One of the interesting (and/or awkward?) things about blogging is that it does a pretty good job of capturing ups and downs from week to week. And when I wrote last week’s post, I happened to be feeling fairly “down” about the current state of my finances. To review, here is my situation:
- I owe about $51,600 in student loan debt.
- I am 35.
- I don’t have a ton saved for retirement and am not in a career with a crazy high earning potential.
There’s not a lot I can do to drastically change the reality of these facts right now. I can’t go back to my 20s and make different decisions. I can’t apply for jobs in engineering or hedge fund management and expect to be taken seriously (also, what is hedge fund management?). And while I have bought two—count ‘em, two!—Powerball tickets in the past 12 months, I’m disappointed to report that neither one turned out to be a big winner. I suppose I could rob a bank and/or flee the country, but somehow those don’t strike me as realistic options.
The facts, in other words, are pretty much the facts. At this moment in time I owe a certain amount in student loans. I have a certain amount saved for retirement. I am a certain age. And so on.
But here’s the thing:
The facts aren’t the whole story.
The rest of the story is: How am I going to choose to think about these facts?
There are at least a couple of possibilities:
Possibility A is for me to sit around beating myself up about the choices I made while I was in my 20s, feeling regretful for what today feel like questionable decisions.
Possibility B is for me to spend a lot of time mentally comparing myself to other hypothetical 35-year-olds with backgrounds that are similar to mine. For example, I could sit around wondering how likely it is that I have the lowest net worth of anyone in my high school class.
It’s very easy for me to get caught up in both Possibility A and Possibility B, often at the same time. Beating oneself up and comparing oneself to other people may not be particularly productive ways of thinking, but they are certainly very easy ones to fall back on.
What’s problematic about Possibilities A and B, however, is that they are almost entirely focused on the past, with the present seen merely as some sort of culmination or endpoint. And I’m not sure I like the idea of viewing today as the end of the road.
Good thing there’s a Possibility C.
Possibility C is for me to say to myself, “Okay. For better or for worse, I made the decisions that I made. And this is where I currently am. But hey, how awesome is it that I now have the chance to move forward from here in whatever way I choose?” Possibility C views the present not as an endpoint but as a starting point, with the future stretching out ahead.
And if I really get to choose how I want to think about my debt—and I believe that I do get to choose—then it’s a no-brainer. I choose Possibility C.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s simple to choose Possibility C, or that I only have to choose it once and it’s a done deal. On the contrary, I have to choose it again and again and again, and whenever I slide back into the downward spirals of Possibility A or Possibility B, like I did last week, I have to consciously choose Possibility C yet again.
So how exactly can I do this? How can I keep choosing Possibility C when the other possibilities are always lurking around, ready to leap into the forefront?
I think the key to choosing Possibility C—the mindset that views the present as the starting point on the way to the future—is to find a way to prove to myself that I no longer need to spend time beating myself up about past decisions. To prove to myself that I can accept those decisions, particularly the ones involving student loans, as part of the unchangeable past…and simply let them go.
Easier said than done, right?
I’m still working on this, but I’ll tell you two things that I find incredibly helpful.
The first thing is to remember that even though having student debt involves a lot of downsides, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say that I “shouldn’t” have taken out those loans, or that taking them out was a “wrong” or “bad” decision. Because if I had said, “nope, sorry, no student loans for me!” then I wouldn’t have been able to go to grad school, and if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I wouldn’t have the city or the apartment or the job or the education or the career or the professional skills (or, by the way, the blog or the financial skills) or most of the friends that I have today. Sitting around being angry at myself for taking out student loans is basically the same as wishing I didn’t have any of these other amazing things in my life. Yeah, I hate having student debt, and yeah, I probably could have borrowed a somewhat lower amount or paid off the interest while I was in school, but wishing I could go back in time and avoid the loans completely makes very little sense. And so sometimes I try to remember that, and it helps me to choose Possibility C.
The second thing is actually the whole reason I wanted to write this post in the first place.
I don’t know what you were wearing in the 90s, but I was wearing baggy jeans, slouch socks, big lumpy sweaters, scrunchies, and snap bracelets, none of which feel like remotely appealing fashion choices to me today.
But when I look at photos from the 90s and see myself wearing these clothes, do I get angry at myself for my fashion choices? Of course not. I was wearing those things because by 90s standards they were pretty normal things to wear. It would be unreasonable for me to judge my 1990s fashion choices by 2016 fashion standards.
And I’m not sure that my decision to start taking out student loans is all that different.
Taking out student loans is not something I would do today (nor would I counsel anyone else to take out student loans without doing a TON of research and calculations beforehand). But that’s because I’m 35 today, and I have way more information than I did eight or nine years ago, and way more self-knowledge, and way more life experience. And there’s no point in repeatedly beating up my 26-year-old self for not having had that information, or that knowledge, or that experience, because she simply didn’t.
And so I just want to say, for the record, that I believe I was doing the best I could at the time.
Not only that, but:
I believe that for the most part, everyone is pretty much always doing the best they can, given the resources and information available to them.
In other words, at any given point in our lives, we have a specific set of psychological, emotional, and cognitive resources, a certain amount of energy, and a certain amount of information and past experience to draw from. And in general, we use these resources to try to do the best that we can.
I realize it’s very easy to poke holes in this statement. And yes, I do think there are definitely exceptions, like in cases where someone is purposely causing harm to another person. But I do really believe that the above rule applies to pretty much any personal life decision, small or large—like whether to take out a loan, whether to buy a house or a car, what to major in, whether to go to the concert or stay home and rest, what to cook for dinner, what exactly to say in that email, whether or not to have another piece of cake.
It doesn’t mean we get a free pass to do whatever we feel like going forward. It just means that in looking back on past decisions it’s okay to trust our younger selves, to believe that they were doing everything in their power to get things right, and to be kind to them.
And so sometimes, when I can sense that Possibilities A and B are starting to slither out from their dark corners once again, I sit and I just say this a few times, to remind myself:
I was doing the best I could at the time, given the information and resources available to me.
I was doing the best I could at the time.
I was doing the best I could.
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Comments are welcome, as always.