An Open Letter on Student Debt

“If you’re going to gamble, know that you are gambling. Never roll the dice without being aware that you are holding a pair of dice in your hands. And make certain that you can actually cover your bets (both emotionally and financially).”

-Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

To Liz Gilbert (who will probably never read this):

You’ve done it.

You’ve hit the nail on the head.

I’m sorry, but I am here to confirm your fear.

To start, when I applied to college—

No, wait, before that.

In high school, I studied hard, worked hard, and got involved like you’re supposed to. Anyone who wanted to go to college knew that you couldn’t get in on grades alone. My friends and I created clubs partially to hang out and eat food, but also to hold fancy titles like “President,” “Treasurer,” and “Secretary.” We were told they looked good on college resumes.

Fun fact: most admissions offices only want your ACT or SAT score…and your money. Nothing more, nothing less. I didn’t know that. I only knew, even before I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, that going to college would require money I didn’t have. Money my parents didn’t have.

The trouble was that my friends and I talked about going into debt as casually as we discussed going to prom. This or that university is my date, I picked my scholarship to match my shoes, and does my ACT score make my butt look big?

Reality check: debt and prom are two completely different monsters.

Usually, the poor choices made at prom are forgotten within a week (except when they aren’t). However, the life decision that is debt—well, it’s exactly that: a life decision. You don’t walk away from it unless you pay it off.

I knew the rules logically, but I didn’t understand the game emotionally. There was no preexisting life experience or framework to assist me in wrapping my head around the difficulty of handling large debts. In my ignorance, I continued my education. But instead of passing go and collecting two hundred, I amassed negative twenty thousand just by putting my piece on the board.

At the time of graduating college, I think I had three hundred dollars to my name and was living with my parents.

I cried a lot, and pitied myself even more. I tried to make appeals to my parents, mentors, and professors to commiserate with me, but you know what they said?

“It’s not that bad. You’re getting off really easy.”

What. The. Hell?

I had no job lined up, no idea how to use my degree (still don’t), and a really deep hole that was begging for dollars or my soul. Sometimes it felt like it wanted both.

Brilliant.

So, Liz Gilbert (can I call you Liz?), I graduated, lived a little life, then asked the same question you asked: “Why [do] students mortgage their futures so deeply for a few years of creative study?”

Like a narrator to the thoughts I have never given words to, Big Magic had an answer: “The truth is, they don’t always think it through.”

I read that. Then I set the book on the other side of the room and walked away. In fact, I went and made tea.

“The truth is, [students] don’t always think it through. Most artists are impulsive people who don’t plan very far ahead. Artists, by nature, are gamblers. Gambling is a dangerous habit. But whenever you make art, you’re always gambling. You’re rolling the dice on the slim odds that your investment of time, energy, and resources now might pay off later in a big way….Many of my students are gambling that their expensive education will be worth it in the long run.”

—Elizabeth Gilbert’s artist friend, Big Magic

I may not have continued my education to study art, but I did go to a liberal arts college, and while I don’t regret it for moment I can honestly say I had no idea what I was signing up for. Since I graduated, every decision I have made, both personally and professionally, has been influence by the pot of debt boiling furiously on the back burner. Only in the last year have I been able to proactively work on it. And only in the last year have I realized that eighteen-year-old me wasn’t aware of the dice in her hands or the gamble she was about to take.

During my time in college, I had a professor tell me there are only two things worth going into debt for: education and travel.

I can only half agree with that. Education might be worth the debt, but only if you really, truly understand what you’re getting into. If you understand the gamble. Take personal finance courses, save where you can during college, ask questions when you don’t understand because when you graduate you don’t get to stick your head in the dirt and pretend like it’s not there. Trust me, I moved to China for a bit where I pretended I was debt free. While I was gone, my student loans accrued this little thing called interest.

Fortunately, I didn’t take on any loans to get to China. Since then I have backpacked Tibet and Iceland, studied in Wales, and road tripped to Canada.

No. Extra. Debts.

How? I work. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but I get to explore guilt free. I’m not gambling my future to enjoy the moment. I set the money I have saved on the table and then I wring out as much adventure as I can from it. In short, you don’t have to go into debt to travel.

And maybe you don’t have to go into debt for your education, but that isn’t how my story played out. Sometimes that means I have to move the boiling debt pot to the front burner (like I am now), and travel gets moved to the back to simmer. But one day, I won’t have to attend to this pot. The gamble will be paid off. And I’ll probably be a much better money manager for it.

So, Liz. Thank you for writing books for yourself. Who would’ve thought that Big Magic would help me make peace with my student loans?

Until Next Time!

~A

3 Replies to “An Open Letter on Student Debt”

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