I’m on a congested freeway on a rainy day.  I am going slightly over the speed limit.  Oh yeah, and I’m about to die.

My aging Chevy Cobalt’s tires give out during a too-sharp turn and my car begins to spin.  I am sure I am about to die and yet in that moment–that moment where life and death hang in the balance–the strangest thought crosses my mind.  “I can’t die–I still have so much debt I have to pay back.”

When the car finally stops–after three or four full rotations– it is facing in the completely wrong direction.  I pat myself down–mostly to see if I’m now a ghost.  It appears I survived, but how is that possible?  My moment of shock gives way quickly to the sounds of horns–scolding and incessant like the debt bills I receive each day in the mail.

I make a complete turnaround and get back on track.

Now if only I could do that with my finances.

22 Years Old and No Debt

I’m now 27 years old.  It’s amazing to me that my 22 year old self had no debt whatsoever.  Neither did the 22 year old version of my Wife.  I remember our senior year in college–drinking with friends, learning exciting things, not having a care in the world.

That year we were so convinced we were blessed–we wouldn’t be entering the work force after graduation.  She would be entering graduate school.  I would be going straight to law school.  We would put off our careers for a few more years and invest in ourselves and our educations.  I grew up in a blue collar family that always instilled in me that education was “the way out.”  And yet the only debt my parents have ever had–of any kind–is a simple mortgage that they quickly paid off years ahead of schedule.  If anyone thinks true intelligence has anything to do with college education then they are sorely mistaken.

I started law school back in 2007–at the time my law school said their average graduate earned $75,000 in their first year out of law school.  Sure my law school education would be expensive–but that increased earning potential would more than make up for it.  Right?

It would be easy to pay down our student loans–no matter how big, we figured.

We were so wrong.

2009

I’m about to graduate into the worst American legal market.  Ever.

My wife and I have $180,000 in student loan debt.  Although we do not have any car payments or credit cards, we are looking at fixed student loan bills of about $1,600 each month.  That’s nearly $20,000.00 a year.  With taxes we would have to earn $30,000 per year just to stay on top of our student loans.  I’m forced to take a 1 year clerkship because few firms are hiring.  That year, while my wife finished up her degree–paying thousands of dollars for “college credits” while spending 40 hours a week interning for free at a local school district–I made $42,500.00.

We become drains on our families who distributed kind “financial affirmative action,” and yet that kindness never really made me feel any better about having to ask.

One day before bed I tell my wife that I’m sick of consuming.  That I had lost my taste for it the way one loses a taste for a once-favorite food.  I had worked 20-40 hours per week (and more in the summer) during law school, but even that couldn’t keep me from six-figure student loan debt.  “We can’t go any further into debt,” I say.  We agree and start getting on track.

2011

Six months later my wife and I start a personal finance blog, convinced we had learned our lessons.  We had managed to save up $50,000.00 in a very short period of time–we were both now earning decent salaries and living off of only one of them.  That’s when we made stupid decision number 2.  We decided we should buy a house.  Despite still owing $160,000 in debt, we were quickly approved at a low interest rate.

Six months later we have a mortgage of $2,450 per month.  We still have our student loans.  Between fixing the house, the down-payment, the insurance, the taxes and other costs, and the extra furnishings attendant with a new home, we now have only $1,000 in savings.  The 15 year mortgage that seemed like a good idea at the time now has us positioned just one job loss or medical issue away from complete financial destruction.  In the Northeast where we live, everything is expensive.  Everything.  Maybe that’s true everywhere.

Every day the mail brings another request for money and I’m not sure how we’re going to pay it.  So far we haven’t missed a payment on anything but it’s never anywhere close to easy.

I am ashamed to say we ended up selling our former personal finance blog in order to pay an unexpected $1,000.00 heating-tank bill.  Thereafter I started a freelance writing business on the side which has been successful and which I believe will keep me from ever having to be in such a dire situation again, but I worry sometimes about how long I can keep it up working day and night the way I do.  Sometimes I worry this job is hurting my day job.  I feel stuck with no easy way out.

Conclusion

We made one major bad decision that all other bad decisions flowed from.  That bad decision was our choice to extend our educations.  When I didn’t receive any scholarships for law school I should have just given up on the idea.  The young me didn’t realize that law school would be a hole I may never dig myself out of. Or that student loan debt is basically the only type of debt not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  The only ways out are to pay it down or death.

I have friends who are plumbers.   They have no student loan debt and they charge $100-$150 per hour.  They have been working 7 years longer than I.  Their retirement funds are growing and compounding and I’m going to need years to get back to a $0.00 net worth, if I ever make it.  And Yet in today’s society we push everyone into college.  But the fact remains that there is less value in them, because today almost everyone has a college degree.  Conversely, not too many people can fix a toilet.

Thankfully I narrowly avoided the easy way out of debt on that slick highway not too long ago.  Now it’s time to go after the debt with all the passion and energy of a man given a second chance.

Wish us luck.