Becky Billings has a hard time saying she regrets her student loans. They helped pay for multiple graduate degrees, including a doctorate in English. While she was in the Ph.D. program, she met Joel Hagen, the fellow she's married to now.
That's the happy part of the story.
The sad part — the part that makes Becky tear up — is that she didn't finish the Ph.D., the program that dinged her the most financially. She accrued more than $100,000 in debt.
"I followed a dream that died, exploded," she said.
Becky abandoned her dream of becoming a professor just as the recession was hitting and jobs were scarce. Becky and Joel, who are in their early 30s and live in Plymouth, both suffered periods of unemployment. Joel says when they did find work, they often had to accept low wages.
"We've been together six years and 90 percent of the time one of us has been unemployed or underemployed," he said.
Now they've got roughly two full-time and five odd jobs between the two of them. But paying down Becky's educational debts is a chore. It costs them about $1,100 a month.
Over the past 10 years, the total amount of student loan debt in America has risen from about $250 billion to more than $1 trillion today. As college costs rose, students took out more student loan debt. It's the kind of debt that's next to impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.
"Recent college graduates are going into their post-college experience with a large debt. On average they owe over $25,000 for their student loans," said Carl Van Horn, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in workforce issues.
Van Horn coauthored a study that looked at the employment prospects of young people in the wake of the recession. He says their debt burden is all the more difficult to bear given how rocky the economy has been. Less than half of the young college grads polled for his study found full time jobs. "Even those who did get a job often earned much less than anyone who had graduated prior to the recession," he said.
Not surprisingly, Van Horn says these young people don't have spare cash to throw around.
"Many delay decisions like getting a home or even getting married because they cannot afford to do so and also pay their debts," he said.
In an economy where consumerism is the lifeblood, that's bad news. Many experts say the nation's recovery is suffering because so many young college graduates can't fully participate.
Housing is one of the areas that's suffering most, said Hung Tran, executive managing director at the Institute of International Finance in Washington, D.C.
People under age 35 used to play a bigger role in home sales as first time buyers. They're important because they allow older families to move up onto more expensive homes, Tran said. "But if the first time home buyers are not there in force, it can have repercussions on the sustainability of a strong, vibrant recovery in the housing market," he said.
A study this year from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that 30-year-olds with student loan debt used to be more likely to borrow money for big ticket items like a house or a car. The argument goes that those college-educated 20-somethings had better jobs and could afford to finance major purchases. But that situation has now flipped: young people who are not maxed out on education-related loans are now the ones purchasing and financing cars and houses.
For Becky Billings and Joel Hagen, forget buying a house. They have to negotiate food, gas and other immediate expenses to keep up with Becky's monthly student loan payment. So they're staying put in their apartment.
They enter everything into a computer program that shows whether any given expenditure puts them over budget. Here's a typical conversation:
Joel: We rented a TV show the other day and you put it on here, I thought that was adorable.
Becky: You did?
Joel: 'Big Bang Theory,' $1.99.
Becky: So I'm following the rules.
Joel: Following the rules.
Those rules also mean a barebones Christmas, though they did budget so that Becky can finally get the Red Sox jersey she's been coveting.