Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Debt and my degree

Whipping up a bowl of debt-free delicacy
I have braved the waves in my journey as a 31 year old. I can now behold the majestic view that is a life officially debt-free, as I have just paid off the remainder of my $15,000 loan. This was only half of what I borrowed to go to 2 years of university. In 2003, when I entered Western Washington University, my mom's salary of $55k disqualified me for any grants. She ended up being forced to take out a "parent plus" loan for the other $15k, which is a crock of shit, but she wasn't about to let her son get priced out of a future.

It took 10 years after graduation to start attacking that debt, though. There were 2 years where I made more than $2000 a month. The rest of that decade, I was teaching part-time, or getting a low salary in one of the many economic traps for teachers. Then I got a sweet full-time job in a Japanese school, and everything changed. My friend Zack had turned me onto the idea of financial independence, and taking money more seriously. I used to take so much pride in never paying full price for things, and opting for old fashions, but in the end I just used the money to buy more games and collect bullshit. I've always been frugal, thanks to my grandfather, but 2013 was the turning point where I started investing my savings rather than buying more shit.

With my first full year in Japan in 2013, on a good salary, I defeated $10k in debt that had crept up over the years, and invested another $5k. The tax rate of the still-big loan was 3.75%. Basically, the half of my salary that I sent home in 2013 was better used to destroy high-interest credit card debt (~12%) and invest in aggressive stock market returns (~15%) than that wimpy loan tax rate.

I learned from this 10-year loan that college debt is pretty forgiving when pit against other middle-class expenses. I didn't' have to start paying until a year after graduation, plus there were further deferment options, and a really low minimum payment, like $50. There was no car note for me, and I didn't have a family to support, either.

College is supposed to be your shot for a boost in economic mobility. But, I found that to apply so generally that it was disappointing. I chose to be an ESL teacher overseas, where you can get hired with ANY baccalaureate, and only minuscule does your employer understand that your major might be relevant to teaching the language. This realization hit me first after I saw a Spanish language major get paid more than me, who majored in Linguistics, with a TESL certification. While there are other factors at stake, like experience (though it was the first year teaching for both of us) and negotiating power, that was the first ego deflation that my diploma didn't mean as much as I had thought. It turns out that I didn't get to use any of my training and knowledge of language until a few years later, when I got to teach grammar to some higher-level students. This helped me re-define a university diploma as a badge of discipline; proof that you were able to get things done, more or less on time, for 4 years. 

For years, I devalued my diploma because I thought my honed language skills weren't recognized. It made me quite bitter to teach in a school alongside science, literature and loads of international business majors. However, if you take the above definition, you can add on that while you're shaping yourself to be a responsible worker bee who finishes projects on time, you at least get to choose something you're interested in. Well, assuming your parents don't take that away from you and force you to become a major THEY want. However, chances are that if you're in that position, you won't get control of your life any time soon. The flip side is that your parents are probably paying for your education, so bonus!

I am very happy for the connections I made at university, and it was nice to satisfy some curiosities I had, while walking away with some certification that put me into a 10-year-strong career. Teaching is all coming to an end, as I'm changing paths to retail customer service, but I've left a bunch of doors open in dat old career.

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