What I didn’t understand was how much it would cost to live

With a college degree I thought you made enough to get by

What I didn’t understand was how much it would cost to live

It is absurdly expensive to be poor! We know this of course but it’s worth repeating. Whether it’s the costs of having a shitty car that takes a lot of maintenance to even keep running, banking fees that people with money don’t have to contend with, the compounding consequences of neglecting your health over time because you can’t afford doctor visits, the penalty you pay for buying food in smaller quantities as opposed to bulk, or fees you pay for housing when you rent and tend to move more than those with their own homes, there are so many ways we fuck over poor people it’s almost like we’re doing it on purpose to punish them, which I suppose we are.

Perhaps nowhere else is this more evident than in the cost of going to college. For people with means tuition prices are still a cosmic joke, but if their families can pay upfront, or even a decent chunk of it, the cost in the long term is so much less than for those of us who are forced to take out loans and contend with the villainous predatory lenders that gash us with interest for the rest of our lives.

Every so often a story about just how insidious this lending system is goes viral like this one from a TikTok personality named Holly Polly from last month.

“I started with $80,000. I have been paying for ten years,” she says, almost breaking down into tears. “Last year I paid $6,000 lump sum, because that’s really the only way to get it low. That took it down to $76,000 after I’ve been paying for nine years. The grand total is I have paid $120,000 and I still owe $76,000. HOW THE FUCK IS THIS POSSIBLE?”

“I think I might be late to the game learning about this,” she says, crying now. “Student loans are really messed up. $120,000. What are you supposed to do with that?”

A few days after that journalist Sarah Kelly went viral with a similar tale of her own about paying tens of thousands of dollars over the years only to have the amount she owes increase. I spoke with Kelly about how she found herself in this sadly all to common situation.

For previous Hell World pieces on predatory student lenders and the famous motherfuckers of piss Navient you can go here and here.

Here’s my chat with Sarah Kelly about how it feels to be ground into mud.

So that tweet went pretty viral! I wanted to talk about it more. How much are you in debt?

To that lender I owe about $47,000. I’ve paid about $31,000.

Over how much time?

About nine years. I graduated in 2010.

That’s fucking insane right?

Yeah! I have other loans too but that’s my scariest one because of the lender. That payment is about $500 a month.

Who is it?

It’s through a company called American Education Services. I know my loan was sold at least once, before I even started paying it off. I’m not totally sure who had it originally. I feel like I graduated from college and all these lenders came out of the woodwork that I had forgotten about because my parents were just handing me things to sign so I didn’t have to drop out of school.

More on American Education Services:

Where did you go to school?

The first year I went to Arizona State. There was some confusion about my financial aid, so that’s where a lot of the debt comes from. Some things got mixed up with FAFSA and I didn’t get the aid I was expecting. After that I went to the University of Kansas back home. I want to say it was about $5,000 a semester back then.

Which isn’t that much compared to what a lot of schools cost now.

Yeah. That’s just tuition. The second loan I took out from this company was for my sophomore year. After that I didn’t have to borrow from then because of grants and a small scholarship. Those covered my tuition, so I was able to live on federal loans. Then in my junior year I got a certain type of grant for poor students that I didn’t get before.

And you have other loans on top of that?

So the debt in that tweet is from just two years of school. I think I owe about another $20,000 or so with federal loans, and I’ve had an easier time getting forbearance with them.

Your family wasn’t very well off right?

My mother has been permanently disabled for most of my life, and my father, he wasn’t a janitor at that point, but he was working at a factory. The only reason I went to KU is that I grew up in Lawrence where the university is. You can hear the steam whistle and see the campus from my high school. It seemed like a much more reachable option than it would have been had I grown up even in other parts of Kansas. The reason we live in Lawrence is that my parents had gone to school there and not finished. So I had to go to school.

It was important for your parents that you go to college to improve your life and all that?

Yes, my mom had told me my whole life no matter what I did I had to go to college. And growing up in a college town that’s the emphasis. I went to, what we would now call a Title 1 school, but it was basically a poor kids school. Free and reduced lunch. As far as Kansas goes it was diverse. They pushed a lot of these lines about what your income will be if you go to college versus not going. This is the way out... It never even occurred to me that I could do anything else.

In general there are other paths but I don’t know what other path there would have been for me.

When I was in high school everyone said the same. You have to go to college. It never occurred to me there was another option. I was an idiot. I had no concept of money. I think my school was like $25,000-30,000 a year when I went in the nineties. Now it’s like $60,000 or something. I was like, well, ok, $120,000, I’ll certainly be able to pay that back once I’m an adult with a real job. I was so stupid. Did you feel the same way?

I did and I don’t know how I would’ve known any better. It felt like pretend levels of money. Knowing my parents were making like $30,000 or something, and every school was going to cost more than that…. And everyone else was going to college and seemingly making it work. So it was very abstract. At the time I signed these particular loans I was already at Arizona State, so my choices were to drop out of school, or take out these loans. I remember my mom specifically saying I know these loans are predatory, but we’re going to figure this out. I think these loans were abstract to the adults in my life too. You’ll get a job and we’ll figure it out and maybe at that point things will be better for us and we’ll help you out.

I knew that journalism wasn’t going to be a super well-paying job. I thought it would pay more than teaching, which it doesn’t. In my first two jobs I was making $10,000 less than a first year teacher would make in that district.

It’s not what it used to be that’s for sure. You won’t get rich unless you become a star or whatever.

And like I said I grew up poor, so teachers are rich people to me. I know that’s not the case, and that nobody goes into it for the money, but that is a lot of money to me. Even my first salary was a lot of money to me, because I never had anything. That I could one day have a car less than fifteen years old or pay my rent every month and not worry about it was the only goal I ever had and I didn’t manage to achieve that.

When I think about what I must have thought when I was a teenager I was probably like, ok,  you make a salary of …$75,000 or whatever. It never occurred to me when I was young that it then costs like $74,999 a year to live. Whatever the number is. Most of what you make you have to spend to survive is the point. Saving is almost impossible until you pass a certain threshold.

Right. I didn’t have a concept of what it cost to live at all. How could I? I worked at Dairy Queen. Minimum wage was $5.15. I didn’t understand that you could be paid so little that you literally can’t live. I guess I should’ve known that since my parents were poor, but… With a college degree I thought you made enough to get by. When people said journalism doesn’t pay well, don’t do it, I thought they just meant you won’t get rich.

Have you been getting a lot of replies from people saying you’re an idiot you should’ve known etc?

I did get some people. Plenty were just trolls I wouldn’t have paid any mind to. Some others said there were other options, you didn’t have to do this… which is only kind of true. I wasn’t aware of other options. You only know what you know when you’re barely eighteen years old. There were a lot of people who said other people shouldn’t have to pay for my education, and that’s one opinion, I just think it’s a bad one. Yes they should. They paid for the other thirteen years. When I did interact with those I tried to steer it toward, ok, but is this the way it has to be? Are there other ways to deal with this?

The only reason I posted it initially is I was on the website trying to get some disaster forbearance, which I didn’t get, because I guess the pandemic is over.

Oh good!

Congrats everyone we did it! The only reason I paid this time is my grandma co-signed, so if I don’t pay they bother her. I don’t know how any of this is allowed. It’s so silly. A lot of people were like, looks like someone doesn’t understand compound interest. I do. What I didn’t understand was how much it would cost to live. I certainly didn’t understand the 2008 recession, because it hadn’t happened yet. The only reason I posted it in the first place was because I thought it was kind of funny in a Sick Sad World way. A Hell World kind of way. I knew I owed the money. I wasn’t surprised how much I owed. But I was shocked when I saw how much I had already paid. The way I thought of it when I posted it was sort of in a Jim looking at the camera sort of way, like, welp. But people took it as me asking people to feel sorry for me. One person called it a heartfelt appeal or something, and it was more like what the fuck?

You’re certainly not alone in this. Every now and again we see a post like this from someone who’s been paying for ten years or whatever, and not only have they not cracked the principal loan, what they owe is growing. It is “funny” in a way, but it’s also obscene and disgusting.

It is. It’s predatory. You shouldn’t have to finance your education at all. Nobody should have to go into debt for an education at all.

What are you doing now for work?

I just started a new job part time with Sports Illustrated copy-editing. I’ve got this side project I’m working on, a worker-owned sports quarterly thing we’re launching.

What’s the deal with that?

It’s mostly people who worked at SB Nation. It’s going to be kind of like a zine thing, and we’ve got a lot of writers who are well known and good at what they do. I’ll be deputy-editing, and we’ll rotate the staff every quarter. We need $30,000 to make the first issue happen. Last I checked we were at $22,000, so I think we’ll get there. But before that I was unemployed for almost a year. I had moved out to D.C. to work for the Washington Post Express, the commuter daily. I moved from Kansas City to D.C. for that job and five months later they closed down.

Are you still in D.C.? Not a cheap place to live.

It is an extremely expensive place to live. I lucked out and have a really cheap room. I pay like $840 a month because I have a gang of roommates and my room is not technically a bedroom, it's like a basement.

It’s funny that you say you lucked out by paying $840 a month and have tons of roommates and not even a real bedroom. It’s crazy that that counts as a deal.

I know how that sounds. I lived in Texas, Iowa, and Kansas pretty much my whole life. I might have moved back home if I had a better place to stay, but there wasn’t an obvious place for me to go back to. It’s interesting with Covid you see other people living at home at their parents’ giant house with a pool. If I needed to go my mom would take me in, but it’s not really an option.

So how much do you pay a month all together for loans?

Just under $1,000. For the loan in the tweet I pay around $500. I actually have one tiny loan I paid off in full.

I finally got my student loans under $25,000, and I graduated twenty years ago. And I was excited about that.

At least that sounds like a number you could take on.

Right. That’s an amount of money that seems within the realm of reality. It’s not a fake amount like $100,000.

Yeah that’s fake.

The important thing here I guess is, as crazy as your thing sounds, it’s really just kind of how things are. It’s not even all that rare.

I was surprised at how not-rare it was. This was just a bachelor’s degree. A lot of people who went to med school or law school have crazier numbers. Their income is higher but not proportionately.

Did you hear from other people whose loan just keeps getting bigger even though they’re paying?

Unfortunately a lot. And a lot of people who came from poorer backgrounds, where so much of that money, a lot of it went to tuition, but a lot went to having to support ourselves because we were getting zero dollars from our family. A lot of middle class kids I know who still had to borrow for their tuition, their parents would be paying their rent, or were sending them some money every month. I did work in school, but you can only work so much.

And working at a coffee shop or wherever college kids work, it’s like $6-7 an hour isn’t going to add up to much anyway. I think the solution is to cancel student debt, but a lot of people don’t like that because they paid their loans off “the right way.”

It’s a terrible attitude. It’s super individualistic, and ignores the fact that canceling student debt would free up tons of people to buy houses and have kids and do all these things that we rely on as an economy. It’s a very narrow and short-sighted way to look at what they think is fair. If this loan went away I could buy a house. I could’ve bought a house years ago. Not in D.C., but… I could have bought a house and had kids already before thirty if not for this debt. I could have invested in things, or I don't know, started a business, which these people seem to love, if I had an extra $12,000 a year. I’ve paid between $10,000-12,000 every year. It’s more than I pay in my taxes. Besides being just shitty that people think everyone should pay off these things that they agreed to when they were eighteen and didn’t feel like they had a choice, it’s also just not a good move as far as what’s best for everybody.

There was a minute there where I thought we might be making progress on this with Bernie, but I guess we can all just go fuck ourselves.

That’s kind of how I feel since the Bernie thing fell apart and Biden became the nominee. Earlier in the year I had some hope I’d have regular access to health care, which would be cool, because when I get laid off I lose access to health care, then my health gets worse and it’s harder to do my job. I was feeling like maybe the debt could be reduced, maybe if they forgave the federal loans I could pay off the private loans, or something. But hopefully our descent into fascism slows in November. That’s about the best we can hope for now.