Pay Dirt

I’ve Realized My Student Loans Are Not My Fault. Can I Just … Not Pay Them?

Leaving America has given me a new perspective on college debt.

Illustration of hands holding a US passport.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by myrainjom01/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Pay Dirt,

When I was a kid, my parents went from “small-business owners getting by” to “bankrupt overnight” because my mom had cancer and we didn’t have health insurance. Through education, privilege, hard work, and luck, my mom and dad were able to pay back all that they could and scrape us into a middle-class income band, just in time for me and my siblings to head to college.

As much of my funding was determined by their income for my bachelor’s, and the funding verbally promised for my master’s fell though, I’ve racked up a bunch of debt—around $80,000 in federal direct loans, not counting interest. And then I got an offer for a fully funded Ph.D. overseas. It’s been six years since I moved here. I met and married my wonderful spouse, I’ve completed my degree, and I have a job and career path with a lot of earning potential. Although my family and many of my friends live in the U.S., I don’t see myself living there anymore.

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Since moving here, I have realized that the trauma I went through of having a very sick mom should never have been compounded by many years of debt-ridden poverty. That simply doesn’t happen here. Medical care is something everyone pays for with their taxes. I’m also feeling quite bitter toward my student loans. The country I’m in now has invested more into my education as a foreign national than the U.S., and I keep thinking about not paying my U.S. loans back. Most of the penalties for defaulting—wage garnishment, withholding federal aid and Social Security—would only affect me if I lived in the U.S. My parents never co-signed any of them, so they won’t be affected, and my spouse has a mortgage, so we’re not really reliant on my credit score for much of anything. It’s money that I could use to grow some actual wealth with (or, at minimum have the potential to actually retire with). This path becomes more tempting as my partner and I consider kids.

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I dream of cutting and running. My current plan for next year is to continue the income-based repayment I agreed to the last time I looked at my loans, and only change it if my income reaches the point that a standard rate becomes cheaper. My debt will grow and stay with me for 25 years—or the rest of my life. Other than fear and personal honor, is there a good reason for me to even attempt paying them off?

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—Why Should I?

Dear Why Should I,

I’ve been in your shoes, with the exactly the same amount of debt from my undergrad days, and I understand your feelings about inequities in the U.S. that stem from skyrocketing tuition rates that have far outstripped inflation and a subpar health care system that bankrupts people every year. That said, I think personal integrity is important, and you do have an ethical obligation to pay off your loans. Some readers of this column might argue that this makes me a sucker, and there is some merit to the idea of sticking it to a system that immiserates so many people by making it virtually impossible for them to claw their way out of debt. But I’m a sucker with my personal integrity intact, and I’m OK with that.

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But to speak much more pragmatically, because everybody’s ethics are their own: There’s one aspect of the “debt strike” path that you don’t seem to have considered. I don’t think you want to put yourself in a position where moving back is not an option, even if it seems unappealing to you right now. You don’t know what might happen in the future to potentially change your mind, and I don’t think it’s practical to eliminate the option. And what happens if you let your credit go, and something unexpected occurs that makes it so that you are no longer able to rely on your spouse’s good score to secure the roof over your head? Life is long and, as you know from your own parents’ experience, unpredictable. So while I completely understand your resentment about this, I think you should continue to make payments on your loans.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

A friend of mine passed away from what the coroner’s report says was an accidental overdose of fentanyl. He had a drug habit, but it wasn’t opioids, and I haven’t been able to get past the feeling that whoever gave him those drugs is to blame. Before he died, I had a couple boxes stored at his place—nostalgic stuff mostly, such as documents and jewelry. Stuff I can’t replace. I tried contacting the owner of the place he was renting from, but I never got a response. I guess what I want to know is if I should go through all the motions of trying to get my stuff back, if any of it is even there, putting myself through more tears. Or do I just drop it? Any advice is appreciated.

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—Life on the Other Side

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Dear Life on the Other Side,

Addiction is complicated, and multivariate in its causes. I’m very sorry for your loss, and understand why you might be trying to find a reason why your friend died, but there probably is no single person or factor that led to it. It may help you to talk to a therapist about this if you’re struggling with it.

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Regarding your boxes: I think it depends on how important the things in the boxes are to you. I am getting the sense that they don’t hold anything of monetary value? If that’s the case, the question is less about finances and more about the emotional impact of this sudden loss. It sounds like you’re having trouble processing your grief over your friend’s death and you need to find a way to do that, regardless of what happens.  I think you should prioritize that first, and when you’re in a better place, see about tracking down your boxes, if they’re still there and if the things in them are things you really care about.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My new boyfriend doesn’t want my money, and it’s causing some low-level friction. I (a 59-year-old man, and boyfriend is 47) had to suddenly move in with him due to an accident after only two weeks of dating, and the closer I got to becoming physically independent again, the less I wanted to move out. We really like each other and get along well, and he truly wants me to stay. So, I’m staying. But I value my independence and insisted on paying rent, which he bristles at. We split the cost of groceries and other consumables. His house is paid for, so in his mind he is “making money off of me,” and he doesn’t like that. On the other hand, I have the means to pull my fair share and much more. But what is my fair share? Can you help us figure this out?

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—Not the Usual Money Fight

Dear Not the Usual Money Fight,

I think this argument is more about the nature of your relationship than the money, per se. If he believes you’re cohabitating as a couple, he may bristle at the idea of you paying rent, because he owns the house and doesn’t want to think of himself as your landlord. You, understandably, don’t want to feel like he’s financially supporting you by effectively subsidizing your housing.

So I think you need to clarify what your relationship is. For context, I think if you were in a long-term, committed relationship, or married, and you moved into a house that he owns, it would be a little odd for you to pay him rent—or unconventional, at least. If the relationship is casual, and you’re not sure yet whether it’s permanent, I think it’s fair for you to want to pay him something, in part so that you don’t feel like you owe him anything.

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In the meantime, perhaps there’s something else you can help with financially that doesn’t feel as loaded to both of you as paying him rent. Maybe you’re the one who pays certain bills, or maybe you underwrite every vacation, or whatever else makes sense in this new household. I think it’s important to emphasize to him that you want to pull your weight financially in the relationship as much for your own sake, as for his. Especially in the context of your accident, wanting to feel independent is important to you, and it’s not just about equity; it affects your confidence and well-being. Your boyfriend may not really understand that, and I think it’s worth having a deeper discussion about it.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I work in a competitive health care field where I, and everyone at my level, was recently given a raise to try to increase retention: prevent us leaving for other health systems, private practices, etc. Prior to this, I had not considered leaving for a different job, but this obviously made me interested in the possibilities I wasn’t considering. I recently learned that despite this raise, I could make a significant amount more should I move to a private practice. All that said, I love my current job and the system I work for. What is the protocol for using this knowledge as a way to ask for an additional raise? I feel weird using the threat of leaving, when I know deep down I probably wouldn’t.

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—The Devil You Know, Versus …

Dear the Devil You Know,

I think there’s a way to have this conversation that doesn’t make it seem like you’re threatening to leave. Tell your boss(es) that you’d like to have a conversation about what your career looks like long term, including any potential paths for promotion and increased compensation. It’s perfectly reasonable to bring up what you know are market rates for your job in that context. I think you’ll be able to get an idea of how amenable they are to giving you an additional raise.

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Of course, what you do with that knowledge is really dependent on how badly you want to stay in your current job. But I don’t think that it’s an unreasonable conversation to have, and if you frame it as a discussion about your career development, I don’t think your employer will assume you’re actively looking for new opportunities and threatening to leave. Keep emphasizing how much you like your job; use forward-looking words and phrases that will reassure them of your good intentions. But bring up those numbers!

Classic Prudie

When I was 17, my brother, who is now sober, broke in while I was babysitting our younger siblings. They were upstairs asleep. My brother started trashing the kitchen looking for money. I went up to stop him, and he slammed me into the wall and put his arm over my throat. I almost blacked out. My brother got scared off when he heard our neighbor driving into the garage next door. When I could, I called my parents. They came home but didn’t call the cops. Now I am the one getting ostracized by the family for continuing to have feelings about this. What should I do?

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