Why Those Student Debt ‘Success’ Stories Are Making You Feel Worse

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I retained very little from my single semester studying Latin but among the few terms that stuck with me is “deus ex machina.”

The literal meaning is “god from the machine” and is used to describe “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.”

You know, like when a really riveting adventure book ends with “It was actually all just a dream!” or when it seems that all hope for Gotham is lost and then, at the last minute, Batman busts out a totally new gadget that saves the day.

We can cut creators some slack on this kind of lazy storytelling when the stories are fiction. But what about when the stories come from real life and are supposed to be somehow helpful to real people?

An entire genre of journalism has emerged telling the “inspiring stories” of people who overcame their massive student debt.

Quintessential “I Paid Off My Student Loan” stock photo. (Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash)

All of these student debt success stories seem a bit different on the surface but they almost uniformly feature a “deus ex machina” that hides in plain sight among otherwise useful (but not miraculous) debt repayment tips. For instance…

1. They totally downplay how many people contributed to one person’s success

The headline, “How 5 Women Paid Off Half A Million In Debt” might not seem like especially over-the-top inspirational clickbait, but a closer look reveals that this is not just clever framing but willful omission of key facts.

The first being that the $500,000 was actually paid not only by five women, but also two of their husbands, and possibly one boyfriend with whom the woman in debt was planning to buy a home.

Without the incomes listed for all eight of these borrowers, all carrying very different debt loads, and all eliminating their debts on different timelines, this story’s biggest takeaway is what borrowers already know: individual and often uncontrollable circumstances largely determine one’s ability to repay debt.

2. The circumstances of the people in the story are far better than the average debtor

The first issue with “How I Ditched $72,000 In Debt: Becoming a Budget Obsessive” is that the headline is framed in the first person, even though the first sentence reveals that the debt was shared with her husband, that ever-so-common “dude ex machina.” So already, that cuts the debt per person to an average of $36K. A significant debt, sure, but half as significant as the headline suggested.

Searching for a realistic student debt repayment story may take some intergalactic travel. (Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash)

That means the couple’s combined $49K of student loan debt was $24.5K per person, substantially less than the national average of $37,172 for the same year they started paying down their debts.

Eight months into the two-year period of paying down their shared debt, the husband got a 35 percent salary increase. That’s great; good for him! But that this was mentioned so casually when the average American’s salary increase that year was 2.9 percent downplays a huge income gain as run-of-the-mill circumstances changing.

3. They already have assets (or family resources) they can turn into money

In that same article comes the line, “We sold our house and used part of the proceeds to pay off about half of our debt. The other half went toward buying our current home, which we bought with help from family members who gave us a 0% loan for the house.”

So those are 44 words with a whole lot of hidden money in them. The first, of course, is that the couple had an asset that they could sell at a profit, a $72K profit if they paid off half of their debt with half of the proceeds. Good for them!

That feeling when you pay off your student loans… which is just as realistic as surviving a trip to the surface of the sun. (Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash)

But “just sell your house at a profit!” isn’t really actionable advice when 10.2% of mortgages in America were underwater the year that this couple sold their home or that student loan burdens account for a reported seven year delay in buying a home at all for millennials.

And I begrudge no one their generous family members giving them a 0% loan to cover the cost of a new home but that is not the result of being a “budget obsessive,” it is a “mommy and daddy ex machina.” (Also, even at 0% interest, it is still a debt.)

It all boils down to this — these student debt success stories are fairy tales, not resources people can use

The problem with these student debt success stories is not that the borrowers featured are totally out-of-touch with the realities of the average borrower and unaware of their tremendous privileges. These aren’t ultra-wealthy buffoons or totally frivolous spenders who finally got some common sense.

The problem with these stories is that they subtly frame student debt as a personal failing rather than a systemic one and downplay exceptionally fortunate and outlier circumstances as typical for the average borrower.

There are also thousands of them online, which makes it appear that a huge number of people can repay student debts with a little discipline, obscuring the fact that many millions more are the ones who are stuck without enough income or flexibility to make a dent their debt.

When you’re so happy you paid off your student loans that you want to hug a building (I’m guessing). (Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash)

The same site that hosts so many of these debt triumph stories is also home to shaming headlines like, “If You’re 18 To 34, You Probably Suck At Money.”

Upon closer examination, articles like that should read, “If You’re 18 to 34, You Graduated Into An Economic Crisis After Being Raised In a Culture That Told You A Costly Education Was Inherently Worth It And Are Now Being Blamed That Your Wages Are Low, Your Debt Is High, And That You’re Ruining The Economy. It Sucks.”