This month is the beginning of my Jubilee year! It has been less than two years since I graduated from law school and I am debt-free. I had so much support to get to this point; it is humbling. As I continue to reflect on the journey of becoming debt-free, I know that part of the story has to do with my journey of learning interdependence.
In Debt on my Own
My brothers and I grew up in a culturally working class family in a small town in southeast New Mexico. I am grateful that my parents never pushed career or education expectations on me. I could be a nanny, and as long as I paid my bills, voted, and attended church, they would be happy for me.
My mother thought it was good for us to leave our hometown for a year to get some life experience, and if we wanted to do that at college, great. But having a college degree was not essential. In fact, my dad is a tradesman and my mom has her associate’s degree. I was a gifted and accelerated student in my rural New Mexican high school, and all my friends were going to college. So that became my path too, although I took a gap year first to become a high school exchange student in Ecuador.
However, my parents did (and still do) believe that once you turn 18, you need to provide for yourself financially. So I went off to Ecuador paying my own way, and then I attended Wellesley College with the understanding that I would have to pay for it.
Being thrust into an elite, all women’s college on the East Coast was a traumatizing shock to my system that took me years to metabolize. While a student at Wellesley College, I felt high levels of pressure, fear, and anxiety. Not only did I have to learn to navigate an elite world, which neither my parents nor I knew much about, I also had to somehow pay for it. I worked 20-30 hours a week as a nanny for wealthy families for all four years, making $15-$20/hour, a higher hourly wage than my mother made as a bookkeeper back home.
In addition to my income, my parents ended up helping me pay for college, and I took out federal student loans. I graduated from Wellesley with about $20,000 in student debt–much less than the average $37,574 that students graduate with today. And to my 22-year-old self, that $20,000 felt scary and overwhelming. I was afraid I would not be able to pay it off in addition to paying for rent, my car, and basic necessities. Living in the Boston area far from home, I felt the immensity of having to manage life on my own. My fear motivated me to hustle, and I paid off that debt roughly three years after I graduated in 2014, vowing not to take on that pressure again.
Growing up in rural New Mexico: me (right, with the stroller in hand) and my two brothers.
Fast forward to 2016, I decided to apply to law school to become a cooperative lawyer. Cooperative lawyers envision a society built with dignity and justice for all, and they are in the business of actively creating that world at the micro and macro levels in businesses, alternative housing, and in creative investment opportunities. I had been fully converted to the reality that we can indeed live much differently than we do under capitalism, and I wanted to learn the technical ways to do that using our legal system. I decided to go to a night school program in Boston so that I could work to cover my living expenses. I was accepted to the program and received a 40% scholarship.
As I considered how to pay the balance, I knew that I would not take on student debt alone this time. I knew for my mental health that I would not be able to do that. So I started to talk to friends about creative ways to fund my law degree. As I asked for advice, one of them told me that they would like to invest in my law degree. Little by little, I pulled together a promissory note and invited friends to invest $2K-$5K per year at 0-3% interest in my legal education. I had more people than I needed say yes to this request. In the end, I took out loans from seven friends.
Through these private loans, I borrowed $71,000 to pay for my tuition at an interest rate less than half of what the federal student loans cost. My friends were able to invest their money in something they believed in deeply.
I experienced the joy of being sent to law school–of being held, loved, and interwoven into a community of people that were rooting for me every semester. I was decidedly not alone. While the amount was much larger than my undergraduate loans, I had the capacity to take out these loans without fear because of my connection with all of them. The money loaned to me was loaned with generosity, freedom, and hope for my futre. While law school was still incredibly grueling, I experienced a levity in it that gave me ease because of this collective money experiment.
My jubilee is our jubilee
Today, I am debt-free! Less than two years after I graduated from law school. I was not alone in attending law school. I was not alone in being indebted. I also was not alone in paying off my debt. Of the $71,000, $43,000 was either forgiven by my lenders or gifted to me by other friends–including members of the Wisdom & Money community.
I am still integrating this experience, trying to find words that can express the depth of what I feel after being liberated from this huge amount of debt. What I can say is that my lenders and I were in debt together and in love together. And now, all of us are free of that debt and still in love together. We were in it together. There was never a me vs. them. Instead, I experienced the phenomena that we describe at Wisdom & Money: giver and receiver collapse into one. I am filled with gratitude to God, the universe, and these dear ones who invested in me and our future in this very specific way. I am who I am because of their willingness to experiment with me. They had cash which I did not have. They stepped into the flow with me and it moved all of us. Not only did I not take on debt on my own, which was a huge improvement from my undergraduate experience, but I didn’t even have to pay that debt off by myself. I asked for help and was immediately met with joy, love, and affirmation.
Another photo from my formative years: me and my brothers.
My analytical mind cannot grasp how it can be true that my need is the answer to another’s prayer and my prayer may be the answer to another’s need. But my experience is that it is true, and that we are all better for it. Not only does the path of interdependence feel better than going it alone, it is reality. It is the natural way of the universe. It is being in Spirit. In this culture, where every natural thing has been turned upside down, returning to interdependence requires courage, presence, and lots of unlearning. I offer this reflection of my unlearning because, Jubilee is never personal or individual; it is always a communal reset. Like all jubilees, my jubilee journey is not only mine. My freedom is my lender’s freedom, my family’s freedom, and my community’s freedom. My freedom is your freedom. My liberation is an opening for all of us. The opening that I experience in my life has ripple effects for all of us because interdependence is reality.
I began this series with a deep groan for the end of all student debt in the United States. I will end this reflection today with that same cry. None of us are free until every one of us is free, so even as I celebrate this huge shift for me, I wholeheartedly seek a world where everyone has what they need. Forgive us our debt, God, as we forgive our debtors. May it be so.
Turning to you
How have you experienced the brilliant reality of interdependence? How has your money shown you how interdependent we are? I’d love to hear from you, please leave a comment below!