There were dollar signs everywhere. On sticky tags. In glossy brochures. As one who has always run far, far away from numbers and bathed myself in the serenity and flexibility of words, I did not know what to make of this world. Sure, I knew everything had a price tag. It wasn’t like I hadn’t taken my sixty dollar paycheck to the mall and blew it on things that have long been relinquished to Goodwill, or went to a movie on a Saturday night, or paid ten dollars for a tank of gas. These were big numbers, frightening in how black they were, how many decimal places they represented.
I thought I’d officially made it to adulthood the day I got my first debit card in the mail. It was green like the bank logo and it had my name on it. Mine. Invisible money was now stored in the card. I didn’t have to see it deplete. I didn’t have to worry about having cash or using an ATM. Best yet, I had something besides my driver’s license in one of those narrow slots in my wallet. Proficiently adult.
I considered my senior year job one of the biggest boons I ever had at that point in my life. I made eight dollars an hour—not bad for a teen in the early 2000s. Hell, better paying than some of the jobs I had both in and after college. I took on all the hours I could, saved every dollar in the account connected to my little green plastic card in preparation for college.
My parents insisted I apply for every kind of scholarship I could get to offset the costs, and I’d won a measly few that I thought were fairly large numbers on paper. I knew I could apply them to my college bill. Why, I could buy my books and still have money left over for incidentals. What a win!
The first big purchase I made in preparation for the dorm I would call mine in less than six weeks was at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Fifty Dollars. I was sweating at the register, my card screaming for mercy as I swiped it through the strip. Fifty dollars? How was it even possible I spent that much? Six and a quarter hours of work. Gone instantly.
What I didn’t realize was that a much more sinister number was presented to me on paper a mere hours before at college orientation. A child of eighteen doesn’t know is how easily the details slip by. How casually it was shrugged off by a man standing at the base of a stacked level auditorium.
He was a master of illusion. Financial aid, he said, was what was going to supply our tuition payments, somewhere to the tune of thirty thousand dollars. Now, I don’t imprint numbers well. They refuse to stay in the correct position in my brain and they fly away like small winged birds only moments after entering my head. Ask my father what it was like to work with me on algebra homework and he will tell you he watched his self-sufficient daughter melt off the chair like a toddler. At the time, thirty thousand dollars was as imaginary as the money on my card.
I wish I had the knowledge I do now as more “adultier” adult. I would’ve shot from my seat, let the folding chair slap the backrest and said, “Hold on, how much?” When I review that day, I can’t recall why $30,000 did not seem like a big deal to me. Hours later, I fretted over fifty dollars, something more tangible, two twenties and a ten. Perhaps, at the time, all I could think about was going shopping for all the plastic goodies that one must stock in their dorm room. Perhaps it was because it was midday and the eight hour orientation was beginning to take its toll on me. Or perhaps it was because I was sold a lie. Borrow now, pay later, you have time. Money is invisible.
Student loans are a trap, like a fly snagged on yellow tape hanging from a garage ceiling. You get stuck there, watching your own demise, when all you saw was that lovely neon, so bright and tempting. I want it now, but I can’t pay for it now, the American Dream in a nutshell. I’ll be fine, I thought, because they tell me my first salary out of college will be at least that amount. Up until that point, I’d had a job, but in the future, I’d have a career, images of breakrooms and professional dress and regular hours and chatting over watercoolers dancing in my head. If I could, I’d go back to that day, sit right behind my eighteen-year-old self, lean in and whisper around her spiral curls, “Your first job out of college is going to net you $6.75 an hour, part-time at a department store. Have fun paying three hundred dollars a month on student loans.”
My eighteen-year-old self would have gulped at the preposterousness of that.
But they said—
But they told us—
Parents are often accused of lying to their children about things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and where babies really come from, but I’d come to realize that adults lie to other adults, too. In fact they do all the time. And nothing showed me that more than the eye opening world of a state university. As a girl from a small town, I wanted to believe those values existed everywhere. But they didn’t really exist in my hometown, and they don’t exist at all. This is the nature of humanity I’ve come to know.
And remember those scholarships I thought would cover my books with a remainder? Well, I maxed that out and then some when I discovered a new lie. College textbooks to the tune of five hundred dollars. And then there were course fees. Facility fees. Meal plans and library fees. All these numbers were invisible, too, mostly because they rolled them all up in that big bill that used to lie exhausted inside a ragged envelope on my parent’s kitchen table, those numbers and their bulging black eyes staring at us.
Well, eighteen-year old self, I hate to tell you this, but I just made another monthly payment on those loans. And you’ve only recently come to know what a thirty thousand dollar salary looks like. Welcome to the real world, kid.