Graduating from college into the real world with my shiny new English degree was tough. While I had been drinking and philosophizing and occasionally writing papers, the real world had been suffering through the Internet bubble bust. Although my school was quite forward-thinking in requiring its liberal arts grads to acquire some tech skills, my graduation could not have been more poorly timed.

In a market flooded with unemployed techies, there was no place for me to begin honing the few skills I’d picked up. In a peculiar reversal of fortune, my English degree actually proved nominally useful in obtaining a job – teaching English abroad.  I rode out the bear market in another country, which was fine for what it was, which is to say that it was essentially another year of college. I didn’t learn very much of anything except that teaching wasn’t really my calling.

Meanwhile, my student debt was climbing the Stairway to Perpetual Servitude.

I had taken out two loans, you see, to pay for that very expensive “experiential” undergraduate degree, but upon graduation received counseling for only one. Being a clueless student – my entire analysis of the cost of college had consisted signing on the dotted line – I figured that $17,000 in student loans was a pretty ordinary amount to have and, though twice my anticipated salary abroad, it would somehow disappear.

In other words, I followed the time-honored method of dealing with burdensome debt: stick my head in the sand and flee the country.

When I came back, my mother presented me a neat stack of envelopes printed with increasingly fluorescent and dire warnings. “Maybe you should consider consolidation,” my mother suggested, sticking another envelope on the top of the pile. “Are you sure you deferred those loans?”

You can probably guess my response: “Sure mom, stick them in that bag there and I’ll figure it out in New York.” Undaunted, I moved to the most expensive city in the country. Jobless. In the middle of a recession. Behind on my student loans (read: trashed credit). I opened the consolidation envelope, sent it in, and set about securing a job and a place to live.

Apart from my student loan follies, I was actually doing pretty well for a post-grad in a still-crappy job market. I had a low salary and a lot of roommates, but I also had a budget and stuck to it more or less faithfully.* I had a credit card that was pretty tough to get into trouble with at a $500 limit, and this went a long way toward repairing my credit as my consolidation application wound its painful way through to completion.**

Since I had no money, I continued to not make payments. Those fluorescent envelopes turned positively volcanic in tone and color. By the time the consolidation company tacked on the interest and penalties, I owed over $31k.

This is the story of what $31k and a generic degree*** do to your plans for the future. In my next post, I’ll start exploring some of the data on student loans.

*In fact, I managed to save a whole $3,000 on a $28k annual salary, but that’s another post.

**Seriously, students, if I have one piece of advice it is this: just say no to the credit card offers. I don’t care how they’re branded. Choose one, and don’t let them give you a large balance.

*** For the record, I love studying literature, it’s just almost impossible to find anyone willing to pay you for reading or writing it.