This essay is from a 2020 Student Loan Planner® Scholarship winner.
In an ironic and somewhat peculiar way, approaching student loans reminds me of childhood.
I can remember lying in bed at night and taking great care to cover every inch of skin with my flower printed comforter, fearing the monsters living under the bed or in the closet would take advantage of my exposed digits and surly use them to pull me away to places unknown.
In the logic process of my young naïve mind, the terror associated with that uncertain place was enough to force me to hide for so long that eventually it became difficult to continue breathing the recycled air trapped in that blanket fortress.
I would finally peek out through a tiny gap in my bedding and suck in the fresh air that came with it, still tense with anxiety and hoping dearly that the monsters would not sense my weakness and use it to penetrate my fortified bedding defenses.
This would go on for hours, and I would begin the following day exhausted both by my lack of sleep and my relentlessly burning anxiety.
Student loans are simply the adult versions of those monsters that I feared so much in my childhood.
During veterinary school and therefore a period of non-payment, signing on the dotted line was easy and something to which I became accustomed. I did not fear acquiring more loans at a time when I did not recognize the uncertainty that they would bring, just like the spaces in the closet and under the bed did not scare me during the daylight hours.
However, when the sun went down I suddenly became terrified of the ambiguity that those spaces contained and the potential monsters that could be birthed there, hungry and looking for tiny children on which to feast. When my loans shifted into repayment, that same feeling of uncertainty created a pit in my stomach and a budding fear that no blanket fort could protect against.
What had once felt like a safe space has now become my enemy, and what little I throw at it in the form of a monthly payment does nothing to stop it from growing constantly larger and more terrifying. So, I hide under a blanket of feigned ignorance and try to avoid peering out at my ever-growing debt, while slowly the anxiety-ridden air that I keep re-breathing threatens to suffocate me.
Since shifting to repayment, my student loans have tirelessly loomed over all of my other financial choices. With each swipe of my credit card or signing of a check I find myself looking over my shoulder at the slightly open closet door, listening for the rumbling snore of the monster within and hoping that I have not awoken its fury.
My educational debt even appears to hold my credit score in its grimy fingers, deciding where I live and ultimately impacting when I will get married or have children.
Regardless of what is going on in the world, my lean veterinary resident salary has also consistently limited my spending. The recession of 2020 has brought with it even more uncertainty surrounding financial decisions, but I have been fortunate in that I have maintained my employment during these hard times as my profession is deemed “essential”. Unfortunately, the very small annual raise promised to me at the beginning of my residency has been rescinded due to the current state of the economy. This proves that just like with student loans, money promised is not always something safe on which to rely.
I have not changed anything about my lifestyle since that previously anticipated extra money will not be delivered. I still do not buy frivolous things and I cook most meals at home, paying close attention to my budget in order to make my dollars stretch where they are needed and ensure they are not thrown in directions that are wasteful.
Overall, my daily financial decisions have always been chained to my debt and held to strict standards based on meager income. Therefore, the recession has not particularly changed this aspect of my life as it does not appear to be as strong or menacing as the slimy and terrifying student loans hiding in the closet.
With loan forgiveness in the distant future being my primary goal, making my small monthly payment has always been a financial priority. Therefore, when the CARES Act was signed in to law it felt like I finally could dare to peer out from under my blanket fortress and cautiously breathe the small amount of fresh air that it provided.
The anxiety and fear induced by my monstrous student loans, though still uncomfortably heavy, shrank ever so slightly. This gave me the confidence to make eye contact with my debt in a way very different from how I approached my childhood fears. I have since tried to face my debt head-on, armed with the weapons of meticulous planning and research at my side.
The silver lining of the uncertain times confronting our society today is that they have inspired me to take charge of my educational debt, rather than letting it control me. Since crunching the numbers and realizing just how much money temporary cancellation of interest accrual will save me in the long run, I can hold on to a single spark of positivity that illuminates the dark spaces in the closet and under the bed.
This simple act has opened the door for financial freedom in my future, something that I have always thought would lie beyond my reach.
The ultimate irony is that we seem to never truly outgrow our fear of the monsters in the closet; instead, our definition of “monster” simply changes.
It is up to us to find a flashlight and illuminate those dark spaces of uncertainty, rather than simply hiding under the blankets and hoping that the morning sun will eventually light them for us.
The 2020 recession has certainly inspired me to light a flashlight of my own. After all, everyone deserves a restful sleep that is uninterrupted by anxiety and fear, which can only be accomplished if we slay the monsters in our own closets once and for all.