Sunday, May 20, 2012

How to pay off your student debt

(Alternate title: How to pay off $35,000 in student loans in two and a half years)

Recently, a 29-year-old Harvard business school grad has become a media darling for paying off his $90K student debt in seven months. I’ve seen his story pop up in my Facebook feed from people who've read articles about him on the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and Yahoo “News.”

I have nothing against the guy—and I do think there are useful things to learn from his experiences—but I think it’s absurd that media outlets have been so quick to share his story, misleading readers into thinking his example might actually help them deal with their debts. The thing is, this guy’s situation is nothing like the average, everyday, student debtor’s situation. Consider, for instance, how he paid off his debt: He rented out rooms in the home he owned (yes owned!), sold excess vehicles sitting in his driveway (yes, "excess!") and—just one more little thing—he was getting paid over $100,000 a year (yes, $100,000 a year!). How many 29 year olds have homes AND excess vehicles AND six figure salaries?! One percent? One tenth of one percent?

His video:

His story might in fact be useful for Ivy League grads who make $100K+ a year, who have excess vehicles sitting in their driveway, who have 401Ks they can momentarily put on hold, and who ought to undergo a period of serious self-examination to come to terms with psychotic consumerist habits, but for everyone else, his advice just doesn't apply.

So, while I am mostly tradeless, talentless, useful-skill-less, I am, however, a self-avowed expert at one thing, and that’s paying off student debt. As an everyday anybody with a worthless liberal arts degree from a state school—and no seedy uncles to hook me up with lucrative jobs—let me share a few tips on how I paid off $35,000 in student loans in 2.5 years by working mostly low-wage jobs.

1. Think of your debt as a sworn enemy, and indebtedness as a life and death situation. I know that sounds extreme, but grand feats require grand thinking, not to mention a little bit of insanity. If you aim to put 10%, or 20%, or even 50% of your monthly income toward your debt, you’re not taking the conundrum you’re in seriously enough. You should be doing everything (without sacrificing your health) to put 100% of your monthly income toward your debt. When you can do that, even humungous unmanageable debts will shrink and become manageable.

2. Get rid of your vehicle. Article One in Ilgunas’ Law of Cheapness is: Don’t own a vehicle. The average American household spends about $8,000 per year on all vehicle costs, which will probably be 1/3 of many graduates’ salaries. Not only will vehicle costs cut away a huge slice of your yearly salary, but the vehicle itself will severely hamper your ability to take a series of low-wage room and board jobs at remote camps across the country, which is, I would argue, the ideal way to quickly pay off your debt. (Exception: If you are getting a vehicle to also function as your home, the costs of maintaining the vehicle, in this case, I would argue, are reasonable.)

3. Do everything you can to reduce food and shelter costs. In fact, it would be best to eliminate them altogether. You can do this by getting a camp job—most of which offer free room and board. You’ll be getting paid very little (probably no more than $10/hour, if that), but if you calculate what you’re not spending on food, room, and transportation (which you won’t need to pay for at these camp jobs), you might as well assume you’re getting paid more like $20-25/hour. The work at most of these camps is pretty grueling, require long hours, and the labor is fairly menial, but there is the opportunity for promotion. For instance, I started working as a maid at a truck stop in Coldfoot ($8/hour), got a promotion to be a tour guide the following summer ($9/hour plus tips). Then I used my guiding and recreational hiking experiences in the arctic to persuade the Park Service to hire me as a backcountry ranger ($20/hour). But even before I was getting paid the healthy ranger salary, I was making $18,000 a year as a tour guide in the summer and cook in the winter. All that money went toward my debt because I had no room, board, or transportation costs. (For camp jobs, I recommend

4. Remember, this is a life or death situation. Your freedom is on the line. You’re sacrificing your precious twenties trying to aimlessly climb office hierarchies and corporate ladders. You're hardly putting anything toward your debt because you must pay to maintain the appearance of a prosperous, up-and-coming professional, car and clothes and apartment costs and all. If your life really was on the line, what would you do? You would probably resort to desperate measures. You'd become a depression era tramp, traveling via freight train and taking jobs and food wherever you could get them. You’d hitchhike instead of spend $800 on airfare. You’d wrest otherwise costly meals from Dumpsters. You’d live in a van and survive on $103/week. Get obsessed with your debt. Hate it. Despise it. Anthropomorphize it. Murder it. Don't think like a "young professional." Think like a tramp.

5. Find a way to stop paying interest. Interest is a tumor, a quiet killer that grows in your bank account without you hardly knowing it. The best and perhaps only way to deal with interest is to go on a ruthless, full-out, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners offensive against your debt immediately, blitzkrieging it with payments in order to paralyze your debt before it paralyzes you. So, use speed and power and force against your debt. But also take advantage of any situation you can. My mom, for instance, had a zero-interest credit card. She put my whole “private debt” (which was $18,000) on her credit card, and I steadily paid her back. This was ideal for me because—on her credit card—interest no longer accrued. And it didn’t cost her a thing. This situation may not be available to everybody (and I’m actually unsure about the legality of it), but take advantage of like situations if you can.

I’m actually thinking about writing a short, how-to survival guide about getting out of debt (with my friend Josh who’s just about paid off his $70,000 debt), so if you have any tips/ideas that you'd like to share, please do!

(As a maid, cook, and tour guide (my moment of shame as a guide is captured above), I saved $18,000 in one year on a $9/hour salary. All room and board and transportation costs were covered. I had no cell phone bill or any needful expenditures except a few articles of clothing.) 

(I've hitchhiked over 8,000 miles. The only cost you can expect to pay while hitchhiking is food (plus camping gear, which I wouldn't consider a cost since it could be used for other money-saving endeavors). On my 5,500 trip from Alaska to New York, I paid approximately $200, which probably could have been a lot less if I didn't splurge at restaurants along the way.)

(I made $300/week for five months as a corpmember for an AmeriCorps trail crew in Mississippi. Despite the low wage, I was able to save serious money because room and board was provided, plus I received about $2,000 extra in the form of an "education award," which was given to corpsmembers to put toward tuition/debt.) 

(No, this is not a YMCA Halloween costume. As a ranger I got paid the absurd amount of $20/hour through the May-September season, which helped me put an end to my debt. Given the nature of the job, I had few transportation costs, and the government-provided housing was very cheap.)

(I lived in my van after paying off my debt, but it's still a useful example of frugal living and this style of living can be applied to getting out of debt. I lived on $103/week for much of my experiment, paying about $4.34 on food a day.) 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More chickenness

I am obsessed with chickens. Really. For the past two months, I've been raising five baby chicks. As I try to sleep at night, I can only think about how to make their lives better, safer, happier. I lay there in bed drawing creations for a second coop door to the orchard, an elaborate electrical fence to keep out predators, or a lavish "shade shelter" for them to hide under during the harsh daylight hours.

I have in fact followed through with a few of these plans. For one, I created a second door. This is more than a mere aesthetic improvement. The chicks have gotten big and fast and squirrely. They can no longer use the garden-side door because, when we let them out, they dig up our crops (and I can't catch them anymore). Now that there's a second door facing the orchard, they can get out and frolic without messing up the garden crops. (They know to go back into the coop at night.)

The second door:

And I also installed an electric fence. Two chickens were stolen by a night-time predator last year. So far, this season, we haven't seen the slightest sign of malfeasance from other creatures.

Here's one of my future projects: a shade shelter with a hay loft, a perch network for perching, and another hanging food canister.

Here are some more chick pictures (who my mother calls her "grandchildren").

Below is Patience, our adult chicken. Unfortunately, all the chickens cannot live peacefully together quite yet. It's Patience's instinct to violently peck them, so, for now, the chicks--at night--get the bottom compartment of the coop and Patience gets the top. They all use the orchard during the daytime, and luckily there's enough room in there for the chicks to evade Patience's attacks.

 My darlings.

Thirty seconds of chicken goodness: 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Banning Gay Marriage

Can't you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!  --Inherit the Wind

North Carolina is thinking about passing an amendment that will declare that marriage is between “one man and one woman [and that it] is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” This Amendment will, in other words, ban gay marriage. (Gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina law, but the opponents of gay marriage felt the need to include the ban in the constitution, too.)

Last week, Stokes County’s five county commissioners were scheduled to vote on whether or not to support the amendment. Their decision would have no legal bearing, but it would be a symbolic showing (or not showing) of support.

As well as writing a letter to the editor for the local paper, I delivered a speech to the commissioners protesting this resolution and amendment.

The people who are against the amendmentand there are many of uspoint out how the amendment discriminates, how it makes a minority into second-class citizens, and to how it is unfair, unethical, unjust, and un-American.

What about the people who are for it? Basically it boils down to this: Jesus. ::cue high-pitched choir::

Here are some snippets from letters to the editors that have been featured in local newspapers:

“The Bible calls homosexuality an abomination. Abomination defined by Webster's: something greatly disliked or abhorred. Sounds like God is against it. Let's be what God is for, and against (abhor) what God is against and abhors. Source

I'll tell you why! It's a sin and you know it is if you are a Christian. Athiest are afraid of Christians as they should be, because we have God on our side. Read the Bible. Source

“Our rights were given to us by GOD. I know too that many say they want Freedom from Religion,well we don't have that, it is officially Freedom of Religion. Our Government is a Republic and not a Democracy and our Constitution is not a ‘ Living Document ‘. Source

“Upholding the true dignity of human people requires renouncing those immoral behaviors that denigrate our likeness to God, because they do not reflect his divine nature. Neither does accepting and enshrining into law what he rejects in his divine moral law as written in Scripture…. Tampering with the authentic revelation of marriage will further erode the stability and security of the family and society and any redefinition of marriage is counterfeit and discriminates against God.” Source

“I believe that those who vote against Amendment One will do so because they do not believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority in distinguishing right from wrong, since they will be ignoring biblical teachings against homosexual behavior and fornication…" Source

There are a hundred more letters and speeches just like these. And those people who spoke in favor of the amendment at the county commissioner's meeting had similar nonsense to say. 

I’m tempted to call all these people insane, but I’d be giving them too much credit. Insanity is something we can’t control. Insanity is a disease that inflicts itself upon us. These Christians aren’t insane; they’re bigoted by choice.

And they lack any sense of (reality-based) historical perspective. 

How do they not see that this is Jim Crow for a different era, for a different minority? How do they not see—just as we segregated whites from blacks—that we're now segregating straights from gays? Marriage is the new "no colors allowed" diner, the new front of the bus, the new voting booth. How do they not see—just as we laugh at and pity the racists of the '60s and the slaveholders of a century before—that they, too, will one day be laughed at and pitied as backwards, ignorant, intolerant and prejudiced? This amendment—for all the talk about love and marriage and god and divine law and all these supposedly "high-minded" things—is nothing but bigotry, homophobia, and redneck ridiculousness. It's plain old discrimination.

On a slightly unrelated note: How unbecoming it is in a persona man especiallyto worship another man! I'm sure Jesus shat, and masturbated, and bit his toenails, too. Why must we all slavishly live according to someone else's teachings? Aren't the dictates of our individual consciences good enough?

And what good is it when these Christians condemn a loose reading of the Bible, while completely cherry-picking some sections, disregarding others, and warping its words to fit the political agenda of the day?  

Anyway, after a riveting public comment session at the Stokes County Commissioners meeting, the commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of the Amendment. The amendment will be put to a vote on the May 8, 2012 ballot, giving all of North Carolina eligible residents a say in the matter.