I regularly fantasize about what I might be doing if I didn’t owe $100,000 in student debt. I imagine finishing my last semester, hugging my parents goodbye, ruffling the hair on my younger brother’s head as I hug him slightly tighter, and disappearing for a year or more. I’d hitchhike west like all the others, Chris McCandless, Jack Kerouac, Peter Jenkins; I’d see land disappear into the horizon for the first time and lie hidden in a hammock on the side of the road at night.
Eventually, when I got low on money, I’d stop in a cute town and get a little job. I’d write of my travels, start seeing the same people, and get into a routine; I’d start to live there. After I had a good bit of money, I’d say the melancholy goodbyes of leaving a new home and stick out my thumb because I was travelling, I had to keep going. I’d breathe in deep as I walked on the side of the road and finally, after years constriction, I’d feel the snap of release of that rubber band keeping me tied to one place; I’d be free.
But that is just a fantasy. A daydream of an impossibility, a momentary distraction from this reality. The average 2016 American graduate owes $40,000 and pays an average $351 a month according to Student Loans Hero. That’s about 10 years of debt. 10 years of having to worry about paying that, of entrapment, of stress. Plus interest.
Thinking of travelling, even on the shoestring budget way I do and write about, with that much debt feels like I’m lighting a candle on both ends for more light. That time traveling I could have a job and be paying that debt and not worrying as much. But I also would be spending more.
To have a higher paying job you have to pay for transportation, a place to live in the area where the job is, pay for food which might be expensive in the area, all types of things. Forget about if there’s a car and those payments involved. It is cheap to live with little money while travelling, it’s expensive to have a higher paying job and be grounded. It becomes live to work.
Even now, having a whole semester left, there’s a feeling of dread. I earn little money but enough to eat and buy tools to help me travel, like a hammock or sleeping bag. But the money from jobs I like and can live off of isn’t enough, because it needs to pay more than what I need, it has to pay for my 4-year education. For 10 years.
Graduation should yield a feeling of intense relief, and a flow of joy. But instead, its a feeling of cruel deceit and forced acceptance. The deceit of being told the better choice is debt and a degree, and the acceptance that at this point, it’s the only way for a long time.