Life After Debt

by Derek Hamilton

As of this week, I’m officially debt free. As a millennial, just saying that feels unnatural.

I must have logged into my student loan account three times per day this week to be greeted by the “Congratulations!” zero-balance notification. It’s a celebration GIF that makes confetti rain down on my screen. I don’t get any satisfaction from it, so that’s not why I keep checking my non-existent balance. I keep logging in because I’m afraid the bills are going to somehow re-materialize on my account.

It’s like I’ve become so accustomed to student loan dread that I’m filling the void with my own fabricated version of the anxiety it caused. It’s debt-related PTSD.

The journey started at the low point that all new grads experience: tallying up the bills and realizing what I’d gotten myself into at the behest of my teachers, family members, and even my own overly-idealistic self.

Student loans felt like an anchor. They felt like a prison. They felt like a tombstone. Here lies: my financial stability, and all hope of establishing personal wealth. It was like being in an abusive relationship – where there was a domestic disturbance every time my paycheck was deposited.

Throughout my repayment process the past five years, I realize that I became financially anorexic. Even now, knowing I’m in the clear – it’s incredibly difficult to splurge or treat myself to anything. I’m such a fiscal fascist that I can’t even justify my own celebration. After years of practice, I can tactfully convince myself to avoid any non-essential purchase.

The only glimmer of assurance in this story is that I couldn’t have done this without my wife. She had her own set of student loans that needed to be addressed as well, so the threat was on both of us. We’ve kept a running tab in our minds of everything else we could have spent this money on. It has been painfully unmistakable to us.

Paid in full. That’s the only concept we’ve been focusing on since we graduated. Now that our student loans are gone, we’re finding ourselves becoming more and more debt averse. We don’t even want to purchase a home unless it’s with savings and we pay for it outright. We’ve already experienced the smothering curse of debt.

We have drunk from that cup, my friends, and it is bitter.

We keep asking ourselves how we feel about all of this, but we still don’t know what to make of it. It’s insane that we’ve joined the minority of Americans who have paid back their student loans without defaulting. It’s sickening to think that we’ve paid off the equivalent of a 30-year mortgage in five years and have (basically) nothing to show for it. We know it’s for the best. We know we did the right thing. We know we finally achieved what we set out to do – but we don’t feel any relief from it right now.

Paying back student loans is a personal victory that has all of the symptoms of an absolute defeat.


Derek Hamilton is a writer, musician, voiceover talent, and self-proclaimed nerd from Northeast Ohio. He’s a Columbia College Chicago alumni, a published poet, and currently works as a streaming media producer. You can find more of his work at derekhamiltonedits.com

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