I am a 27-year-old woman with a great job, a supportive family and wonderful friends. My life is clouded by one thing: student loan debt. I owe $100,000 for my undergraduate degree in a social services field. My monthly payment is a near impossible amount for a recent college grad. Fortunately, my mother has been helping me pay some of the balance, but her assistance isn’t permanent or guaranteed. As a result of my debt, I’ve had anxiety, self-esteem issues and panic attacks.
My brother also has student loan debt. Recently, our father’s girlfriend made us a life-changing offer: She wants to pay off our loans. She has plenty of money and she wants to share it. She didn’t tell our father about her offer until we asked her to, so it wasn’t made for show. She told us she wants to do it because she can afford to, because she never had to worry about paying for her own education, and because she believes that my brother and I are “outstanding citizens.” She wants us to be able to “focus on life, not loans.”
My initial reaction was one of euphoria. My second reaction was guilt and hesitation. My brother felt the same way. I’m grateful for her offer, but I worry about what it will mean if I accept it. She’s only been dating my dad for a year and a half. He thinks her offer is great, but what if they break up? Will this crush my mother, who already feels guilty about not being able to pay for our education? Should I take the money? Will I feel ashamed about taking the easy way out? I envy my debt-free friends, but I’m also proud that I’m making my own way. What are the conditions and consequences of accepting the extended hand? — Underwater
Cheryl Strayed: Accept this offer, Underwater. Please let your father’s girlfriend pay off your student loans. You’re right that it’s the easy way out of your crippling debt, but there’s nothing wrong with that route. You and your brother got lucky. So did your father’s girlfriend and every other person with an education that someone else paid for. Being the recipient of this gift doesn’t negate your hard work. It doesn’t erase the struggles you’ve had or the dedication you’ve shown in paying your student loan bills each month. You can accept this unexpected act of generosity while still being proud of your accomplishments. And someday, when you’re able to, you can do with your good fortune what your father’s girlfriend is doing with hers: pay it forward.
Steve Almond: I second Cheryl’s counsel here, but I also understand your misgivings. Money is a form of power, and this charitable offer shifts the balance of power within your family in ways that are unsettling. While the debt you’re amassing is a burden, it also belongs to you. It’s something you control. In this sense, it’s proof of your independence. Your hesitation may stem from a reluctance to become dependent on someone you don’t entirely trust yet. After all, you don’t sound unsettled by your mother’s support — because you trust her. I’m not suggesting that your dad’s girlfriend isn’t trustworthy, but rather that you interrogate your own feelings and clarify (within yourself and with your potential patron) the precise terms of her kind and audacious offer.
Strayed: You’re wise to consider what impact this offer might have on your father and his relationship with his girlfriend, but I don’t see any red flags. If your father felt uncomfortable with the idea, or if you thought his girlfriend might harbor an ulterior motive, I’d have entirely different advice for you. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. It seems your father’s girlfriend wants to pay off your debt for her stated reasons: because she has the ability to, because she wants to, and most importantly, because she’s impressed with you and your brother — the adult children of the man she loves. Still, I encourage you to have a candid discussion with your father and his girlfriend to clarify the terms of her offer. Is it truly a no-strings gift, or one she might later regret? It’s a tough question to ask, but one worth knowing the answer to. As for your mother, I hope you’ll help her see that guilt is the last thing she should feel. The years of love, support and financial assistance she’s given you and your brother aren’t obliterated by your father’s girlfriend’s generosity. If anything, your mom made it more likely you and your brother would be offered such a gift. She raised two people who became “outstanding citizens,” after all.
Almond: As you mull all this, it might help to step back and recognize how skewed the distribution of wealth is, especially in America. The very fact that you want to work in social services means, perversely, that you’re likely to earn a lot less money than someone who wants to market pesticides. This is why schoolteachers across this country are having to strike for a livable wage while those born into wealth watch their portfolios bulge. The very notion that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective is one of our most absurd and damaging cultural myths. And it probably contributes to the stress you feel about your debt, Underwater. Your father’s girlfriend certainly deserves your gratitude as an ally, especially if her motives reflect respect for you, and an interest in economic justice. She’s right that both you and your brother deserve the opportunity to educate yourselves without going into debt. All Americans deserve that, frankly. One final suggestion: If you’re looking for novels that might help you navigate your complex feelings about debt, look to the work of Charles Dickens. His books return, again and again, to that theme. And take heart in the lesson his books affirm: What matters most of all isn’t what you’re given, but what you do with it.