The 20-Something Curse

According to an article published by CNN Money this week, millions of American renters want to buy a home this year.

Well, thanks for stating the obvious. And also, thanks again, Internet, for reminding me of the 20-something curse I placed on myself when I was 18.

What is the 20-something curse?

If you’re between the ages of 20 and 30, you’re probably starting to feel the 20-something curse. The curse is identifiable by experiencing one or more of the following realities as a result of repulsive student loan debt that appears both unmanageable and everlasting:

  • An affordable home is somewhere between La La Land and Funkytown, so you’re renting for the foreseeable future.
  • You take the train, the bus, your bike, your feet, you carpool, you rideshare, etc…because you can’t afford a (safe) car.
  • You’re living in a domestic partnership because you can’t afford a wedding/the rent is cheaper/
  • You’re in a (painful) long-distance relationship because of the need for work in a different city or state or country or continent. (Don’t even talk to me about the cost of flights!)
  • The idea of starting a family sounds nice, but the thought of paying for a baby and all its stuff is frightening.
  • You stalk your friends on Facebook going on vacation and you wonder, “how can they afford it?”

And YET society is expecting us to graduate, find a job, buy a car, save for a home, get married and start a family by the time we hit 30. That was the norm fifty years ago, you know, when our parents were doing it. That’s what our parents did, and their parents did, and their parents did.

Well, the buck stops here. “Kids these days”, we’re so wild! Living out of wedlock, taking public transportation, focusing on our careers...I'm not wild; I'm paralyzed by debt!

For some people, doing all those "normal things" like buying a house and getting married by the time they enter their 30s is possible and they’re probably quite comfortable. 

How did we get cursed?

For most of us, we were signing loan applications pre-2008 with our eyes on our immediate futures at college, not on the decade(s) after of paying off all the debt.

For most us, we had no concept of what debt was. The most “debt” we had ever experienced was owing a friend $15 for pizza last night. The idea of $15,000 or $50,000 (or even more) was like numbers in a fictitious math problem.

We had worked so hard to get into the colleges we applied to, so we felt like we deserved to go to wherever we had earned. The financial responsibility took little or no precedence. For most of us, our whole lives were about “working” at school, for no financial remittance. What we earned was academic success, pride, respect, family praise, etc.

Why, all of a sudden, would we shift into thinking about the financial value of going to school? Earning dollars to pay for education didn’t compute. Even the parents who tried to explain/counsel/preach to us had little effect on our decisions.

Compare an 18-year-old to a toddler:

The best analogy I can think of to explain it to someone who has not gone through this experience is this: 

Ask a three year old to pick out a piece of furniture. They can choose how comfortable it is, what it looks like, how big it is, what texture and colour the fabric it. And after he’s chosen his favorite, then explain how much they all are. The cheap one is $500, the nice one is $1,500, another is $800, the really big and fancy one is $5,000, and the used and ripped one is $150. 

Do these numbers make any sense to him? 

No! He’s still going to choose his favorite without considering the dollar amount! He’s going to choose the one that feels right and good to him because he has no concept of what these numbers mean. Since the day he was born three years ago his parents have been obsessed with helping him choose what is right and what feels good!

Why are 18-year-old high school seniors any different? They haven't learned the value of thousands of dollars in their fifteen years of childhood! 4- 5- and 6-digit tuitions meant nothing to us. The numbers were so big they all sounded reasonably the same! We figured, debt is debt right? “We’ll figure it out in four years!”

The graduation reality

We’ll graduate, then get jobs and then our income will pay for our debt. We didn’t know we would have other bills to pay, too.  We didn’t know what the cost to eat for a week or a month or a year was. (Hello, even in college we had meal plans.)

And there’s the cell phones, heating and electricity and hot water, Internet, mature work clothes, and…what’s that you say about interest?

There’s another word from our high school math class: interest. We’d heard that word before, but it was usually in the context of a word problem where, you know, where a bank account was earning interest – interest was a good thing! Our math problems in high school weren't about paying off a college tuition debt (not a bad idea, math curricula developers...)

Now that we’re in our 20s, interest is our enemy. When we look at how much we’ve paid in just interest since graduating it makes us feel nauseous and bitter.

The amount that I’ve paid since 2011 in just interest could be the cost of a gently used car. The amount that I will have paid in interest when my loans are paid in full will have been enough for a down payment on my (theoretical) first home. Want to see a great infographic explaining the reality of student loan debt? Click here.

Was it worth it?

I’m 25. I am confident I will not own property in the next 5 years. It’s not because I don’t want to. As CNN said, it’s not that we renters don’t want to own property, it’s that financially we aren’t able to.

We in our 20s are paying the metaphorical piper for the dancing that we did in college. I’m not saying we didn’t have a good time, learn a lot of stuff, mature and blossom into beautiful adult butterflies, etc. Sure, we did all those things. But now we’re faced with the stark reality of the costs that we weren’t cognitively capable of understanding at 18. 

Most people agree they “grew up” in college. I had no idea the cost of growing up would leave me truly riddled with debt. I wouldn't go back and change anything if I could, but I wish there was a way of helping future 18-year-olds be more informed about their decisions.

That is the 20-something curse. We didn't expect this. But we did it to ourselves, and we have to dig ourselves out of it. Our parents can’t help us, and the government won’t help us. We’re grown-ups now. 

Do you have massive student loans to pay off? How are you managing? Share your story here!