I, Breadwinner?


Owe no man any thing. Romans 13:8

Don’t worry about the loans. I’m doing good, Dad, and it’s gonna stay that way. Bud Fox [Charlie Sheen] in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

For me, it was all about easy money.

When I started college, I needed and wanted funds—for an apartment, a car, a girlfriend, alcohol, and of course, tuition. Conveniently, the dorms and lecture halls were strewn with credit card applications, which are as much a part of the university experience as Wednesday-morning hangovers. The plastic loan sharks beckoned with low monthly payments and generous credit lines. It was an offer few of us could refuse.

Naturally, credit cards, with their usurious interest rates, were just the start. Student loans, a fact of life for nearly every red-blooded (as opposed to blue-blooded) American, were a much bigger deal. And the bonus was you could begin paying them back after graduation or, at any rate, in the distant future. It wasn’t my problem, I reasoned. It was the problem of some future version of myself. Screw him.

Thus was a Matterhorn of debt created. But as I morphed from a twentysomething into a thirty-nothing, the realization began to dawn: Will the supersized student loans and maxed-out credit cards stay with me until the bitter end? Will I spend the rest of my life barely making rent, forever beholden to myriad creditors? Will I be able to purchase a home? Will I be solvent enough to provide, God help me, for a family? Will, in other words, there be consequences to an early life of profligate borrowing?

Well, yeah. “As a group, young adults underestimate how long it will take to repay the debt,” said Jill Norvilitis, an associate professor of psychology at Buffalo State University, who has studied collegiate debt.

For many young men beginning their stroll through adulthood, debilitating indebtedness spawns a problem that goes beyond the figures on a bank statement. It’s the growing sense that you won’t be able to live the kind of life you hoped, the kind of life you grew up expecting. “It’s incredibly depressing,” said Paula Langguth Ryan, an author and lecturer on bankruptcy. “It’s emasculating. They wonder, ‘How did my parents do this? I can’t possibly do this. How can I tell my father that I’m so far over my head I can’t buy any presents this Christmas?’

“You get onto that roller coaster of paying off the debt, but it still keeps going up,” Ryan added. “You’re just spinning your wheels and huge frustration mounts. ‘How can I tell the person I am dating that I am this far in debt?’ ”

Eric Heidt, 33, a Manhattan architect, just refinanced his student loans. Now the payments are manageable, but they’re also eternal. “It’s going to take me a lifetime to take care of it.”

Heidt is living out an economic reality that his father might scarcely recognize. “Buying a house is pretty much out of reach,” he said. “My parents had a bunch of kids, they bought houses, and here I am living in a 12-by-16 room with a stranger and I’m not saving any money. There’s something wrong.”

The lives of young adults, male and female, have changed over the past few decades. For one, fewer of us are getting married in our twenties and even thirties. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s

Current Population Survey show that, among 30- to 34-year-olds, the marriage rate in 2003 was four times lower than it was in 1970. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, 75 percent of women had never been married—compared to 36 percent in 1970—and 86 percent of men had never been married—compared to 55 percent in 1970. It’s just not an essential part of how young men see their post-graduation life these days.

According to a 2002 Rutgers University study, young men are reluctant to marry for several reasons—they think it will require too many changes and compromises; they aren’t confronted with social pressures to make the leap; they can just as easily live with a woman as marry her; and, to put it quite simply, they would rather enjoy the single life for as long as humanly possible. “Some of these men have spent a good part of their early adult years living with parents, roommates, or alone,” the study’s authors wrote. “They have become accustomed to their own space and routines. They enjoy the freedom of not having to be responsible to anyone else.”

But the study also cites several financial reasons for putting off the marriage decision. Young men fear divorce and the financial risks it would bring, including child support. And most would like to purchase a house before taking the vows.

It’s clear that young people aren’t buying homes at the same rate as previous generations. Even though interest rates have plummeted to historic lows in recent years, causing a surge in home ownership across the country, the number of home buyers under 45 has remained steady nationwide since 1980. In New York City, only the lucky few can afford to purchase property. The white picket fence carries an entirely too costly price tag. We are a far more transitory generation, picking up and moving from apartment to apartment, job to job, relationship to relationship, city to city—all while being followed by the black cloud of the financial choices of our late teens and early twenties.

This wasn’t what our parents had in mind for us. Many young men grew up hearing their fathers lecture on the importance of financial stability, business success, and home ownership. The thrust of these soliloquies was that if you make the right choices you won’t have any problems. If I did it, so can you, son. But there was a caveat: Don’t be stupid with your cash. (Also: You’ll get none from me.) Implicit in all this was the suggestion that foolishness with money equals weakness. Debt was a moral deficiency. It’s not the way a man conducts himself.

Easy for them to say, we thought. They didn’t grow up in the age of easy credit. The credit card is just 40 years old, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a young person could get one without a signature from a parent. They didn’t have to struggle to pay for an education. College is now hugely expensive—and a required step on the pathway of American citizenship. Avoid the university, we are told, and you’ll wind up as a telemarketer. (You probably will anyway.) They didn’t have to carry debt. We do. It’s part of our life today.

“You have to remember, in the past, credit wasn’t in common use,” said Ryan. “You didn’t have people slipping a credit application into the books you are buying at the college bookstore. Back then, nobody borrowed on credit. Bankruptcy carried a huge stigma. You would literally sell everything you had of value to repay your debts. You often knew your creditor—it was the butcher or the plumber. Now creditors are faceless.”

The average man doesn’t think about the problems of debt until the first bad credit report prevents him from buying a car or obtaining a mortgage (both of which, of course, would grant him the luxury of more debt). That’s when he feels the sting. That’s when his life begins to feel ill-considered and wasteful. He curses himself for taking that trip to Jim Morrison’s grave on collegiate plastic. He kicks himself for enrolling in two semesters of Hungarian instruction, a beautiful language no doubt, but about as useful to him today as a hole in the cranium. Indeed, at times like these his entire college education looks like a waste of money.

“It’s painful,” said Barry Glassman, a certified financial planner who counsels law students. “If you don’t make those monthly interest payments, you get a horrible credit rating and it goes on your permanent record. It’s part of that anchor that is dragging you down. I see it with law students who I think would be great in the public sector. But they can’t afford it. As a financial planner I can’t see the numbers working. It forces people to take jobs they wouldn’t normally take.

“It’s tough to think long-term when there are so many pressing issues month to month,” he said. “You cannot fathom buying a house when you are trying to make a $400 payment every month.”

The problem is heightened if you have trouble finding a job in this time of fewer opportunities. “It’s especially hard on people who are trying to get established, trying to get their foot in the door,” said Gregory Kuhlman, director of the personal counseling program at Brooklyn College. “If you already have a decent job, you might be nervous, but it doesn’t hit you like it does if you are pounding the pavement for six months.”

At this point in the saga, the typical young person might feel a little resentment, particularly when he reviews his parents’ history and decides that they had it easy. They had no trouble finding decent work and buying that first home. The system then in place was designed to give them a good chance to achieve a chunk of the American dream, however they defined it. The system now in place rewards those wise folks among us who at age 19 had the foresight to worry about how their financial statement would look at age 30. All 10 of them.

The solution is to begin chipping away at your debt burden. “The only way to empower yourself and take the power away from the debt is to face up to it,” said Ryan. And quit charging—anything. Chuck your cards out the window, she suggested. Detach yourself from a way of living that depends on the “drug” of easy credit, said Ryan.

In my experience, I saw that things have a way of improving over time. I slowly dug myself out of the hole. I was aided by the fact that I wasn’t able to accumulate more debt, even if I wanted to. Incremental increases in my salary enabled me to pay off my early-college credit cards. I made peace with the banks that issued my student loans and began paying restitution to them. In short, I figured out a way to manage my debt, which is, after all, the most any of us can hope for in the worker’s paradise of 21st-century America. Like Michael Jordan on the basketball court, the average American’s debt cannot be stopped; it can only, with luck and fortitude, be contained.

As long as you stay out of graduate school.