Reporter's Notebook

Your Stories of Financial Struggle
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Spurred by our May 2016 cover story “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” by Neal Gabler, readers share their own experiences with economic impotence, compiled on this page in an ongoing series. Gabler discussed the response to his piece at The Atlantic’s Summit on the Economy. For expert takes on middle-class insecurity, see this Notes series.

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'Working 80 Hours a Week Leaves Very Little Time to Waste Money'

A doctor of disadvantaged patients details her long and arduous path to financial security:

I grew up in a lower-middle class setting: My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher’s aide, then a teacher. I never had to worry about food on the table, much less a roof over my head, but there was no room for extras. By the time I was in high school, we were settled very comfortably in middle class.

Then the recession of the early 2000s hit, the company my father worked for closed down, and I graduated high school and started college, with my parents living on a single income and my elementary school-aged brother still at home.

By nature (and perhaps a little by nurture as well), I was always a frugal person, but knowledge that my parents were borrowing almost $40,000 a year to pay my college tuition kept me on the very straight and narrow. I only ate the two meals a day that were included in my room and board. I walked everywhere. The rare trips into the city were done via public transportation.

After I graduated from college, I attended medical school, and this time, the student loans were in my name.

A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:

I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.

I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.

While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)

I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.

Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:

This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.

Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.

Earlier this summer, a Canadian reader, Kristen, voiced the “Unpopular Opinion” that she’s “tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt,” given her dogged efforts to pay for her own college tuition without loans and thus forgo “the ‘university life’ that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend.” But a reader who grew up in poverty, Mary, responded to Kristen that “without those loans that I ‘chose’ to take out [while working as a single mother of three], I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.”

Here’s another key perspective from Olivia in Dayton, Ohio:

I appreciate the comments of others from Canada and from Kristen that show how university can be less expensive in that country but still a burden that has to be paid. I really wish I would have walked Kristen’s path, because she is so smart for making the choices and sacrifices that she did. I hope she is rewarded for those good choices throughout her life.

However, I am disheartened by the constant attention to the newer grads. I am mid-forties and graduated during the 1990s. It is my friends and peers who are having an awful time paying these loans, some 20 years later. Why? In the ’90s, the interest rates were at 8 percent … guess who is STILL paying those rates.