Monday, November 7, 2011

(financial) freedom ain't free

I'm still looking for a job.  While I have a promising lead or two, I haven't done any actual interviewing yet.  This has resulted in several sleepless nights, where I have nightmares that we are going to be evicted from our house because we can't pay for it, and that it will be all my fault.  Also, in the dreams, I default on my student loans. 

No one thinks that law school is cheap.  That is because it is decidedly not.  According to some articles, attending a top 10 law school (like Berkeley, where I went -- although it's a public school, it's still pricey) costs about $43,000 a year, just in tuition.  Plus your undergraduate education.  Plus the expenses of actually living for the three years you are in school.  This is usually financed by taking out massive student loans, with the expectation that you will either make big bucks to pay them off, or at least qualify for LRAP

So, since this is not a dinner party with in-laws, I will tell you my numbers, so you non-lawyer types can get a sense of what this means in real terms.  I graduated from undergrad with no debt.  I graduated from law school with about $150,000 in student loan debt.  That is the size of a decent-sized mortgage.  Fortunately, like a mortgage, they give me 30 years to pay it off.  Unfortunately, and unlike a mortgage, my interest rate is locked in to pre-crash highs, and I can't refinance it to bring the rate down.  So the interest rate on my educational debt is higher than that of our mortgage, our car loan, and one of my credit cards. 

704 Montclair St, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 
 (an example of a house I could buy with the same amount of money I paid to go to law school.)

Sunday, Kathy and I were talking about my most recent kicked-out-of-the-house nightmares.  I noted that I had actually paid them off more aggressively when I was working (about $2,500 a month), but now I was on the slowest repayment plan.  She asked me when I was scheduled to have the loans actually paid off at the current rate (where I pay about $1,000 a month).  "2034," I told her.  She started laughing, kind of hysterically, and said "In 2034 you'll be 53!"  I also started laughing.  In a sick, desperate kind of way.  I could decide to have a baby now, and have to pay for my kid's college before I was done paying for my own education.  She suggested that it might be worth it to go back into Biglaw, just for one year, so we could focus on paying off (or at least paying down) the educational debt.

Now, I'm not a psychiatrist, but my reaction was something shockingly similar to how I have heard post-traumatic stress disorder described.  I started sobbing, and buried my face in her neck.  I clung to her shirt in a desperate kind of way, like someone on Star Trek who has been infected with something that makes them insane.  "Please don't make me go back there.  I'll sell my muffins at the farmers market or something to pay off the loans.  Please."  Within seconds, I was actually begging.  And offering to bake and sell approximately 12,500 batches of muffins.

The conversation ended up being a good one, though.  Obviously, having a massive debt load hang over our heads until I am 53, and Kathy is (ahem) slightly older than 53, is not the best option.  Prior to this conversation, I don't think Kathy fully appreciated what we were looking at with the student loans.  Once I find a job, and we get ourselves financially organized, paying off the educational debt will be a high priority.  Suze Orman and people like that say that if you add even $50 a month or something, you can pay it off years faster.  It makes me grateful that I left Biglaw with a plan, and I was not one of the low-level attorneys forced out without a safety net, or a law student graduating into a shockingly difficult job market and finding myself with $150k in debt and no prospects.

Today I heard on the radio one of those commercials that promises to make you debt free, no matter how much you earn and how much debt you have.  I hereby challenge those people to make me debt free when I have $150,000 of debt and earn $0 per year. 

I can't even fathom how good it will feel when I have finally worked off my three years of law school.  I loved law school.  But I really, really don't want to still be paying for it in 2034. 

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