How to Cope With Your Student Loans

April 3rd 2015

Dina Gachman

Student loans aren’t the most hilarious things on the planet, but sometimes in life you have to laugh to keep your sanity when you’re dealing with things like variable interest rates, stoic customer service reps, and the escalating cost of tuition. Dina Gachman's Brokenomics is a book of humor essays and tips about horrible bosses, living in tiny spaces, and facing your student loans head-on. The following is an excerpt from the book, out this month from Seal Press.

Brokenomics cover

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Direct Deposit

After graduation you learn pretty quickly that calling Sallie Mae for help is about as fruitful as asking a Pfizer rep to recommend some herbal remedies. Don’t expect them to save you. That’s your job. They’re not your mommy. They’re not paid enough to hold your hand, wipe your tears, and sing you a lullaby until the nightmare goes away. They’re there to . . . answer the phone, basically.

I admit I did get a little testy with a Sallie Mae customer service person once or twice, just like I’ve gotten testy with a Time Warner Cable rep about, I’d say, forty times. And I will say that when I went a little berserk after calling 1-888-2-SALLIE it was a scary time in my life: I didn’t have a job, I’d just gone through a terrible breakup, I was broke, and I had a pile of debt looming over me. So I called Sallie Mae, hoping they would help me. Looking back, it’s probably one of the most naïve things I’ve ever done—and I’ve done a lot of stupid things. I hope the customer service person flipped off his headset when I said, “Can’t you help me? I’m screwed!?” because I really deserved it, even if I was vulnerable, lost, and temporarily staying at my parents’ house in Texas and taking my mom’s Lunesta when I made the call.

Unless a customer service person is truly being a douchebag, it’s not fair to get angry with them. It’s not their fault. They’re getting paid to listen to jerks like us complain all day. They don’t run the companies or use our money to charter private jets. They probably go home after work, pop in a TV dinner, watch Wheel of Fortune, and tell their loved ones about all the crybabies they had to deal with that day.

If you really want to change the student loan system, do it in a productive way. Get involved with organizations and politicians who are trying to revamp the system. No matter how frustrated and scared you are about your student loans, do not take it out on the wrong person: the customer service person, the grocery bagger, your podiatrist, the UPS guy. It might seem wise in the heat of the moment, but it will not make your loans go away. Neither will staying calm and addressing these people politely, but at least you won’t have some stranger in a cubicle flipping you off, and at least you won’t be ruining someone else’s day.

You will likely experience an anarchic typhoon of emotions when you graduate and realize that all that money you borrowed for school needs to be paid back. To help you through that time and make you feel less alone, here is a rundown of the emotional states you’ll likely experience along the way:

  • Denial. Debt? What debt? I didn’t spend the last few years paying to sit and listen to lectures on free will and Samoan marriage rituals; I was climbing my way up the corporate ladder and getting paid. I am not in debt. I am rich. Physical symptoms during this stage may include a feeling of euphoria followed by a hunch that something is amiss, followed again by euphoria in a repetitive cycle on and on until . . .
  • Anger. The entity that let me take out all those student loans without doing a credit check or counseling me on the idiocy of taking out private loans is a succubus/demon/troll/fanged goblin/criminal/malignant fiend. Symptoms of anger may include: screaming at customer service people, stabbing your student loan bill with a kitchen knife, drinking, banging your head against concrete walls, Googling the CEO of your student loan lender to see how much they make per year. (I strongly advise you not to do this. Ever. I did and the number was so outrageous it sent me into a tailspin of alternating rage and ennui, which I still haven’t fully recovered from.)
  • Bargaining. Dear Universe (or whoever), please make it so that my lender gets caught in a giant fraud scandal, which causes the president of the United States and every human being on the planet to unanimously agree that the proper and just punishment will be to shut down the company and make all of our loans disappear. If you make this happen, I’ll give you my firstborn child, a bouquet of roses, or some macaroons. Whatever you want. Symptoms of bargaining: an imagination running amok.
  • Depression. I’ll just lie here on my back, staring at the ceiling, trying to suffocate myself with my diploma. Symptoms of depression include: depression.
  • Acceptance. This whole suffocation-by-diploma plan isn’t working, so I may as well get up, take a shower, acknowledge that I owe a large sum of money but it’s because I decided to invest in myself and in my future and go after a career that I’m passionate about. I will make this work. Somehow. Symptoms of acceptance include: the will to live and a slight puffing of the chest.
  • Direct deposit. I am finally able to pay at least the minimum amount each month, so I will set up a direct deposit, since it will lower my interest rate an infinitesimal yet meaningful amount and, best of all, I will not have to be reminded of the succubus each month since the money will be pried out of my account and into the lender’s cold, withered claws without me having to write a check and waste even more money putting a stamp on the bill. Symptoms of direct deposit include: a healthy infusion of stoicism.

Once classes end and your grace period is over, you may find yourself moving through these very common Post-Graduation Stages of Despair (PGSD). Don’t avoid them. Feel your feelings. In so doing, you will be able to blossom from a despondent fool into a hopeful (or at least semi-hopeful) member of society. And then the real work begins.

Excerpted from Brokenomics: 50 Ways to Live the Dream on a Dime, by Dina Gachman. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.