Does Not Having Student Loans Make Me A Bad Person?

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
I was at a party in Manhattan recently when the topic turned to apartment hunting. A friend of a friend knows that I live in a studio, so she started picking my brain. "How did you find it?" she asked. "Did you use a broker? How much is your rent?" When I told her what I pay, she paused for a second, and asked a series of personal questions I've come to dread: "How do you afford that? Don't you have student loans to pay?"

The answer to that question is no. I don't have any student loan payments to make. And it's not because I've paid them off; I never had any to begin with. I hate admitting this fact to people, because they tend to immediately pass judgment. Case in point: The girl I was talking with about my apartment gave the boilerplate snarky response I tend to get when this detail is pulled out of me: "Must be nice."

Shit like this gets me red in the ears for a few reasons — and it's not just because I'm embarrassed. On the one hand, having no student loans brings my privilege into sharp focus. I'm a white, cisgender female from an upper-middle-class family. I was lucky to have parents who were doing well enough financially when I entered college to pay the majority of my college tuition, which was about $30,000 per year. I had the deck stacked in my favor from the get-go.

I was lucky to have parents who could pay the majority of my college tuition, which was about $30,000 per year.

But then, that embarrassment over privilege quickly turns to anger, because I still worked very hard in order to graduate completely debt-free. Before I started my freshman year, I got a scholarship for $2,500 — and picked up another $2,500 per year thanks to a staff writing gig at the school paper. For the last three years of school, those two scholarships paid $5,000 per year toward my tuition.

I opted to move out of the dorms my junior year to save my parents some additional money on room and board. In order to keep myself fed and with a roof over my head, I got a job bartending five days a week, on top of my full course load and my two unpaid internships. I scrimped, saved, and applied to jobs starting in December of my senior year, and I got hired into an entry-level position three months before graduation. And not too soon, since my parents unceremoniously cut me off after graduation, and they haven't paid much toward my life since then. Well, except for my phone bill. But I know I'm not the only one in that boat.

I used to feel really guilty about the fact that I didn't have loans, and it's hard to put into words why. I think it has to do with the fact that there's this culture of struggle in your 20s — especially in New York. "I've been spending so much money lately!" is a catchphrase for so many of us. We'll discuss how little cash we have left in our bank accounts like it's a contest (whoever has the lowest balance wins!), yet we'll drop $40 on a brunch without batting an eye. Admitting that I don't have student loan debt is giving up a little bit of my street cred. How much can I really be struggling if I don't owe tens of thousands like so many of my millennial cohorts?

But I've let go of some of that guilt lately. It started to dissipate around the time I moved into my own place and really began to struggle to make ends meet for the first time. My rent doubled, utilities were my responsibility alone, and I was working toward paying down my credit card. (I didn't say I was completely debt-free.) When I almost didn't have the funds to pay rent one month, I realized how badly I needed to budget. So now I have a list taped to my fridge that shows me where my money is going in order to keep myself in check. I pay for everything in cash, and I find myself saying no to a lot of brunches, vacations, and shopping trips in order to stay within my budget. This was my choice — I don't have to live alone — but that doesn't mean it's not a struggle.

Why should I feel guilty for something my father worked so tirelessly to give me?

My parents also never made me feel guilty for accepting this money, even though I never expected them to foot the bill for my education. I spoke to my father about this recently, and his justification was simple: After losing his father in the eighth grade, he had to pay for his own schooling. That motivated him bust his ass so he could pay for me to go to college, too. Why should I have turned my nose at it? Why should I feel guilty for something my father worked so tirelessly to give me? I am forever grateful.

So I get a little annoyed when people try to place me in a box because I'm not saddled with the financial burden of student loan debt. I'm still able to sympathize with the people who are. I'm not some monster who thinks anyone struggling to pay back loans is lazy or should stop complaining. I can't imagine how difficult that burden must be.

Given the opportunity, I'm sure many people who are currently struggling with student loan debt would take the cash from their parents. But that's not the point of all of this. Everyone has their struggles in life. Making an assumption based on someone's financial situation isn't just silly; it's irresponsible. I'm not a worse person because I don't have student loan debt. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it anymore.

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