Buried with Debt–and Gratitude


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All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.

“O Lord, We Praise Thee” vs. 2

To say that the student debt crisis in America in 2019 is bad is a gross understatement. The numbers themselves are staggering. Over forty-four million borrowers. Over five million of that group in default (no payments in over a year). Over $28,000 owed on average from 2017 graduates. Over $1.5 trillion–that’s with a “t”–owed cumulatively. That’s mind-boggling debt.

As an older millenial, I recognize many of the depressing and destabilizing realities faced by borrowers with seemingly insurmountable debt. The ironic shame of being an educated adult with such a terrible financial burden. The guilt of choices past, even long past. The queasy feeling just thinking about the four-, five-, or even six-digit financial hole. The not-wanting-to-think-about-it thinking about it that happens practically every day, if not every hour.

Much of the recent press about student debt has addressed the convoluted problems of the public forgiveness program or the limited life choices that borrowers face. But there are other stories out there, stories that borrowers and society alike need to hear. While appeals for debt forgiveness or funeral orations for unfulfilled, seemingly impossible dreams are important, they do not comprise the entirety of those of us trudging along with student debt. Like most burdens, student debt impresses its bearers with weight–but that weight can be borne and felt in entirely different ways.

A Debt Snapshot

Jon and I have carried substantial student debt for all of our married life. While his undergraduate education was mostly paid for, his seminary education for his Master’s of Divinity degree was not cheap. I graduated with my B.A. from a private university, and though I had substantial scholarships, I still finished school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I then earned my master’s degree in English from a public university where I taught undergraduate courses for a stipend. So that degree was cheaper than it otherwise would have been, but tuition still added up. In all, by the time I graduated with my M.A. in 2009, the last degree between us that we have earned, our student debt cumulatively stood in the low six figures. It was a horrific amount to fathom, especially for a young couple heading into non-profit ministry and teaching (and eventually full-time homemaking when the kids arrived). So basically due to sheer terror and the nausea the debt triggered, we tried not to think about it much. The total was too big and overwhelming to contemplate.

Then we were given The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It shocked us like ice water dumped over an unsuspecting coach. Basically, the book’s messages forced us to actually look at our debt and our choices, and what we saw wasn’t pretty. That was a hard but necessary wake-up call for us, that we couldn’t just pretend our suffocating debt away. A year or so later, we attended Financial Peace University, the financial equivalent of a health and diet program. FPU taught us through deliberate, incremental steps how to eventually and actually reach our best financial state: debt-free with solid savings, a funded retirement and education savings for our children, a paid-off mortgage, and the ability to give to great causes we support. It was more financial planning encouragement, like the Makeover, but with more thorough and meticulous practical helps for us.

In all of Dave’s exhortations about getting out of debt, he reiterates something he calls gazelle intensity as a necessary ingredient to success. Basically, it’s a no-holds-barred, work-like-crazy, eat-rice-and-beans life until the debt is gone. I think he’s right that that’s the absolute best way to go. Maybe I’m excusing us, and he’d probably say that I am, but we were not gazelle intense. Let me clarify: at first we were, getting out of the credit card debt fairly quickly and getting down to the student debt in less than a year, but the student debt mountain really daunted us. We fell into the “it will take you five or six years of crazy living on nothing to get out of debt” category, and frankly, we weren’t willing to eat rice and beans for that long or give up visiting family far away–the only vacations we took. I remember thinking how awful the next ten years could be, counting pennies constantly, but I also knew that once the debt was gone, we would have so much more financial stability and flexibility. So it was frustrating for us, especially me, when we got a few months into the process because Jon’s income just wasn’t a lot, and I couldn’t make much in part-time work from home while taking care of our children. And that’s part of our journey, too.

Besides regular tithing, another one of our nonnegotiables as we got out of debt was that Jon and I weren’t willing to wait or plan our children around our financial goals. We miscarried not even a year into our marriage, and I hadn’t gotten pregnant again for over two years after that. That time was hard, but it taught us that only God gives life. We would not ever say no to children, no matter how inconvenient (re: expensive) their care and needs might be or how prenatal and postnatal expenses might slow down our debt snowball.

We read the Makeover when our oldest was a few months old, and we owned an older, cheap home, so our life already held some extra hurdles that, say, a single 20-something living at home workig her first job didn’t have. So we took more of a turtle approach–the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind. We paid off some credit debt and stopped using the cards for things that we could budget for. We were blessed to be on an income-adjusted repayment schedule for our student loans from the beginning, so we made small, if manageable headway. So we plugged away, years ticking by. And the debt was still so big.

Almost three years ago, we sold our house. It had been on the market for over a year, but we knew if we could sell it, the equity could pay off a huge chunk of the debt. And it did. That was an enormous blessing.

After a few moves to rental houses, we now own a lovely home. Our vehicles are almost paid for (a topic for another post; suffice it to say I was not happy last year when our two teenage vehicles both lost their transmissions in a two week period). We have zero credit card debt. And our student debt is in the four digits. It will be gone in a few months. We can truly see the light at the end of the tunnel after all these years.

How to Avoid Debt Discouragement

I wish I could say that, in the last ten years, Jon and I have always presented a united front when it came to our debt. I wish I could say we cheerfully kept stiff upper lips, and unshakable devotion to our financial plan, in the face of more-month-than-money odds. I wish I could say we always knew we’d be in the position we are now. I wish I could say our faces and hearts constantly testified to the hope that is in us, despite our worldly financial circumstances.

But I would be lying, and you probably already knew that.

Like I mentioned before, though, there’s a need for stories other than laments about debt. I don’t want to downplay the hardship of it. It has affected our lives in ways I don’t think even we can fully appreciate, as John Thornton wrote in “A Debt to Education” in Plough.

Debt forms us just as radically as a university curriculum does. As bills mount, debt becomes a guiding force in our lives, directing our decisions about where to live, where to work, how to save and spend, and what we imagine possible. The anxiety, regret, and shame over one’s inability to determine one’s own life shapes our souls as well. In a deeply moving essay in The Baffler, M. H. Miller describes his working-class family’s struggles with the $120,000 in debt they assumed to enable him to attend New York University: “The delicate balancing act my family and I perform in order to make a payment each month has become the organizing principle of our lives.” If student debt forms us in this way, we’d do well to ask what kind of formation it is.

Undoubtedly, we hope and pray our children will not have to live with the kind of debt burden we have. We are teaching them about saving, about how they can earn their continuing educations, and about how debilitating and terrible debt is. Their formation will be different than ours. But even beyond the educational takeaways debt has given us–the silver linings of hard lessons learned–we have had another kind of formation during these years.

We have learned about the healing quality of gratitude.

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Many times, we have lamented our inability to buy certain things or to travel due to our student debt. But mostly we have been overwhelmed by how gracious God has been to us in the last ten years. Rather than get stuck on what we don’t have, we have learned to focus on what we do have. We do possess degrees. We have owned two houses. We have owned multiple cars. Our home is stuffed with seemingly countless items, many of them not related to clothing, eating, or drinking (like books). But far beyond any material measure of blessings, we have been blessed with life. Our marriage is a wonderful gift. We have been given six beautiful, healthy, lively children. Our friends and family are supportive, generous, and loving presences in our lives. Our church family is unbelievably greathearted with their time and help and bounty. If we tried to count every good gift in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to number them. Christ truly has made our cup runneth over.

And the realization of the constant largess, the showers of items and food and time and affection and all the good people and things in our lives, has overpowered the debt discouragement that could have otherwise dominated our lives. Looking at our debt by itself was intimidating. Looking at it next to all the blessings we have is like looking at an anthill next to Everest. There’s no comparison. And the not-so-secret secret is that our blessings have always outnumbered our burdens, even when we couldn’t see or appreciate them.

Don’t be confused. This isn’t a backwards argument for student debt. Someone out there might be thinking, “See? Since your debt made you grateful, then the debt is good.” That’s bad logic. Gratitude is good. Debt is bad. The latter doesn’t cause the former. They exist separately. But yes, in a roundabout way, the sheer magnitude of our student debt made us humble and realize that we have far more than we ever need. We also definitely don’t deserve all the blessings we have. So we are grateful, knowing we do not deserve anything good, and we are made joyful by the riches we do have. I can say with full sincerity that both of us are awed by how good we have it.

One of my favorite hymns is “O Lord, We Praise Thee.” The second verse always reminds me of God’s great and abundant outpouring of good upon us.

Thy holy body into death was given,

Life to win for us in heaven.

No greater love than this to Thee could bind us;

May this feast thereof remind us!

O Lord, have mercy!

Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee

That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.

All our debt Thou has paid;

Peace with God once more is made:

O Lord, have mercy!

Lutheran Service Book, #617 v.2

“All our debt Thou hast paid; Peace with God once more is made.” I do struggle sometimes with this line. After all, we’re still paying down our student debt. But if we died tomorrow, God would take care of it. In fact, He has already taken care of the biggest debts we ever had–the sin-full debts, the ones we could never, ever repay, not in ten lifetimes of toil. What greater gift do we have than this? Our worldly circumstances weigh us down, leaving us with insurmountable struggles and strife. But Christ has overcome it all–from student debt to sins. We are at peace with Him. This is our everlasting comfort.

Hannah’s Story of Gratitude

I have only met Hannah once, and then briefly. But her comment on Facebook in light of both her and her husband’s student debt as they raise their daughter is priceless. I reprint it here with her permission.

I had one of those “profound moments” while sitting in Chipotle yesterday with my daughter.

She was snuggled up next to me on our bench (she likes to sit next to me at restaurants, not across the table), and we were sharing a burrito bowl.

I was thinking about how grateful I was to have a Chipotle gift card because I got rid of our budget for EVER eating out in 2019. I’ve always been frugal, but Luke and I have been working our butts off trying to get rid of student loans (graduate school). We’ve also been working on being generous and giving what we can to people who need it even in the midst of paying off debt.

And then it dawned on me that I have never bought my daughter a toy.

At first, I thought that I must be forgetting something. “Surely you have bought your daughter SOMETHING to play with.”

I ran through all of her toys in my head. She has a lot. Her xylophone, her toy violin, her Fischer Price house and people, her Rose Petal cottage, her baby, her blocks, her puzzles, her tunnel…

“Ha! Her tunnel! I bought her that tunnel — no, wait. We bought that with a Walmart gift card from our landlords.”

Still not convinced, I resolved to go through Miri’s toys when we got home. Miri munched away happily on her chips. I made a mental note to feed my child vegetables at some point in the future.

I looked at my boots. A Christmas present from my parents. What else was I wearing that was a gift? My socks…present from a student. My sweater. My coat. My scarf. Holy cow.

And Miri’s clothes? Fleece – gift. Shirt – gift. Jeans – gift.

It didn’t stop there, though. When I got home, I began looking at my furniture. Couches – gift. Lamps – gift. Bed – gift. Car – gift! The list could go on and on. I couldn’t find a single toy that I had bought for Miri.

God’s provision (above and beyond what we actually need) through the people He places in our lives is truly incredible, and I’m glad I got a chance to remember that yesterday.

Amen, Hannah. May we also continue to remember His good gifts–and give thanks for them–always.

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