The Corner

Economy & Business

The Road from Debt Mountain

(Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

In this week’s edition of The Tuesday, Kevin wrote about debt and the story of Arthur Stallworth:

Last week, Slate published a particularly insipid piece of sympathy journalism (it is part of a series) under the headline: “What It’s Like to Have $163,718 of Student Debt When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck: The story of Arthur Stallworth, age 36, from Silver Spring, Maryland.” Sympathy is a barrier to good journalism because it prevents the asking of necessary questions. (“Empathy,” which our politicians like to talk about, is not an emotion at all but a literary conceit.) For example: Mr. Stallworth reports a household income of $125,000 a year, which is not too bad for a man with an “online doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership.” There are lawyers and architects who do worse. (The report is silent about how much of the couple’s income comes from Mr. Stallworth and how much comes from his wife.) In spite of that income, he says he “couldn’t afford it” when his loan repayments rose . . . from $200 a month to $400 a month. Really? His household income is twice the national average; how is it that he is getting wiped out by a $200-a-month increase in a longstanding bill? The headline promises to tell us “what it’s like” to be in that guy’s shoes, so curiosity is assumed. What’s the deal?

One hundred and sixty grand in the hole for an “online doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership”? Holy smokes.

I too noticed that Slate article late last week, and I too grimaced at its curious lack of curiosity regarding how exactly Mr. Stallworth got himself into this financial catastrophe. (I also matriculated from college with a mountain of student-loan debt, and I can assure you that there’s not an ounce of mystery involved: I took out too much because 18-year-old me was an idiot. Paying back the loans was a problem for Future Mark!)

I noticed another article in the series, however: “What It’s Like to Make the Very Last Payment on Your Massive Student Debt.”

Jorge Acevedo, 36, an immigration attorney in Miami, graduated from law school with $180,000 hanging over his head. After deferring payments for a couple of years, the debt had grown to over $240,000.

Holy smokes — that’s a problem. But, then, Acevedo went out and changed his life.

My ex referred me to Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University. Ramsey’s one of those individual financial-advice gurus. He gives you a series of baby steps you’re supposed to follow. Baby step one is you create a $1,000 emergency fund. And then, baby step two is to get rid of all your debt. You do that using this technique called the “snowball effect” where you start paying down all your debts, from smallest to largest. So I started doing that repayment plan. I had a car loan. I had a credit card. I just took care of those first, and then I started hitting the student loans.

My student loan debt has felt like an 800-pound gorilla is sitting on my shoulders. I had to crawl and beg and work extremely hard to get to the point where I am. I wouldn’t say I’m judging, but sometimes I find it difficult to identify with people who are not making a sacrifice to pay off their debt as early as possible. It’s easy for me to say. I make a decent wage. I can afford to pay $7,000 a month toward my student loans.

Acevedo is displaying too much humility here. Do you know what’s not easy? Writing a monthly $7,000 check to pay off your student loans. Do you know what’s not easy? Having the humility to do this:

I bought a town house. I ended up selling it two years later to jump-start my student loan repayment. I took all that equity from the house, and it was literally in my bank account for two days before it went straight to Sallie Mae. I moved back in with my mom.

And now . . . he’s free. Acevedo took his wife on a trip to Paris to celebrate. They’re going to buy her a new car.

Jorge Acevedo, my friends, is what we used to call “an adult.” Good for him.

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