I just want to shout out loud, I am officially debt free!!!
The only loan I've ever taken out was for a Subaru Outback, which I bought with my soon-to-be-ex husband 3 years ago. I don't know what we were thinking. Even though we could afford the payments and the interest rate was ridiculously low, it was clearly more car than we should have paid for ($28,000 plus interest). I guess we got caught up in the adventure-mobile fantasy and had dreams of driving cross-country and visiting all the national parks, sleeping in the back.
While it was a nice idea, it never happened. Jobs got busy, and then we decided to get divorced. So then we were stuck with a car that was difficult to split until the loan had been paid off (or refinanced). I own an old, somewhat grubby but still perfectly functional Toyota Corolla, while my husband drove the Subaru. He wanted to keep the car, which was fine by me, but I wanted to get my name off the loan asap.
Well after months of heel dragging, per our agreement (which we worked out privately, without lawyers), he finally paid off the remaining $5000 on the loan and will be sending me payments over the next several months to buy my half of the car. Once that's done, I'll sign the title over. But while getting a little extra cash is nice, I'm mostly just pleased to be off that stupid loan and officially debt free! This is going to make buying a house just a little easier now and that's one of my major goals for the next year (a very modest house near the local university where I can be sure to find a roommate).
So if I'm debt free, what happened to my student loans? Well, I never had any. My parents were always very up front with me about the fact that they didn't make enough money to send me to college. I knew I would be paying for most of it myself, which meant either staying in state (a great option) or earning a scholarship. Well, at the time I didn't want to stay in state if I could avoid it (ironically I went there for my Ph.D.), so I worked my ass off in high school. I didn't have much fun then. No parties, no boyfriends. All I did was study to make the grades, and then study some more to get good SAT scores. My major memory of high school is of sitting at my desk in the dark, studying under my reading lamp. And I did that night after night for hours. When it came time to actually apply for colleges, I applied to my dream school (NYU), but the rest of my applications were to colleges that were slightly lower-tier (at least reputationally) but well known to be generous with scholarships and merit-aid (because my parents fit firmly into that section of the middle class that made too much money to qualify for need-based aid, but didn't make enough to actually afford a $40,000 a year tuition, especially with my brother only two years behind me in school.) I also applied to every scholarship I could find and I was lucky enough to get one at Tulane University that was virtually a full ride. So even though I got into my dream school, I turned it down for the money.
So I that's how I got past the undergraduate level without any loans. Then I went to graduate school in Chemistry where they actually pay you because you're really more of an employee than you are student. It's basically a low-paid apprenticeship that's not much more than minimum wage. But I did get a fellowship from the Department of Energy that paid slightly better for my last three years, which really helped me focus on my research rather than having to teach undergrads at the same time.
So that's how I did it, and let me tell you, there are pros and cons to this method. Pros: it put me in the great position of being debt free after receiving a very substantial and excellent education. Cons: I had to sacrifice what I really wanted to do in my heart of hearts (get an MFA) and settle for less acclaimed schools. BUT, I am extremely happy that I'm not 180K in debt for a degree in the arts, which no matter how much I would have enjoyed - let's face it, is not very employable.
Sure, sometimes I've felt a little held back because not only did I not go to a high-level undergrad or graduate school, I didn't even try. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten in somewhere if I had been willing to swallow those student loans. But I just didn't see how I would be able to pay back some $150,000. That's like buying 4 luxury cars over a period of 4 years! Insane! It just didn't seem possible, so I didn't do it. And so it goes. I don't have the ivy league education or the arts degree I really wanted, but I'm not doing too bad, and I don't have any loans, which leaves me in a better position to do more creative work now.
I'm not sure where that fear of debt left me when I co-signed for that car with my husband, but I guess I thought we were on stable ground and building toward a life together. And sometimes that means you need to replace a broken down car and you don't necessarily have the cash for the new one. So I don't regret it exactly, but I probably would have done things differently, like buy a cheaper car, if I had to do them over again. Live and learn. Avoid debt or minimize it wherever possible.
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