After three years of biking frustration, my boyfriend bought it for me because my cheap, heavy, beater of a bike made it impossible for us to ride well or far. My cell phone? Yes, I think my cell phone is the most expensive thing I own.

I’d never thought of it that way before. It certainly makes me value my cell phone a bit more. It also makes the rest of my material life feel a bit more tenuous, like the performance of a novice tightrope walker — a little too much financial wobble, and down I go. I think that most of my adult life has been spent hanging onto the “tightrope” of financial stability by one hand.

I have had my moments of “free fall,” and can say without hesitation that I have been unable to make important purchases because of debt. At 23, I couldn’t afford rent and groceries month to month, let alone utilities or anything extra. At 24, I was unable to pay all of my bills all of the time, and typically ended each month short by twenty to a hundred dollars. As I near 26, I hoped that this would be my first year of solvent and self-sufficient living. But that was before I took on the loan I mentioned in my first post. Now I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. Maybe in the next year or two or three? If I get a raise? And if I find a highly paying summer job? Maybe.

I am by no means optimistic about paying off all of my debt. By the time I finish grad school next year, the net sum will be right around $90,000. To lay it all out there, this breaks down into: $16,000 in undergrad loans; $6,000 in auto loans; $1,000 in private educational loans to replace my laptop for work/grad school; nearly $16,000 from the family member’s fraudulent loan; $50,000 in graduate loans; and $1,000 in credit card debt.

The undergrad loans are about $10,000 below the national average and the graduate loans will be about $15,000 above. The graduate loans, though, are also funding two professional trainings that I’m doing as part of my program of study. Because I am participating in these trainings rather than courses directly through Lesley, I may be able to receive reimbursement from my university (the school’s decision on that is TBA).

Because I am still in school, I am not yet paying off — but, rather, in the process of accruing — the graduate loans. I have thought about whether or not a graduate degree is worth this new debt. I have ultimately concluded that, in education, the range of positions and salary ranges available to me is very limited without a Master’s. In the same way that people say “pink is the new black,” I think that the Master’s is almost the new Bachelor’s — the new baseline of education desired by employer’s in a very competitive job market.

The laptop loan was unavoidable, as I need a laptop to be able to produce large amounts of written work, in multiple locations, for both my teaching and my studies. The car loan was the only loan I could get through the only dealer (of the twelve I looked at) willing to work with my trashed credit score, courtesy of the unpaid and fraudulent family member’s loan.

The credit card debt is the accumulation of three years of resigned, “I’m short x-number of dollars this month” grocery purchases, usually made a day or two before my next paycheck, but a day or two after I’d run out of food. “X” was usually an infuriatingly small number, sometimes as low as six dollars, that made me feel as though no matter how carefully I budgeted in a spreadsheet, something would always come up to ensure I was in the red.

When you can’t afford groceries, the idea of savings is almost a non sequitur. I did have a small savings account when I graduated from college, but I ate through that within a few months. With so much debt, not savings but simple month-to-month solvency and self-sufficiency become the aim. It’s been over three years since I’ve managed to “save” anything. Having started in the middle of a financial storm, it seems impossible to shore up that recommended six-to-nine-month financial cushion for “rainy days.”

So, do I believe that I will eventually have enough savings and money to fund the lifestyle I imagined for myself? Not for at least another ten or fifteen years. In the meantime, the idea of being able to make a down-deposit on a house — something I would have otherwise wanted to do in the next five years or so — seems like little more than fantasy. For now, I put so much into debt repayment and monthly bills that I can’t save enough to pay first, last, and security on a rental. That being said, I’m not sure that “being able to afford the lifestyle that I would like to have” is a realistic aim. I’ve more less ruled out “lifestyle” in favor of more immediate goals: month-to-month solvency, financial self-sufficiency, and debt reduction. “Lifestyle” comes later.

But I don’t think that an emphasis on “being able to afford the lifestyle that I would like to have” is the most productive way of framing my thoughts about all of this. I want to conclude on a slightly different note this week:

I’ve been mulling over the title of this project, “Generation Stuck”.

I’m not sure how comfortable I am with labeling myself “stuck”. On the one hand, I do feel trapped by a catch-22 in our current educational system: I am limited by my undergrad debt on the one hand, but am compelled on the other hand by the need for the incursion of further graduate debt in order to progress professionally and financially in the long-term. The cartoon below sums up my thoughts about this system:

That being said, even in the areas in which I do feel “stuck,” I also feel confident that I’ve been doing all that I can to ameliorate the situation. And there are many ways in which I don’t feel “stuck.” I am, compared to most of the people I graduated from college with, comparatively settled and established. I’m in a long-term, very healthy relationship with someone older and more financially established, who is generous enough to take care of some of those “lifestyle” concerns that I otherwise have to neglect.

And, while my current salary still leaves things very tight at the end of each month — more the fault of my debt than the salary — I do have a decently paying job that I love.

I think, then, that the issue is not so much that I’m “stuck.” The issue is, rather, that I’m uncertain: about my finances month-to-month; about when, if ever, I’ll be debt free; about my ability to contribute financially to my relationship; about my ability to buy a home; about my ability to eventually provide for and raise children; and about my ability to eventually retire or support myself through old age.

Which isn’t comfortable, but isn’t exactly the end of the world either. Things could be a lot worse.


  1. Anonymous at 2:12 pm, October 9, 2012

    “I think that the Master’s is almost the new Bachelor’s — the new
    baseline of education desired by employer’s in a very competitive job
    market.” This is very true. Just 10 years ago it wasn’t this way but it is now. I’d say 90% of people my age I know have Master’s or in the process of getting it. It used be almost a rarity, but now it is basically required. It is interesting that we don’t hear much dialogue on this shift.

  2. Anonymous at 7:36 pm, October 9, 2012

    I have a couple questions for you. If you are so far in debt right now why would you pursue getting you master’s at this time? I am aware that in the field of education that a master’s degree is beneficial in more ways than one (i.e pay scale, credibility, additional opportunities that often come with additional pay); however, you have a job that you say is ” a decent paying job” and in the field of education though a master’s degree will to help advance your professional growth, there generally is not a time frame in which you need to obtain such a degree. With that said, if you did want to get a jump start on obtaining your master’s, why not just take a class or two at a time, which would be more affordable. Also, I recently finished an education master’s program myself, which cost me in total about $18,000 at a private institution. Why would you enroll in such a costly program when there are certainly more affordable ones out there? I know you said you are taking two training courses that MAY be reimbursed, but should you have taken risk in the event that your university does not end up reimbursing you, seeing your current financial status?

    P.S. I am curious what are those two training courses are that you are taking… I am always looking for new things to try in our field :)

  3. Morgan at 4:33 pm, October 22, 2012

    Hello, all. I wanted to say farewell and that, while it’s been a fascinating and thought-inducing experience that I am very grateful for, I won’t be blogging anymore. Between full-time teaching, full-time grad school, and two professional trainings, I’m getting a bit spread thin and WBUR is very kindly letting me bow out of the project so that I can more effectively focus my energies.

    That said, I did want to share a pared-down version of my already-written response to Question 4:

    have noticed two trends: 1) that many of the readers say they are tired of
    reading us ‘whine’ and 2) that it’s been exhausting to write weekly about things that I have worked very hard to not make the focus
    of my life.

    If I could choose to
    establish any one tone in my posts, it would convey the idea that I have a very
    rich and full life, one that I have worked very hard to create and actively

    I will never argue with
    anyone who suggests that there are many ways in which I’ve lead a privileged
    life. I will also never hesitate to agree with anyone who suggests that there
    are just as many ways in which I’ve had my fair share of hardship.

    When it comes to questions
    of causality, I strongly believe in interdependence: the notion that any particular ‘thing’ (person, object, event, etc.) is mutually influenced by everything else.

    I do not, then, believe
    that my “current position” can be explained away by either my own decisions or external
    economic factors. I do not believe that such an “either/or” semantic framework allows
    for the truth of this – or any other – situation. Regardless of our focus –
    whether it be on an individual, a particular society, or humanity as a whole -
    there are hundreds if not thousands of circumstances and choices that influence
    and give rise to any particular ‘current position’.

    I do not think, then, that it
    is possible to say that “I’m x-percent responsible” and “the rest of the world
    is y-percent responsible” for my current position.

    I also think that my
    ‘position’ is always changing in response to the myriad circumstances present
    and choices available in any given, single moment. I think that this
    transience of experience is one of the most enduring aspects of the human
    condition, and that it – above all else – allows for freedom in both attitude
    and action.

    In this view, my attitude towards – and the actions I take in response to – my circumstances are the site
    of both my greatest responsibilities and my greatest opportunities.
    that view, I think I’m doing alright. Again, I have a very rich
    and full life, one that I have worked very hard to create and actively enjoy.”
    That’s all.
    Thanks again to WBUR for the opportunity to participate in this project, and thanks to all of the readers for their comments and questions!

  4. Helen Carpenter at 11:32 am, November 2, 2012

    If you are in education, you should know that licensure in the state of MA requires a masters. The state will not consider you as a teacher unless you incur that debt.

  5. Helen Carpenter at 11:42 am, November 2, 2012

    This cartoon is perfect. My parents always like to remind me that they completed college and grad school without financial support from their parents. My mother always says that she worked two jobs and went to school full-time. Occasionally she concedes that it would not be possible to do that anymore, but older generations just don’t understand. The price of college (public or private) has gone up astronomically while the minimum wage and pay that you can achieve before you get your degree has only made incremental changes. I can’t work two jobs because I can’t afford to get a car or have my degree take longer because I have to work around difficult schedules. We are not whining, you just aren’t listening hard enough. Live it and you will understand. I think Morgan is saying that she isn’t destitute but the insecurity of her situation is almost as hard to live with emotionally.