I have a lot of student loan debt.

When I say “a lot,” I mean… a lot. I could own a house in many parts of the country for the amount of money I owe. I pay more every months to my loan companies than I do on rent (and I live in New York City). I rarely tell anyone how much I owe because it freaks them out… and is a little embarrassing, I have to admit.

When I talk to people about student debt, my personal experience with it is, unsurprisingly, the big force behind the direction of the conversation. I have many strong opinions on the student loan industry, the higher education industry, and the culture in this country surrounding money, school, and work. I will readily talk your ear off long past the moment when your interest wanes.

At some point in those discussions, after I talk about sleepless nights, years of not feeling able to ever go out with friends, the drastically reduced freedom, whether or not it’s “fair” that the people who can most afford to pay for school actually end up paying significantly less for it than their poorer counterparts who borrow, how my degree has exactly nothing to do with what I now do for a living… my conversation partner will inevitably ask either,

So would you do it again?”


Do you regret it?”

And here is where things get tricky.

Honestly, I am extremely happy with my life at this point. After nine years in NYC I still adore this city like it’s my lover. I am thrilled with my career, see myself contentedly pursuing it for many, many years to come, and am on a trajectory within it that is objectively awesome. I have a network of fulfilling personal relationships. I have confidence in my ability and eagerness to continue learning, growing, and becoming a better person and citizen of the world.

And without having gone to my alma mater exactly when I did, life would be different. Maybe better, maybe worse, maybe exactly as great, but without a doubt… different. And since my debt hasn’t absolutely ruined my life, and without having any idea of what my life would look like without such formative years and experiences, it seems a little absurd to say I regret it.

Recently (after years of being asked these questions), I finally realized that the real problem is how dumb I was as an 18-year-old. Or more politely, extremely naïve, and extraordinarily unaware of… almost everything in the entire world.

So the matter of regret or wishing I’d chosen a different path is a non-issue. What I want is for someone (ideally, now-me – or better yet, 80-year-old me… but since now-me is available now and 80-year-old me won’t show up for awhile, let’s stick with the former) to go talk to 18-year-old me. Ask her what she really wanted, be bluntly honest about things that matter and things that don’t.


I imagine the conversation would have gone something like this:

27 (current me): So… that’s a pretty big check you just got from the bank. What’s it for?

18 (then me): OHMIGOD. I’m going to NYU! I’m going to live in New York City!

27: Aw man, congratulations! That’s a big honor. Why do you want to go there?

18: Well mostly because I just love New York City. I have since the first time I visited, on a school trip back in 7th Grade. And also – it’s a great school! I probably shouldn’t say this, but I kind of want to go because it’s basically the best school that anyone in my high school class is going to. And hardly anyone else is going away to school, so that’s kind of cool too. But I guess after NYC, mostly I want to go because I have no idea what I want to do career-wise, and no matter what I choose, NYU will be a good school for it.

27: Well first of all, I hear ya on the NYC thing. It’s pretty damn great. Second, I am totally not judging you for it, but be careful about comparing yourself to your friends. I know it seems insane right now because all anyone talks about is college and how much where you go affects your future, but by the time you’re 2 years out… no one cares where you went. Education, at the end of the day, is what you make of it. I know people who went to totally crappy schools but found a great professor there, or did a lot of learning on their own, and are insanely successful now. I know people who went to Harvard and Stanford and NYU who went out partying four nights a week and are working boring jobs they don’t like now… or their parents just paid for school and they aren’t working at all. (But sorry, kiddo, you don’t get to be part of that last group.)

18: Yeah… I guess that makes sense. It’s still so fun to tell people I’m going there though! Everyone is so impressed, and my family is so proud.

27: That’s true! Just remember… that fun only lasts now – it’s not a feeling that lingers forever. Be careful about making decisions for forever-you based on now-you wanting to feel good right now or to avoid feeling bad right now. These things come and go.

18: I guess that makes sense…

27: And can we go back a minute? You mentioned not knowing what you want to do a few minutes ago, and I’d like to talk about that too.

18: Sure. It’s just that I like a lot of things. I love love love dance. And theatre. I’ve been in all the plays and musicals since I was a freshman in high school, and they’ve all been amazing. And I’ve been dancing since I was 8, and even though I’m not the best, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I don’t feel like it’s the same for me as for a lot of the other girls… it’s not just something I do after school. It makes me happy, and there are things I can express through dance that I can’t any other way. And I love teaching! I started assistant teaching when I was 12, and have had my own class for a few years now. There are days when I get home from school and don’t want to go because I’m tired, but five minutes into teaching my first class, my mood is 100% better. And I have to say, I’m pretty good at it. I love sharing the technique with the kids and helping them really understand it, and I’ve choreographed dances for them that, between you and me, I think are pretty kickass. But then I really like school, too. I’m really good at math, and I’m in all the AP classes.

27: That all sounds amazing, it’s wonderful to love and enjoy and be interested in so many things.

18: Thanks!

27: So even though you love all those things, you really don’t have any idea what you want to study in school?

18: Well I was thinking maybe psychology or math. But I’m not really sure. I kind of feel like there might be things to study or do that I don’t even know exist yet. That’s another reason I want to go to NYU and live in New York – I want to see more of what’s out there than I even know exists right now. What is it that they say? Big fish in a small pond? I guess it’s kind of conceited to say I’m a big fish, but I at least want to go into a bigger pond to see if I can swim there.

27: I have to say I noticed how excited and enthusiastic you got about dance and theatre a minute ago – you kind of threw everything else in there at the last second. But it sounds like you’re expecting to want to study something more academic?

18: Yeah… I guess I’m a little afraid to put myself out there with dance or theatre. I’m okay here, but probably not good enough to do it in the real world. With regular school stuff I know I’m good… it’s a lot more likely that I’ll do well with that kind of stuff, I think.

27: Hmm. I understand where you’re coming from. It’s hard to put yourself out on the line, and failure doesn’t feel good. But I will say that it’s also important. You learn from it, and it help you get better. And stronger! And it doesn’t change who you are… people still love you and you’re still Allison. But let’s leave that for a minute and maybe come back to it. So you don’t know exactly what you want to study, which probably means you don’t know what you want to do once you get out of school, right?

18: No, not at all.

27: Well even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, there are probably some things you actually do know. Like where you want to be, or how you want to feel, or how much money you want to make. More like ideas about your life after you’re done with school that you want to be true no matter what your job is.

18: Well… I think I’ll still want to live in New York. I love the city. And I want to help people, or make life better for people. I don’t really care that much about money. I mean, I don’t want to be poor, and I want to be able to afford to go on trips sometimes and buy things for people, but I don’t need to be rich. I don’t think I’d like being a scientist or any job like that*, where you spend a lot of time researching by yourself, but not much time in the world around people. But also I really want to be successful. Even though I’m not even really sure what I mean by that. It’s kind of why I want to go to the bigger pond – I want to push myself and challenge myself. And I think no matter what my job is, I don’t want it to just be a job that I go to and leave and don’t think about. I want to care about it more than that. Sort of like dance – I kind of see myself finding my identity in my job. I don’t ever want to retire.

27: That’s all awesome! Isn’t it kind of crazy, even without knowing exactly what you want to do, you actually know a lot about what you want in general.

18: Yeah, I guess I never really thought about that specifically, those were all just things that I’ve kind of thought of on their own without connecting them.

27: Pretty cool. So let’s take those things that you want: you want to live in New York (or a city in general). You want to be around people and help people. You don’t care that much about money and getting a job that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but you do want to be really good at whatever you do. You want to learn about and experience the world. You want to be around other people, and you want to be doing work that makes people’s lives better in some way. That about covers it, right?

18: Yeah, I think so.

27: So first of all, you’re right. There are a bunch of things you could do that would still let all of those things be true. Way more than you’re aware of, way more than I’m even aware of. But let’s talk about a couple examples. What if you decide you want to be a teacher. That could happen, right? You mentioned loving teaching dance, it would help the world, teachers can make good money, you can be really good at it.

18: Yeah, that could happen.

27: You could also go work for a nonprofit. Maybe there’s an organization that goes and tutors kids at inner-city schools, and runs afterschool dance classes.

18: That sounds amazing!

27: Well let’s say your starting salary out of college either as a teacher or at this nonprofit was $35,000 a year. It might be a little lower or higher than that, but from what I know, it’s a pretty safe estimate.

18: Okay, I think that’s about what my mom makes! It doesn’t sound so bad.

27: True! But let’s pick apart the numbers a little more. After taxes, that $35,000 turns into about $27,000. If you share an apartment with one roommate, you could pay about $900 a month in New York for half of a two-bedroom apartment, along with utilities. A MetroCard there is about $100 a month. So that brings you down to $16,440 a year. That check you just got from the bank? They’re going to ask for about $250/month. That’s another $3K a year. Is anything going to change between this year and next year? If not, you’ll probably end up with four of those – so $1,000/month in student loan payments. So that brings you down to $4,440 a year for everything else: let’s say food is $200/month (this is doable, but means you almost never get to go out, and almost always have to cook at home), that brings it down to $2,040. If you want to go home a couple times a year, that’s probably $600 in airplane tickets. $1,440. That gives you $120 a month to do everything else. Broadway plays ($70 at least). Concerts ($60). Dance performances. A night out with friends. Any new clothes. Christmas presents for people.

18: I love buying Christmas presents for people!

27: Well there you go. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but even that’s a really simple outline of expenses you’ll have, and assumes you have no other debt – no credit cards to fill in the gaps while you’re in college. AND assumes you’re making minimum payments on all those loans, which means you’ll be paying them off for about 20 years. AND assumes you’re saving nothing. Nothing for emergencies, nothing for traveling, nothing for retirement. And what happens if you find the perfect job, but it pays less? Or what if that nonprofit that tutors and offers dance classes doesn’t exist, and you want to start it yourself? What if you realize you actually want to try to be a dancer? Or a dance teacher? All I’m trying to say is that your thinking is that going to this great school will give you options, and that’s true. You’ll get a great education, learn a lot about people and about what’s out there and yourself. But it will also take them away: if you’re paying all that money back for the next couple of decades, you aren’t going to be able to pursue things without money being your first thought. And I’ll say this: you will learn a lot about yourself and the world and learning at a lot of places that don’t want $40K a year (or more) for it. I said it a little while ago but it’s worth saying again: education is what you make of it.

18: But I just want to go there so bad.

27: I know you do. But you know how you get annoyed at people who always feel like they have to wear American Eagle or Abercrombie clothing? How you don’t think the name of the brand matters?

18: Yeah…

27: Being super focused on going to a big-name school is exactly the same thing. It’s caring more about the label than the quality of what’s underneath.

18: Oh. That makes sense.

27: I’m not saying any of this to make you feel bad. I am insanely proud of you, and I think you are capable of doing absolutely anything you decide you want to do. But I want you to have all the relevant information, and I don’t want now-you to make a decision that’s going to stop future-you from kicking ass too.

18: Okay. Thank you. I have to go do some thinking now.

27: You’re going to be awesome, no matter where you go to school or what you choose to do. Well, just don’t choose to become a drug addict. Or a snooty corporate boss who only cares about money.

18: Ha, okay. I’ll do my best.

27: Do exactly that and you’ll do just fine.


I was a hard-headed 18-year-old, *certain* I was doing the right thing. But this is what I needed. Someone to pick apart my thought processes and put my actions into real terms. This was the way to reach me, and this was the way to avoid the elephant of debt on my back that continues to play a significant part in every single decision I make in life. (And it barely even touches on other related conversations: giving up on pursuing the arts because of lack of confidence, what skills to focus on that would be broadly applicable no matter what the career choice, real budgeting based on real numbers instead of hypotheticals… and on and on.)

I don’t think 18-year-olds are “kids” who are “too young” to make big decisions about their lives, but I do think that as a society, we are not doing a great (or good, or fair) job of having the real, mature conversations with them that would actually prepare them to make those decisions in an informed way.

*please note, this was 18-year-old me’s idea of what a scientist/scholar was… as has been pointed out already, she didn’t know much about much of anything.


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