Why Talking About Student Loan Debt Is No Longer Taboo

For over a decade, Nika Booth had a secret. “I didn’t tell anyone, and it was eating me up,” she said. “I was even in serious relationships where I never said anything about it.” To make matters worse, her secret was getting bigger. “I felt like I was going crazy,” she said. “But I grew up in a home where you don’t talk about your personal struggles, so I kept it to myself.”

In 2019, Ms. Booth decided that she couldn’t conceal her predicament any longer. She owed more than $130,000 in student loans, and the interest was compounding faster than she could keep up. “I figured if I was stuck, maybe other people were stuck too,” she said. “I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone.”

Before she could change her mind, she wrote down the numbers on a Post-it note: Her student debt was accruing $25.15 a day in interest. So even though she was paying $762.97 a month, a measly $8.47 of it was going toward her six-figure principal balance. Then she steeled herself, took a picture of the note, and put it on Instagram.

Comments poured in from other people who were dealing with similar frustrations. “It was validating,” said Ms. Booth, 41. “That’s when I started digging into student loans, and the more I learned, the more I realized that other people could relate.” She began to share information and advice online, and her platform grew. Today, her account, @debtfreegonnabe, has more than 60,000 followers.

Ms. Booth, who lives in Washington and works for the federal government, plans to have the remainder of her debt forgiven within the next two years through the Education Department’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. By documenting her progress, she is hoping to encourage others to follow suit. “I want other people to feel less trapped in their debt the way I was,” she said.

She talks about her loans offline these days, too. “A lot of friends have been more supportive than I anticipated, even the few who don’t have debt,” she said. “I have one friend who will say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out to dinner this week? Is it in the budget?’”

Conversations about student debt have come a long way in the past few years. What was once an awkward or even shameful topic is now, at least for some, part of a normal Tuesday night exchange about where to eat. Part of this shift is generational. Millennials, the generation most likely to have student debt, have challenged taboos against talking about finances; some surveys have shown that they are more likely to bring up money with friends, co-workers, even strangers on social media.

What’s more, the student loan crisis has become a national dialogue. “Because it’s been in the news a lot, my parents have become way more understanding about where I’m at financially,” said Lauren Howey, 39, a teacher in Greenwood, Ind., who owes about $25,000 in student loans. “They’re from a generation who thought it was bad to take on debt, and they were so upset with me when I did. Now, they’re more open-minded about it, and send me articles and resources, which I appreciate.”

Many Americans have also come to see student loan debt as a structural problem, rather than a result of poor personal decisions. “When I started talking to people about their student loans in 2016, a lot of people felt guilty about them,” said Travis Hornsby, who founded Student Loan Planner, a service that helps people with student debt strategize their repayments, after seeing his wife struggle with six figures of debt from medical school. “They’d be asking things like, ‘What have I done to my family?’ We saw people hiding it from their spouses all the time.”

Today, Mr. Hornsby sees less shame and more awareness of the bigger picture. For starters, the cost of college has nearly tripled since 1980, even when adjusted for inflation; it’s not a cost that the average American household can handle. “Debt forgiveness may be controversial, but I think everyone can agree that the system of student loans is broken,” he said. “That has helped people realize that they don’t have to blame themselves anymore.”

Destigmatizing student loans doesn’t just make people feel better; it can actually help them tackle their balances. Research published last year found that shame and financial hardship feed each other; when people are ashamed of their finances, they tend to make counterproductive decisions, or ones born out of avoidance.

But the cycle can be broken, researchers found, when “affirming acts of kindness” — like a sympathetic ear — weakened the link between shame and financial disengagement.

Another factor in the collapse of the stigma around debt is that many borrowers have begun to see a clearer path forward. “People are able to get advice when they need it, and they’ve seen that policies are changing and more solutions are available,” Mr. Hornsby said. “Having a plan is critical to openness about any kind of problem.”

It’s a chicken-or-egg issue, though: Does silence breed uncertainty, or is it the other way around? The main reason Katrina Rogers, 39, kept quiet about her student loans for most of her adult life was that she wasn’t sure what to say.

“When I started school, I was not really involved in my financial aid,” she said. “A lot of that went through my parents, and we didn’t talk about the amount that I would borrow.” (The total, she eventually discovered, was $17,000.)

At the time, brushing finances under the rug was typical in Ms. Rogers’s household. “Growing up, we never talked about money,” she said. “I now understand how harmful it is when we don’t discuss important things because we’re afraid to be wrong or rude.”

Today, Ms. Rogers is a personal trainer in Denver and her student loans are paid off. But her partner’s are not — and it’s out in the open. “We’ve made a conscious decision to normalize it,” she said. “I realized that not talking about money made me feel very alone, and I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I’ve also learned that talking about it helps us create solutions.”

For first-generation college students, these conversations can be particularly difficult, especially since they tend to borrow more than their peers, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

“I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what I was doing when I took out loans,” said Amanda Quinones, 34. “My parents didn’t go to college, so they didn’t fully understand either. I was allowed to take out a lot of money without understanding what I was getting into.” She graduated from college owing about $40,000.

As a result, Ms. Quinones feared that she had made a mistake. “For many years, I was worried that I signed up the wrong way,” she said. “I wondered, Why is my interest so high? Why is my loan staying the same even though I’m diligently making payments? Why am I having to live off of credit cards because I’m struggling to pay my student loans?”

“Now I know a lot of people who have had the same experience, so it doesn’t feel so alienating.”

Ms. Quinones now works at a bank in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and talks to people about their money every day. “Student loans have become a hot topic in the last few years, and it’s been important for me to share my story to try to help educate people,” she said. “It definitely builds rapport and trust with clients, because I know what I can do to help them get into a better situation.”

The fallout from the pandemic, including increased attention to racial and economic inequalities, also appears to have played a role in pushing frustrated Americans to be more candid about their financial realities.

“I began to feel more empowered talking about money in 2020, and I think that was partly to do with the movement for racial justice, and how that spilled over into other groups finally feeling like they could speak up for themselves,” said Brian Vu, 32, an opera singer who lives in Orange County, Calif., and graduated from college with more than $50,000 in student debt. “I’m happy that topics that were once touchy, including student loans, are very normalized now.”

It took him some time to come around, though. “It was a little bit uncomfortable at first to see some colleagues talking about these things so openly,” he added. “But then I saw more influential people in the opera industry saying, ‘Here is the debt that I still deal with, and here’s what I get paid.’”

It was a relief to see his own concerns reflected in a larger context, he said. “And it reminded me of all the times I’ve wondered to myself: ‘Is there a better way? Is anyone else worried about paying off their debt with the unpredictable and often low fees that they make as a professional artist?’”

Ms. Howey, who has discussed similar money conundrums with her fellow teachers, said that their venting sessions were both cathartic and useful. “We’ve all helped each other through the process of applying for debt forgiveness,” she said, noting that it could be “quite a lengthy” ordeal.

Still, debilitating student loans still aren’t exactly a fun subject, and there are occasions when she wants a break. “I talk about them with my teacher friends, but not necessarily with other people,” Ms. Howley said. “It’s a pretty distasteful thing when you’re an adult, in a profession that you’re fairly successful at, and you’re still saddled with all this debt for decades. It’s one of those bleak, depressing topics that you don’t necessarily want to bring up when you’re out dating or making new friends.”

Another potential downside to these discussions is that they could discourage people from pursuing higher education, even when they might benefit from it in the long term.

“I worry that people will conclude that student loans are bad across the board, and they might really miss out on opportunities as a result,” said Stuart Heckman, an associate professor of financial planning at Kansas State University who researches attitudes toward student debt. “It’s concerning if people are turning away from college altogether, just because they hear a lot of horror stories about how student loans are terrible and crushing. Because that wouldn’t be a true representation of what we see in the data either.”

Instead, he said, he hopes that students will become more thoughtful about how they finance their education. “What I would love to come out of this conversation is, How do we help people make good decisions around loans?”

In other words, there are still more questions than answers. But at least people are asking them.

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