The American Dream

The American dream, from a young age we all strive for it, it’s one of the founding principles of our country. We’re all entitled to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If we work hard enough and persevere, the promise is that we will be successful. My story starts in the city of Philadelphia. I’ve spent my entire life here, my early years spent moving from one low income neighborhood to another. The definition of success for me, was going to college and getting a good job. This would enable me to create a life for myself that was more than just living from paycheck to paycheck.

I worked hard in school and was accepted into college. I still remember that first day at registration where my mother and I stood in the finance office trying to figure out how I could actually afford it. My parents were divorced you see, and due to their financial situations, neither one of them could cosign a loan for me. This left me in a tough situation, I had to get my loans myself. This of course meant that the loan companies could offer me any terms they wanted and I believed that I had no choice but to accept.

Growing up in the type of environment I had, my financial acumen was limited. I didn’t know much about loans and interest rates, so I jumped at the guarantee I had that I’d be able to start my classes on Monday. I did have a few grants due to my family’s situation and I actually was able to obtain a partial scholarship from my school, but the large portion of my tuition was left to loans. Like many college students, I thought I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I really didn’t. I ended up changing majors twice before finally finding one that inspired me.

I wanted to work in the IT field and had a passion for computers and technology. This passion grew as I worked all throughout college, in many cases holding multiple jobs to cover my living expenses as I was completely on my own financially. Over time I ended up pulling as much as I could from loans and credit cards to get through college, I figured, “Hey, once I’m out of college and working a real job, everything will be ok.” Well, everything wasn’t ok. I graduated in 2008, which if you were alive during that time, then you know how terrible it was for the job market.

By this time, the reality of student loans had hit, I was in a bad situation. I was graduating with a six figure sum of student loan debt, coupled with high interest rates (10-12%) and no income. (Thank God for grace periods!) Add in a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt and that’s what my financial situation looked like. It took me about five months to find a job, I consider myself one of the lucky ones, there are many more I know who didn’t. I ended working for a great company with a generous compensation package (more money than I had ever seen in a paycheck before) and I thought that all of my problems were over. It’s crazy how things never really turn out the way we think they will.

I quickly realized as bills started becoming due, that I wasn’t making enough money. And I don’t mean enough as in, oh I can’t afford that nice car or that fancy gadget. I mean enough as in, I can’t afford rent on my own and I have to live on a strict budget for food. I was paying almost $1800 a month towards student loans and credit cards and the option of returning home to live with my parents wasn’t one that I had the luxury of. They were all dependent on the generosity of friends and family for their own living situations. But luckily, I had a good group of friends that I could share an apartment with, something that I still thank God for to this day.

Keep in mind, that at this point, I was working the good job with a Bachelor’s degree in a high demand field. From the casual observer, I had it all, but it’s amazing how debt can ruin your life. More than half of my income was going towards debt. I wasn’t one of those people who could afford to go out and buy a nice car, I had to make do with my old 1995 Crown Victoria. When it got really cold, sometimes the door wouldn’t open. And If I was able to get it open, there was a high chance that it wouldn’t close! This made for some interesting drives to work…

I tried to consolidate my student loans, but almost no one was consolidating in early 2009. I was told by numerous companies that were, that I didn’t make enough money to pay my loans. That infuriated me, I was paying them! And I was looking to them to help me get the cost down to something more manageable. But, I was out of luck. Well… like all things time moves on and towards the end of my first year of working, I decided to go back to school and take advantage of the tuition reimbursement that my company offered.

It had always been a personal goal to obtain a master’s degree and I figured, once I was back in school I would get a break from student loans for a while so I could pay down my credit card debt and save up some money. So I enrolled at Penn State Great Valley and got back into the rhythm of attending classes. It was a great experience, working by day, classes by night. I was single and focused on doing the best I could at both work and school. My life consisted of working hard during the week and playing hard on the weekends with my friends. We had a tight knit community together, all of us in similar situations and completely dependent on one another for a place to stay.

By the end of my second year, I had paid off my credit cards; my first major financial victory! I was proud of myself and thankful for the opportunity to do such. By this time I had replaced my Crown Victoria with a new car (nothing outrageous) and life was beginning to look up. Of course, I was blocking out the rising student loan debt rapidly accruing interest while I was in school again.

I started throwing money towards the balances whenever I could, still making sure to put some aside and build a safety net financially. It was around this time that I had gotten my first promotion, the bump in pay a definite help. I began nearing the end of my Master’s program and had amassed a moderate savings account with which I was comfortable that I’d be able to survive with. I had met a girl from work, and we had started dating, a girl that I would later marry and call my wife.

As we started comparing our finances, both of us planning our future life together, I had to reveal my student loan debt. The sum had risen much higher over the course of my Master’s degree program with the high interest rates doing what they do best. By this point, I was about to enter back into repayment with almost $1600 a month spent on student loans.

Again, I looked to consolidate my loan debt figuring that the economy was looking up and my credit was excellent. I thought it was a guarantee, I’d consolidate, get the payments down and not have to worry about tight budgets and sacrificing to live. No dice. Again I was turned down, I didn’t make enough money to pay my loans… even though I was paying them. I got married and we were able to get a place on our own. I had worked hard to eliminate all other debt and had paid off my car before our wedding. All I had was student loans, no credit card debt, no car note and excellent credit.

The first year together was tough financially, many of our expenses covered by my wife’s salary. She had student loans, but more the average, her monthly payments only about five hundred dollars. We persevered, and eventually, I got a notice in the mail from a company called SoFi. At first, I thought it was too good to be true. The concept was amazing, Alumni investors from colleges all throughout the country were looking to help graduates from their schools get their student loan debt under control. I thought it had to be a scam. I researched and researched and researched, and everything I saw convinced me otherwise.

Of course, I figured that once I started the process, it would be just like everywhere else. I’d get so far, and then they would tell me I didn’t make enough money. But, I did it anyway. And over the course of the next few weeks, I began to realize that it was finally going to happen. My interest rates would be sensible, not ridiculous and I had a realistic payment timeline that wasn’t for eternity. I consolidated all of my student loans with SoFi and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Over the course of the next year, we were able to finally buy a home together, something that we had ruled out as a possibility due to my student loans.

I used to fight off panic attacks because of my student loans, constantly thinking that I would never pay them off, the balances remaining the same even after spending thousands to pay them down. But all of that was over. In just one year, I’ve been able to knock off about $10,000 from my student loans. For the first time in over six years, my student loan balances are going down. Right now, I pay a little over $1300 a month in student loans. And yes, that’s a lot… but you can see why I’m happy. It took a lot to get there.

However, even with all of that said, it is still a considerable burden on my wife and me financially. Before we can even consider having kids, we have to eliminate this student loan debt that’s holding us back. I’ve looked for other ways to make more income and have actually started writing, something that I greatly enjoy in my spare time. I’ve become a science fiction author, crafting novels with stories that allow my imagination to run wild. I’m unpublished as of yet, but I’m working towards that, the burden of figuring out how to survive no longer the first thing on my mind.

I’m writing this, because I believe my story is like many others. My generation is one of debt, a debt that’s crippling… a debt that challenges Liberty. The truth of the matter is that student loan debt is like little cuts piling on to create a fatal wound for my generation. SoFi has done a wonderful thing, they are helping students get that debt under control. Once my student loan debt is paid off, my wife and I can finally consider starting a family and do even more in our community. Giving to those in need is core to who we are, and we invest a considerable amount into charities and local churches because it’s the right thing to do. Being able to do even more would be our way of paying it forward, because we’re all in this world together and what we do matters.

Thank you SoFi for helping me, I’ll never forget it! What you do is noble, and no one should ever forget that!