Tax day: a time of reckoning or relief as we take a good look at what we’ve made, what we owe, and where all our money is going. Huge portions of salaries end up loan payments, as Americans’ debts total more than 2.7 trillion dollars, roughly a trillion just in student loans. And as American women go to college in greater numbers, pay more for health insurance, and are paid 82 cents on every dollar men are paid, no wonder they carry more debt than American men.
The Cut asked sixteen women how debt has affected their relationships, careers, and plans for the future.
1. Filing for Bankruptcy While Setting Up the Nursery
“I wonder how much money worries made us delay [having a baby],” says Lucia, 36, expecting her first child any day. “Growing up with parents who were constantly struggling with debt gave me the lasting impression that money is a stressful and difficult thing … I remember my dad laughing and saying ‘As soon as you scrape something together, something will come and take it away.’ Now I’ve felt that same way: We’re filing for bankruptcy while we’re setting up the nursery.”
When the housing bubble popped, Lucia and her husband suddenly owed the bank more than their house was worth. They’re both “dragging a trail of debt” from graduate school, Lucia from college loans and “uninformed” credit card spending in her early twenties. “Debt has been a major stressor in our relationship — not because we disagree — but because we can’t seem to get out from under it,” she says.
Lucia avoids self-pity: “It’s not like I’m pregnant and working in a sweatshop.” But her “very blue-collar” parents’ “precarious” finances make her wonder if they may need her support someday, and she doesn’t want her child to start working twenty hours a week at age 14 like she did. “I can’t breathe just thinking about it.”
2. Not Eligible for Unemployment
Hannah, then 22, planned to write her master's thesis while working. When the economy tanked, her firm laid off new hires not yet eligible for unemployment. Jobless, Hannah prioritized finishing her degree and took out student loans to live on. “Looking back, I want to smack myself,” she says, “I did all this damage I didn’t even know I was doing … I had no financial literacy.”
“I was depressed and scared,” Hannah, now 28, says. With a lease and new boyfriend, she felt she couldn’t leave Washington, D.C., even though it was expensive. Now she can’t quite account for those loan-sponsored months, but finishing her thesis did make her marketable.
“Look the debt straight in the eye,” Hannah advises, “When I stopped being scared of my money and started taking care of it, I got a huge sense of empowerment.” She pays back $900 per month, a “huge chunk” of her income, which, “embarrassingly,” means her fiancé pays the mortgage and she hasn’t saved for retirement.
3. “I can’t fully participate in weddings.”
“There’s a marked difference that increases every year between my level of income and professionalism and that of my friends’ whose parents paid for them to go to college,” Abby, 30, says. After attending an expensive liberal arts college on loans, she’s felt “a crippling pressure” to choose just the right career because any new loans “have got to pay off.” She couldn’t break into an industry like publishing where internships lead to opportunities. “I wish I could’ve worked for free to get in the door,” Abby says.
Because it’s taken her almost ten years to decide to attend nursing school, Abby worries college friends “might think I can’t make decisions or get my act together.” She orders salad, or meets up after dinner. She says, “I acknowledge that this is a very middle class problem, but I can’t fully participate in weddings.” She’s reconciled to missing “the spectacle” but “feels guilty about choosing between friends.”
Abby gets frustrated with herself for not saving more, until she realizes that a bulk of her money goes to her loans. She entertains “wild schemes” to pay them off, like working in Antarctica, where the pay is apparently better. “I thought I could be a gardener or a cook,” she says, “but they were looking for dentists.”
4. “Oh, shit, I shouldn’t have done that.”
“I don’t have particularly good self-esteem. When I feel down, I buy stuff,” Kate, 36, says, “At first it works, there’s a temporary high.” Her two vices — impulse buys and cigarettes — don’t affect her immediately, but later she’ll think, “Oh, shit, I shouldn’t have done that.”
As “an only child, pretty spoiled,” Kate “always had a safety net.” Her parents paid her college tuition. In her late twenties, Kate earned a low salary in an expensive city. “Otherwise responsible — a good employee, a good friend,” she racked up credit card debt, sometimes thinking, “Oh! J.Crew is having a sale!” Her parents gave her money when she asked. After realizing “this is not what a good daughter does,” she reined in her spending.
“I’m extremely grateful for my parents. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to chase my career,” Kate says, “but it’s embarrassing — I’m 36.” Kate advises that young women avoid credit cards: “You’re screwed if you’re only making your minimum payment.”
5. The Best 80 Grand She Ever Spent.
“Telling my parents was the hardest part,” Susan, 39, says of quitting her job. Like many Chinese Americans, she’s expected to help her parents, who didn’t know the extent of her school loans, totaling over a 150 thousand dollars. “I feel guilty that my sister bought them a car, and I can’t even give them $330,” she says.
“Part of me knows I could’ve stayed at that job and been miserable, but I’m turning 40, I’m done with that crap. I realized the bills are always going to be there,” Susan explains. She’s starting an education business.
In her twenties, Susan funded a year traveling in Asia on graduate school loans. Upon returning, she avoided conversations reminding her of “money, stress, and turmoil.” But after feeling “other” in the States her whole life, in Asia she’d felt “part of the dominant group.” As she puts it, “that was the best fifty grand, that multiplied to eighty, I’ve ever spent.”
6. A Power Imbalance.
Jody’s parents “made it into the middle class, really believed in the American dream,” and taught her that education brings mobility. Because her cerebral palsy is costly and she wanted to support herself, Jody “reached high” and aspired to be a psychologist. Now 37, she says, “At 22 I didn’t realize that I was interested in what I now know are ‘pink collar jobs,’ helping professions, so valuable but not valued.”
Jody struggled in her doctoral program but says only when she was ten years and $200,000 invested in her degree did the school tell her she wouldn’t graduate.
“I think of myself as someone who tried and failed. The interest is always collecting, a reminder,” she says. For a long time she felt ashamed. She’s still upset that her 2-year-old daughter will one day indebt herself with student loans if Jody and her husband are still paying Jody’s. Her husband doesn’t want a second child, partially because of their finances.
“I’m the person in the relationship who made a mistake. It creates a power imbalance,” Jody says, frustrated because she thought her education would give her independence. “He’s a great person, and he never makes me feel bad about it. But if he treated me terribly, I can imagine some women feeling trapped.”
7. Debt Shouldn’t Be Taboo.
“I feel like I can’t afford my future,” Heather, 27, says, “and that dominates my life right now. I worry about it every day.” All her friends in her Kansas hometown own their houses, but Heather lives with her parents. “It’s hugely embarrassing to me,” she says. “My life today isn’t what I thought it’d be ten years ago, that’s for sure.”
Although she finished school and has worked steadily, Heather blames herself for her student loans and credit card debts. “I thought I was making the right decision,” she says, but she regrets attending a private university, not a community college, “the cheaper option,” like her friends. She’s “still paying for mistakes made ten years ago” — putting her living expenses and books on five different credit cards. The $6 an hour she earned working retail didn’t put a dent in the thousands she owed, so interest piled up.
At age 25, she “acknowledged the problem” and her parents encouraged her to come home. She’s “excited — almost there” with paying off her credit cards. Heather wishes high schools taught financial literacy: “People don’t talk about debt, but there’s no reason it should be a taboo subject … [Teenagers] need to know how their decisions will affect their futures.”
8. She did what she needed to do.
In middle school, Octavia asked to be dropped off at her neighbors’ houses — she was ashamed of her own. She never had new clothes. In college, loans and credit cards gave her purchasing power, and she “went bananas at the Bloomingdales makeup counter.”
After graduate school she owed $100,000 in student loans — one with a 12 percent interest rate — and $40,000 on credit cards. She defaulted on three cards simultaneously. “At a very low point I fried some Spam I’d bought as a joke,” Octavia says. She changed her phone number to dodge creditors and reluctantly started working in finance.
One day her boss said she seemed distracted. Octavia says, “I just lost it. I said, ‘I work in this industry to make my bills go away, and they’re not going away.’” The CEO liked her work and wanted to ensure she’d stay. The firm began covering her $1,400 a month student loan payments.
“It changed my life,” Octavia says. Freed from a major bill and reformed — “no new clothes, no taking cabs” — she paid off her credit cards and the high interest student loan. She says, “I feel really lucky… [My employers’] respect for me is translated in my salary.” She’s glad she reoriented her career toward finance, which she now finds interesting: “That was what I needed to do, and I did it.”
9. “We’ve got to airlift you.”
“I went to school, worked, saved, invested. I prided myself on not having any debt,” Vanessa, 32, says. A couple years ago, she took a new job in a new city. Just before she was to start work — and before her new health insurance kicked in — she was hospitalized. She “spent literally all day” worrying about money. She says, “At one point they said, ‘We’ve got to airlift you,’ and I was thinking, ‘How much is that going to cost?’”
During the two months she was too sick to work, Vanessa accrued nearly $50,000 of debt, mostly from medical costs. The hospital eventually arranged for a donor to cover a portion of her bills.
Friends implied the situation was her doing — If she hadn’t moved, she would’ve been insured. “So I’m not supposed to pursue something out of fear?” she’d respond. She’s learned “to have mercy on people” as the indebted aren’t necessarily “lazy or irresponsible.” Vanessa says, “I realized I don’t have control over how much an E.R. visit costs, but I do have control over not letting it rob me of enjoying my life … either you’re going to have a heart attack and have more bills to pay, or you’re going to sit down and plan what you need to do.”
10. “$20,000 for an Ex-boyfriend.”
Friends told Michelle, then in her twenties, not to sign for her boyfriend’s car and apartment, but she says, “When you’re in love you do stupid stuff. I never thought he’d leave me stranded. But you never really know a person.”
Michelle owned a car and home, with excellent credit. When Joe didn’t pay his rent, Michelle was called to court. When he couldn’t cover his car payments, they sold the car for less than what was owed on it. Joe moved to Miami, “living it up while I was stuck with everything, $20,000 of debt for an ex-boyfriend,” she says.
“For awhile, when just seeing a Nissan I was like, ‘GRRRR,’” she laughs. “I had to learn to get over it.” Her loans from college and grad school total over $100,000, but her debts from Joe broke her trust: “I allowed him to use my good credit … It changed my whole perception. It has me thinking about doing a prenup, and I never would’ve before. When you combine your finances, it’s serious.”
11. Her Yoga Teacher Sued Her.
Even after being laid off, Laurel cultivated a positive attitude, asking herself, “Do I have the chutzpah to create my own opportunity?” Then her yoga teacher sued her. Laurel had stopped paying when she stopped attending classes. She says, “To me, bad people get sued, so all of a sudden I was bad by my own definition … I still stress over it.”
Until she lost her job, Laurel’s only debts were her student loans. “I feel like a teenager,” she says, of relying on her savings and cards. Starting a business with debt is “extra scary — there’s no cushion.” Unable to get capital, she chose a personal assistant business with few barriers to entry; she can only give herself about six months to see how it goes, even if becoming profitable would take longer.
If in the morning she doesn’t immediately start working she calls herself ‘lazy’ and thinks, Bills are due! What progress have you made? She laughs, “Sometimes I wake up scared I’m going to be working at Starbucks when I’m 80, penniless, giving all my money to creditors.” But she doesn’t tell her friends about her anxieties: “I don’t want to appear irresponsible or inferior. I’m private about things that matter.”
12. “I can’t trust myself.”
Diana, 37, can’t resist a deal. Owing $20,000 on her now-torn-up credit cards, she’s enrolled in a debt management program, but every Saturday morning she grazes the local thrift shop.
She’s in recovery, two years sober, and says her bargain hunting is one manifestation of “being a compulsive person” intent on “instant gratification.” Her sponsor advised her against going to Home Goods, but she says, “I get a high off finding a good price.” Diana still has a Lord & Taylor card and says, “Sometimes when I feel desperate I think, I can always go to Lord & Taylor. That’s how sick I am.”
Living in New York City in her twenties created most of her debt, as she “thought nothing of ordering a $15 glass of wine … and couldn’t pass up a sample sale.” Her money management program lowered the interest rates on her credit cards, so she’s on track to being debt-free in four years, at which time she’ll ask her mother or sponsor to keep a credit card for her. “I learned my lesson,” she says, “I’m taking responsibility. I honestly can’t trust myself.”
13. “I want to keep my spending habits secret.”
When they first lived together, Joanna, 25, and her fiancé split expenses evenly, but she recently asked him to cover a little more, because his parents paid his college tuition whereas she pays monthly student loan payments of $1,300. “It’s caused a lot of fights,” she says. He’ll imply that her parents should’ve helped her. “It’s put a strain on how we think about each other’s family,” Joanna says. Money also dictates their family planning: “I don’t want to have children yet specifically because of my debt,” she says.
“When I sense he’s judging me, I want to keep my spending habits secret,” Joanna says, although she feels guilty whenever she gets a drink or eats out. When he grumbles over her loans, she replies, “Without my education I would be a totally different person.”
Joanna spent seven years on half-scholarship training to be an opera singer, a time of “amazing experiences.” Pursuing a singing career is so expensive that her graduate program’s faculty considered subsidizing only wealthy students, assuming no one else has a chance of making it. Joanna teaches and works in hospitality “to pay the bills as quick as I can,” which prevents her from auditioning or building a long-term career plan: “Debt keeps you at the bottom.”
14. They Avoid Conversations About Money.
Eliza, 37, handles her family’s bills. She and her husband, the primary breadwinner, both understand they need to be frugal, but they don’t discuss their finances in detail, so Eliza’s not sure he knows just how much — $9,000 — they’re indebted to credit card companies.
“Well, it doesn’t work,” she laughs about their communication style, “I’m stuck figuring out how to cover the bills, but I don’t want to ask him for extra.” She’s reticent because their school-aged kids are always around, “those conversations are stressful,” and she doesn’t “want to make him feel bad” by suggesting his income is inadequate. When they married they agreed she’d stay at home with their children, but she’s started working part-time, like most of her friends.
15. Money was free for me.
As a kid, Jenny got good grades and obeyed, so her mother gave her what she wanted. She expected the same from marriage: “Money was all free for me,” she says, but her husband, one of six kids from a strict household, “grew up knowing the value of a dollar.”
In her twenties, Jenny bought a car. She couldn’t meet the monthly bill. She demanded that her husband pay it, but he refused, even though he had the money. “I thought, ‘We’re married — you’re supposed to take care of me how I want to be taken care of,” Jenny says. The car was repossessed. “It took a minute to get over that one,” she says. “I eventually learned because of my husband the difference between wants and needs.”
Now married for 23 years, they pay their mortgage but have no other outstanding debts, and tried to teach their sons “what it takes to survive.” Jenny says, “Thank God I had someone to teach me that tomorrow’s not promised to you.”
16. Keeping Up With the Joneses.
Stacey’s mother took out loans so Stacey could attend her “number one school, for the big bucks.” Once in college, Stacey began charging her credit cards to “keep up with the Joneses” in her new “appearance-driven community.”
Her debt didn’t “spiral out of control,” though, until she couldn’t find full-time work for two years and juggled multiple low-paying internships and part-time jobs, even walking dogs, while also sending out applications. “It was absolutely crazy, stressful, a hard process,” she says.
Visa’s collections department called, and Stacey deferred her student loans. Aware that she’d “been totally set up in a good situation,” by her mother, she says, “I didn’t want to stress my mom out, so I kept it to myself.” When she finally came clean, her mother told her to write out all her debts so they could see them.
Recently, “hustling and bustling paid off” — she has her dream job. “It feels amazing!” she says, “It’s weird — the sole reason I got into debt was to make more money. My degree and internships landed me my job. You need some debt, but too much will make you feel terrible.”
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