What It’s Like to Have Young Kids and Be Hamstrung by $114,000 in Student Debt

The story of Sarah Babcock, 41, deputy director of a nonprofit in Atlanta.

41-year-old woman smiling
Olivia Fields

This is part of Debt Nation, a series of interviews with people about how student loans have shaped their lives. Read the rest here.

Education: Bachelor’s in international relations and Russian studies, J.D.
Current job: Deputy director of a nonprofit
Household income: $110,000
Relationship status: Married with two children, ages 5 and 8
Peak student debt: $57,000 in 2007; also still paying off her husband’s, which peaked at $120,000 in 2009.
Current student debt: $31,000; husband’s is $83,000

The joke I tell people is just be careful who you marry because you might fall in love with somebody who has a Ph.D. in creative writing and a six-figure student loan. My husband and I were both in grad school when we met, and we just did not talk about our student debt. We were stupid and didn’t think about it. We talked about the fact that we had it, but we both sort of accepted it as a necessary evil. I don’t think we understood how much it would constrain our lives, particularly once we had children.

My parents paid for my undergrad. My husband went to a state school, and I think he was able to get in-state tuition. Between getting help from his parents and working, he was also able to graduate with no undergrad student loan debt. My debt’s from law school. My husband’s was for getting a Ph.D. in creative writing.

While the debt was not great, it allowed me to get my J.D., which I’ve been able to leverage into higher-paying work. Initially, I ended up going to a big law firm and working there for six years. That was great financially. I now work in the nonprofit sector. Our office is based out of juvenile court. If you’re working in a nonprofit and you have a J.D., you might not be getting paid what you’re worth, but you’re at a higher salary range than you would be without an advanced degree. It has certainly made it possible for me to support my family and do the work I want to do. For my husband, the story’s a little bit different. He started grad school in the early 2000s. The expectation then was that if you got a Ph.D. even in a field like creative writing, eventually you’d find a tenure-track job somewhere. When he graduated in 2009, that was not the case anymore. His degree just has not translated into him being able to do the type of work he wants to do, in the way he wants to be doing it.

When I graduated from law school in 2007, I had about $57,000 in debt. For a private law school, that’s actually not a lot. I was very fortunate to have a full-tuition scholarship. All I had was living expenses, basically. Meanwhile, my husband had about $120,000 in debt when he graduated. And he had a tuition waiver and was working. Neither of us was paying any tuition, and we still ended up with a total of $170,000 in student loan debt.

I’m aware that my husband and I are in an incredibly privileged position. We both have graduate degrees. We have a roof over our heads, and we’re providing for our children. We’re not running out of money before we get to the end of the month, that kind of thing. But still, with us both working full time, child care is outrageously expensive. Our rent right now is about $2,000. And then our student loan payments are $900. Child care is about $700 a month. And that’s just for after-care, from after our daughter’s pre-K until we get home from work. It used to be $1,100 when she was in school only three days a week. And before that it was $1,400 a month. We manage to put away about $175 a month, to try to have a small amount of savings so that when we need a car repair or something like that, we can cover that and it’s not a disaster.

Our older daughter has needed some therapy. She has various diagnoses that we’re helping her work through. And we found some great therapists whose fees range from $150 to $180 an hour. To do that several times a month is just a complete budget-buster. My parents have been very kind in helping with specific things like that. Right now, I’m putting $50 a month into my IRA. At this point, we’re going to be paying our student loans into retirement, if we retire.

During the pandemic, everyone has been home, but we’ve been OK financially in the short term. One of my husband’s loan servicers automatically put him into forbearance with zero percent interest. The others, we’re still paying under the same income-based repayment plan. I foolishly thought that we were somehow going to be able to save money while we’re all home like this, and I had totally underestimated how much my children eat. So that $170, which was going toward my husband’s loan payment that we’re not paying right now, has gone directly over into, like, groceries because my kids’ appetites are insane.

If my student debt were wiped out tomorrow, I’d probably start an auto-draft every month for retirement and for a college fund for my daughters. Our student loan payments right now are money that’s not going toward retirement. Or saving for a down payment on a house. The thing that gives me the most heartburn is that it’s really unlikely that we will be able to give our children the gifts our parents gave us, which is a debt-free undergrad. I could have stayed at the law firm and continued earning what I was earning and would have been able to give that to my children, but I also would not have been as happy or as present for them. So these are the trade-offs.

What would I say if my kids wanted to take out student loans? We would probably have a real sit-down about it. We’d probably even pull out the family budget and tell them, “That time that you said you wish you could’ve gone to Disney World, this is where money that we could’ve used to take you to Disney World was going.”