This Podcast Just Showed Us What $1.4 Trillion in Student Loans Feels Like

Death Sex and Money
Anna Sale is the host of the popular podcast Death, Sex & Money which discusses the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.Photo by Amy Pearl

When Anna Sale, the host of the podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” asked her listeners to share their experiences with student loan debt, the response was massive.

It’s common for her to ask listeners to share their stories, but she said she had never seen people respond so passionately, so quickly and in such large number.

“We asked people specifically in your life how student loan debt has affected decisions you’ve made, and I was just overwhelmed by the amount of stories and the depth of feelings that people feel about their student loans,” Sale said. “A lot of shame and a lot of frustration.”

Hundreds sent emails and voice messages, and thousands more filled out a quiz to see where they fit in alongside the other 44 million people responsible for repaying the $1.4 trillion bill.

“We just took the lid off of something,” Sale said.

The stories helped create the two-part project Our Student Loan Secrets.

The stories put human faces to the staggering statistics that can often be difficult to put into context. They showed what it was really like for real people who see no end to their mountain of debt and for those who managed to burrow their way out.

Suicide, Divorce & Student Loans

Some of the stories included in the two-part series were heart-wrenching.

There was the woman who used money she got from a life insurance policy after her father’s suicide to pay down her debt. She said she often pretends she still owes money to avoid conversations about how she paid it off and to combat her guilt.

There was the woman who is about to divorce the same man for a second time. She remarried her ex-husband after a private loan company she borrowed from garnished her wages and left her unable to pay her bills.

Unfortunately, their joint earnings made her husband’s income-based loan repayment plan too expensive for them to afford, adding to the reasons for their second split.

Then, there was the woman who makes a decent living as a recruiter for Facebook but couldn’t face her debt. She ignored it for the past two years but finally made her first payment in the time between her interview and the airing of the podcast.

“It was interesting to me that the trend lines for how people felt about their loans weren’t necessarily correlated to how much they owed,” Sale said. “Some people who owed hundreds of thousands of dollars for graduate degrees had come to some peace about it because it was what enabled them to do their profession, and there were other people with $30,000 or $40,000 in debt who really felt overwhelmed and stuck by it.”

Sale added that there was also a general sense of overwhelm, shame, guilt and isolation for those who couldn’t keep up with payments or saw no end to their debt.

“When you’re educated and by all appearances you’re able to find good work, it looks like you have achieved some level of success,” Sale said. “But if you’re having to send off $1,000 or more a month in student loan payments it feels like you’re secretly not making it.

“I think that’s the nerve that we hit.”

Getting Out From Under a Mountain of Debt

While part 1 focused on the hardship, the second part of the series highlighted the ingenuity of those willing to go to extreme lengths to pay off their debt.

There was the defense attorney and small-business owner who put nearly 50% of her annual taxable income toward reducing her six-figure loan debt.

There was the physical therapist who is in “massive, massive” debt. He lives in a van with his girlfriend and their three dogs. While he pays down more than $200,000, she saves her money so she won’t have to take out loans to cover the cost when she heads back to graduate school to get her master’s degree in social work.

Along with the stories of fear and triumph over student loans, the creators of “Death, Sex & Money” also created a website full of resources for those who are ready to finally come out from under the mountain of debt.

“With all these stories coming in, there’s a part of me wondering ‘How are we talking about anything else right now?’” Sale said. “If we’re in a moment right now where people are questioning whether education is worth the investment, that’s a fundamental change to how we think and what our big ideas are about how you get ahead in America.”

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She took the Death, Sex & Money quiz and feels better after learning that she got an education with that debt she racked up. Apparently, all Beyonce would would have gotten is a dress.

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