How I became broke (and in France)

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The inheritance from my great grandmother let me get out of undergrad debt-free. At the time, I didn’t know how lucky I was. After a couple years of working at a job that was going nowhere fast, I decided to go back to my alma mater and get my master’s in Environmental Engineering.   

In the meantime, my parents had invested the money from my great grandmother’s estate into a fixer-upper in the country for their retirement (after the bubble popped, thank the lord). Thinking that student loans where the way to go and imagining my exorbitant post-graduation salary, I went back to school without thinking twice.

I took out loans, they disappeared into tuition and living expenses and I didn’t look at them anymore. It was like they didn’t exist. Everyone told me that government loans came with great interest rates and terms, so I believed them. I remember being proud of the fact that I no longer depended on my parents.

A moment of foreshadowing came when I went to the doctor one day and the secretary asked me about my ability to pay. In the income section, I asked if I was supposed to put how much I had received in loans. No sweetie, replied the secretary, you write down zero.

With some money I earned from a summer internship, I arrived in France thinking I was going to live it up. I bought clothes and ate out like the upper middle class person I thought I was supposed to be. When the money ran out and I had to live off a 500 euro a month intern stipend, things started getting hard.   

Eventually, I ran out of food one month when my stipend didn’t come through on time. On the metro, I can remember glaring at a girl eating a vegetable tart and thinking about how I could go about stealing it. Another time, I sold books to buy my tram ticket to go to work. Things always perked up again, but I won’t forget how much I didn’t like being hungry or walking 45 minutes to work because I couldn’t afford a tram ticket. That really stunk.

On the metro, I can remember glaring at a girl eating a vegetable tart and thinking about how I could go about stealing it.

Doing a PhD at a French school without a recognized partnership with an American institution means that my loans are now in repayment and represent about a third of my PhD stipend of 1300 euro per month. Luckily I have a loving and understanding husband who helps me get through the tough times. I’ll be graduating in a year which will hopefully lead to a raise and broader perspectives. Things are looking up even though I’m down on myself quite a lot for having been so foolish with my loans.

If you have student loans or know someone who does, remember to be supportive and forgiving of yourself and others. While you may have been foolish, paying them back can be really rough and it’s important not to measure yourself against impossible goals. For example, certain ‘Debt Free’ bloggers make more than my yearly stipend in one month. That sure helps with debt!  

I hope to use this blog as a way to share my life in France with others, while helping them to understand that they are not alone. Okay, repeat, “I am not my debts. I am a human being.”      

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