My Debt Story

I just watched the documentary “Inequality For All”. It’s basically Rob Reich (former secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton) discussing and explaining the growing income inequality and how we got here.  He’s a professor now (amongst other things) and the film is framed by different sessions of his lectures in this auditorium filled lecture hall at U.C. Berkeley.  The film ended on a uplifting note with him, saying “I believe in you.”

When he said that, I started weeping.  The film is good, very informative, and I would recommend it to anyone who is curious about income/wealth inequality (It’s on Amazon Prime right now), but it wasn’t life changing information.  It was just another film trying to explain how screwed the system is.  
So, I’m sitting there crying after this guy who I have barely heard of (I probably saw him on the Daily Show at some point) tells me that he believes in me.  WTF??  Dana came over and patted my back and asked me if I’m ok.  I have no idea why I was sobbing into my shirt.  So I took a shower.  I got out of the shower still not knowing why I was so bummed out, so I’m going to use this post to try and figure it out, in the best way I know how:  Storytelling.  
My debt story starts probably around the time I started working.  I worked the concession stands at the little league baseball fields in Southaven, MS.  I then worked at Schlotsky’s, Wal-Mart, Lakeshore UMA (church camp), Domino’s, a brief stint as a youth group director, and then back into the restaurant industry. At one time I held down 3 jobs averaging 65-70 hours a week.  As of writing this, I have been in the work force for roughly 15 years, with only a few weeks/months where I was looking for work (when I moved to Seattle, when I moved back home from Wabash). In those 15 years I have managed to save roughly….. ZERO dollars.  I worked so I could spend.  I had a book of DVD’s (thanks to the $5 bin at Wal-mart) Xbox, big TV, and would do whatever I wanted with my money.  I didn’t want to save it. In my head, saving meant not spending, and spending money happened to be my favorite thing to do.  
When it came time to choose a college, I chose Wabash College.  It was pretty expensive, but when I visited campus, it felt right, and if you know anything about me, feelings reign supreme.  So what did we do so that I could go there?  We did what anyone else does who wants to go to a school and didn’t get a full-ride scholarship does:  get a student loan.  One loan lead to two, two lead to three, and so on and so forth.  I also discovered that if you requested a private student loan you could ask for more than just tuition, so I added the price of a new computer into the cost of the loan.  I didn’t even look at interest rates or repayment terms, deferment options, or anything of that nature.  All I knew was that I needed this money to go to school, and this was the way to get it.

I want to go back in time and just slap 18-22 year old Sam (and maybe tell him to buy stock in Apple, Google, and Amazon)

After 2 years, I transferred to University of Memphis.  Memphis State.  Tiger High.  It was time to come home.  I was excited because my best friend was also moving back home and transferring to UM.  We got an apartment in Hernando, and life was good.  This was one of the first times I had bills to pay.  So I had to start figuring that out, but it was pretty easy since our rent was cheap, and I was working a lot.

I did this thing in college where I would do pretty well one semester, and the next semester I would not go to class.  At one point, twice a week here was my schedule:

5AM:  open Lil Eccletic on Harbortown on Mud Island
9AM: Class
11ish-  Go home, let the dog out, shower, maybe eat.
1PM: Class
3PM: Class
5PM: Work at Corkscrew Wine & Spirits
10PM: Close down the shop, go let the dog out, go out with friends or go to my girlfriend’s house.
12-1AM:  crash.

So the probability that I showed up to that 9am class was REALLY low. The fact that I don’t even remember which class that was tells you; I definitely failed that one.  I also would develop a insane case of procrastination when it came to final papers.  Like, I wouldn’t start to actually write them until the day after they were due.  Come finals time I would pull all-nighters, and start and finish 3 different papers within a 48 hour period.  The quality of those papers were just about what you would expect from a sleep deprived 20 something year old barista cracked out on red bull and an ungodly amount of black coffee.

It turns out that the University of Memphis doesn’t really allow you to continue to suck at school.  When your GPA dips below a certain point, you get an Academic Warning.  This means if your GPA doesn’t increase to a certain level, then you will go on Academic Suspension.  That means you can’t take classes at UM for a semester, and you might have to go take some classes at another school in order to improve your GPA and then re-apply to the Memphis.  This whole process was called “Academic Probation”

My GPA would bounce back and fourth,  I got 2 Academic Warnings.  After the first one, I took less classes that semester,  knocked out some easy classes (A+ in Golf!) and got my grades up above the required level, but I was still on academic probation for a year.  Well the next semester I did terrible, and got another warning, and then followed that semester with an equally bad semester.  Hello Academic Suspension…

So before all that, my loan servicers (Sallie Mae, AES and Wells Fargo) would send me balance summaries or bills, or delinquent notices just about every few weeks.  It was a mixture of “HEY! YOU OWE US!” Or “HEY, YOU’RE GOING TO OWE US!!”  I would say that I opened about 1 in 5  of those letters in the mail, and phone call wise, I would answer 1 in 10 phone calls.  I would get angry on the phone with them, tell them to leave me alone, and hang up.  The most ineffective strategy to get out of debt possible:  IGNORANCE.

So back to being suspended.  I took some time off from school and moved to Seattle to intern with Jeff Bettger at Artist Reformation.  I found a good job, met Dana Jill, got married, went into management.  I started making a lot of adult decisions during this period of my life.  Once I was out of school for 6 months all of my loans began the repayment process.  This meant that the phone calls and letters amped up, and became truly overwhelming.  I opened all the letters this time, answered all the calls.  This time I wouldn’t get angry with the person on the other end of the phone; I would get angry with myself.  I developed a pattern where I wouldn’t think about how much debt I would just go on living my life, paying what I could, and going late or delinquent on the rest of them.  This strategy was also not very effective,  because I couldn’t maintain.  When I would total up how much I owed, I would get depressed, angry, and hopeless.  I didn’t want to feel any of those emotions, so I would just do what I could, when I could, and that’s all there was to it.

I would tell Dana that we will basically be in debt until I was dead.  This is not a very encouraging thing to say to your wife.  It’s also a childish thing to believe.  That statement was both ignorant and immature.  It basically means, “I don’t know how to solve this problem, and I don’t care enough to try and figure it out or ask for help”.  When THAT reality set in, I was shaken to the core.  I’m a grown-ass man.  I solve problems all the time.  This was just another really expensive, really complicated problem, that I needed to strategize and attack.  So I woke up.

I made the first spreadsheet that I still update to this day.  It’s title is “Financial Slavery.” It has every bit of information from my loans possible.  Interest rates, due dates, deferment/forbearance options, accrued interest, who owns it, is it late? How late? I look at this spreadsheet once a week, update totals, and celebrate the small wins.

Celebrating small wins is KEY in this strategy because they come so rarely.  2 years ago I consolidated 8 different loans into 2, last year I finally paid my car loan off, and in 2 weeks I am absolutely overjoyed to say that the first of my 10 loans will be completely paid off.

So to wrap this all up and make some sense out of the tears that were streaming down my face, there is this:  As much as I can research how totally screwed up the student loan/college tuition system is in this country (and it absolutely is 1.2 TRILLION dollars in student debt and college tuition has increased over ~260% in the past 20 years) my overall realization is that, in my case, there is only one person that is to blame.  ME.  Sam Hatch.  I am the one who sought out the loans.  I am the one who went to school for way too long, didn’t take it seriously, and didn’t realize how much money I borrowed and wasted.  Im the one who got kicked out of school.  I am the one who didn’t make payments.  I am the one who still has not saved a single penny.

So maybe I was crying as a way of mourning the last hints of ignorance that I had towards my own debt situation.  Maybe I was crying because I am inspired to do better, be better, and get out of debt.  Or maybe someone was just cutting onions near by.  Whatever it was, I want you all to know this.  I am 29 years old.  I have a good job, a good wife, and a good life.  I am so in, 5 digits worth of, student loan debt.

That 5 used to be 6.  My credit rate has continued to improve over the last 12 months.  My debt does not define me.  It doesn’t hold me back from being the man that God wants me to be.  It is just another problem that I am, continuously, looking for better and better solutions to.  When I read that there is 1.3 trillion dollars in student loans debt, I was both amazed and comforted.  I am not alone.  I want everyone out there that is struggling to pay Navient, or Sallie Mae, or whoever else, know that you are not alone.  Your debt does not define you.  Sure it makes life a little tougher, but you CAN make it through.

Dana Jill is the editor of almost all of my posts.  I have a serious tense shift problem and my grammar isn’t the best.  After proofing this entry, before posting, she told me, “It makes me feel safer that you are actively pursuing getting out of debt.  I felt like your attitude before was ‘it’ll all be fine’ and you were just ignoring the problem.”  This is what it’s all about.  I needed to grow up and address the issue.  My wife feels safer; I feel more responsible and less defeated.

I am on track to being completely out of debt in the next 8-10 years.  Don’t ignore it.  Tackle it head on and don’t forget that you are not alone.

7 thoughts on “My Debt Story

  1. Hey, it's Libby. I feel your pain. If I keep paying at my current rate I will we paid off right before I retire. And, that is just for two years of grad school at RISD! Our goal is to take every raise we get, give ourselves a tiny allowance raise, up our giving a bit, and throw the rest at our debt. I am currently starting a plan that if I can keep it up will knock 9 years and $7,000 worth of interest off the end of my loan. Last month I paid the extra $136.00 a month that will cost me. I also take full responsibility for this. I think the credit counselors at Universities don't do enough to educate students about the reality of the debt. They always take the best case scenario, the best salary you could make, allowing for nothing else, and tell you it is worth it for the education. I also cry, baloney!

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  2. It took me 23 years to finish my BS. I had student loans out the wazoo, and by then my husband also had a bunch. When I finished my masters 2 years after my BS, I had added another 9k to the total. I put every dime of my salary increase into paying off those loans plus a crap ton of consumer debt we had accrued as old college students. It took a couple of years, but we made it. You will, too. (And colleges are really working hard to stop students from borrowing too much! It's bad for their default rate when loans aren't repaid!)

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  3. Sam, I am crying over this. Praise the LORD that our debt does not define us and that even in these awful events He is merciful and trustworthy. Way to go, man…..you are owning it and not letting it rule you. That was a hard lesson for Chris and I to learn. We are just now getting to the \”savings\” point in our lives. And we are 43!!! I can't believe the amount of student loan debt I still carry. But it is slowly and surely getting paid. Ugh.

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