Friday, January 24, 2014

strangled by mammon

I left seminary seven years ago with $38,657.74 in loan debt. Next week, I'm going to pay the last $1,006.98 to the US Government and be done with it. Kind of.

When I finished seminary, I went into BVS - a long-term volunteer program that emphasizes simple living and whose participants lived, then, on $60/month. There was a grace period for some of the loans, but it only lasted a year or so. When I decided to extend my time with BVS, working as an intern with a slightly higher income, my family graciously agreed to pay off the $15,000 worth of loans with the higher 6.8% interest rate, lightening my load and lowering my monthly payments. I still owe them. But paying back my family feels so much lighter than paying back the federal government.

This is not a post of complaint, or whining, or even a case for legislative change to curtail the ugly business of student loan financing. It's just a post about money. It's a post about money and debt and stewardship, because we do not talk about those things. And like anything we refuse to talk about, the silence strangles us.

Money. Shudder.

There are all kinds of ways to talk about economic decision-making. I can work my way through logical trajectories that cast my financial choices in lights both flattering and staggeringly stupid.

Flattering: Short-term sacrifice (BVS) combined with familial safety net led to the relationship and experience to land myself this particular scale-paying job in a wealthy area of the country, plus a contract gig whose stipend has been completely dedicated to paying off loans these last few years. Win!

Staggeringly Stupid: Knowing nothing about money, I chose the most expensive option for seminary. Financial aid packages made it such that Harvard would have been cheaper. Harvard. (Though there are few if any orthodox Jews with Georgia accents in Cambridge, I imagine, and those were some of my favorite parts of seminary life.) Then, having graduated from said expensive institution with towering loan debt, I chose to work for nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

There are all sorts of things to be said about this money business: reform of the student loan business, re-thinking pastoral training and employment practices, educating young people on what debt looks like, and expanding our imaginations of what school is good for, and what it is not.

There are days when I am sorely convinced that spending 7 years in school and double that paying off the debt from it was SO not worth what it is I’m doing now. I mean that both ways. There are plenty of days I think (oh-so-humbly!) “I went to school for 7 years and am paying $1,000 a month to get out of educational debt in order to BE YOUR TRAVEL AGENT/CUSTODIAN/COPYWRITER?” But there are also plenty of days when I think: “What the HELL did those people in seminary think they could teach me that these saints couldn’t?”

I’m drifting off topic. Money is a tool to be used, and in general, I’m pretty content with the ways I’ve used it. But it is also a status symbol, a means of clawing one’s way up to privilege, a divisive wedge, and has some weird vortex-like power over people. We don’t like to talk about it.

So I’m just saying, HEY, you guys: I did some stupid things with money, and then I caught some breaks and then I did some kind-of-responsible things, and I’m probably going to throw a loan-repayment party next week (wanna come? you're invited. it's a potluck.), and now I am going to tell you about it. Because I don’t like being strangled by mammon anymore than the next gal.

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