In 2005 I graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship and small business Management. I found a job right away and have been paying down the debt ever since. My student loans totaled just over $17,000. Today’s typical student graduates with over $30,000 in student loan debt. Even adjusting my loan for inflation, it doesn’t hold a candle to what today’s students face. I know I got out lucky.
At the beginning of 2016, I still had 4 years of payments left on my loans. My wife and I determined to pay off my student loans by the end of 2016 and hers by the end of 2018. Every month, I paid the minimum and threw as much additional money at the balance as possible.
When I finally made the last payment, I sat on the couch, hit “Pay Now”, watched my balance change to $0, and felt nothing. I paid the bill, moved onto the next needing to be paid, and felt nothing. No joy of having accomplished a major goal. No elation over the dream of a debt-free future could bring. No sadness about never getting another email from Nelnet again. Nothing.
The last time my wife and I paid off a major debt, we celebrated. We’re not exactly fond of debt, yet when we got married we used credit cards for our honeymoon and some repairs to our newly purchased home. Strict budgeting and four years of payments allowed us to pay that debt off. When I hit that “pay now” button, the weight of the moment was heavy. We celebrated by going out to a fancy dinner. We ordered dessert.
Now I’d cleared a debt twice the amount of our credit card debt and didn’t even feel the urge to change out of my pajamas. I didn’t even get off the couch for a celebratory fist pump. I felt nothing. Has paying this loan for a third of my life turned me into an emotionless robot?
Part of me wonders if my ennui toward the whole thing is because a student loan has no tangible value. Sure, I have the diploma, but it’s not like the house I enter and exit every day. I know I’m paying for that. I can’t even remember the last time I looked at my diploma. I think it’s hanging in my office.
Of course, there’s the knowledge and experience gained from college. But that was eleven years ago. Sure, there are things that have stuck with me and skills that I use every day, but let’s be real: making over 130 consecutive monthly payments almost guarantees I’ve forgotten that they helped pay for my ability to understand accounting.
Maybe I feel nothing because this was only the first step in my wife and my kill-the-student loan goal. It’s not like the money we were paying each month on my loan will now go into our travel fund. We still have to finish paying my wife’s loans. At our planned rate, that will take another two years. So paying off my entire student loan means we still have two more years of student debt payments to go.
The thing is, I know that paying this loan off is an achievement. I know it just as I know the mathematical formula for calculating the area of a circle. But, just like that equation, I have no emotional connection to this known fact. It’s just another thing that sits somewhere in a corner of my brain, like all those other bits of knowledge that all those student loan payments allowed me to obtain.
Paying off my student loan is just one step in the journey towards being truly debt-free. The current goal has my wife’s student loans paid off by the end of 2018 — then there’s that whole mortgage thing. When the day arrives when we are able to live completely debt free, I don’t know what will happen. I’d like to think we’ll celebrate big time. Maybe take an extended vacation somewhere exotic. Perhaps we’ll order two desserts at dinner.
I hope I will at least feel something.