The black hole of student debt

Much has been written about death and taxes being the only two inevitable things in life. However, I would argue for the inclusion of a third universal constant: student debt. Sure, it’s not completely universal, but it’s pretty damn close. For most people, it just isn’t feasible to pay up front for their education, living expenses, PBR expenses and who knows what all else. To do that, you would have to work full time, and if you’re working full time, when are you going to have the chance to, say, go to class?

As hard as it is to dig out of the debt hole, it’s easier than falling down a flight of stairs to get yourself into it. There are a multitude of easy and enticing ways to boost your current bank balance that can, to the broke student, overpower your knowledge of the fact that you have to pay it all back later.

Every year on campus, during the warmer months, there are booths set up out in the park blocks where they give away t-shirts and assorted other items in exchange for a credit card application. I actually hit up one of these booths once. I filled out all their forms, making up everything out of thin air except for my name and address, and happily walked off with a new t-shirt. A few weeks later, I got about three denial letters and one shiny new GTE VISA card. They had approved me based on almost complete disinformation. Now I wish I’d kept that card.

But at the time I didn’t think I needed it. I made it through two-and-a-half years at PSU without racking up any debt whatsoever. I never used any credit cards, never took out any student loans, nothing. Sure, I was broke all the time, but at least I didn’t owe anything to anybody. However, in addition to being broke, I had an unfortunate tendency to overdraft my checking account and incur the dreaded thirty-two-dollar overdraft fees. This is how I first got sucked in.

My bank told me that if I signed up for a credit card linked to my checking account, then the overdrafted amounts would be charged to the card and I wouldn’t have to face any more of those big fees. It seemed like a great idea at the time. There were so many better ways I could spend thirty-two dollars than on useless fees, which is basically equivalent to setting your money on fire and throwing it out the window. Instead, I would be able to gamble it away at the dog track or add to my burgeoning stamp collection. So I signed up for their credit card. I intended to use it for emergency backup only, never to make purchases with. Ha, ha, ha.

That plan lasted for about a month. Then my government aid ran out, I lost my job at Blockbuster (which didn’t bother me all that much, for what would be obvious reasons to anyone who has ever worked there) and I had all the usual bills coming up. Out whipped the card! With no steady income for the time being, I would charge my credit card up to the limit, pay off the card when I got my next infusion of cash from whatever source I could dredge it up from and then run the card up to the limit again. I was always one month behind on having any actual money. This went on for several months…

Eventually, if your payments start to get a bit late, the wolves start knocking at your door, just like you always knew they would. You start receiving threatening letters in the mail and threatening calls on the phone. After about a month, you start to learn the drill. Answering the calls and making up some lame excuse to the wage slave on the other end of the line (who’s heard them all before) only results in having to do the same thing again next week. This is when caller ID becomes your friend. Everybody knows you don’t answer those calls from “Unknown” or “Blocked ID.”

But you have to be careful. If you let things go past a certain point, your name will get entered into some mysterious globally-linked blacklist, not wholly unlike the Homeland Security watch list, and you won’t be able to charge a Hostess Twinkie. Beware.