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Living On $100,000 A Year: Student Debt


Congress has been working on an extensive overhaul of America's tax system. One question at the heart of the tax debate is which Americans need the most help. Who should get tax cuts? Last week, we brought you the first in a series of conversations about economic life in America today. We've been talking with people who make $100,000 per year, an amount that might seem like a fortune. But as we heard from Theresa Sahhar and many others, it can still be hard to feel financially secure.

THERESA SAHHAR: I want my children to be able to access a few of the better things in life. I don't expect them to be rich, but I would like them to not be poor. I see that my daughter and her husband are also struggling. And their main struggle is that they have student loans. And those student loans are crippling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Americans have almost $1.5 trillion in student debt, and average student loans are in the tens of thousands of dollars. That means that even if you're a single person just out of college making an excellent salary, what Taylor Haby is about to say might feel very familiar.

TAYLOR HABY: That fear was so real for me. There's this mounting pile of debt - and not knowing if I was ever going to pay it off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Haby is 26. He lives by himself in Seattle and makes around $100,000 a year selling scientific equipment. He knows it's a lot of money because he hasn't always had as much.

HABY: It's been a big lifestyle change, having grown up in a small, rural Texas family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So does it feel like you're making enough money? What's it like to live off that kind of money in Seattle?

HABY: I feel like I'm doing fine. I pay my bills. I meet all my basic needs. I pay rent. I can eat. There are, of course, things that still give me anxiety, like buying a home or paying off debt like student loans or making friends and dating that, you know, still keep me up at night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me sort of understand a picture of your life. What does your lifestyle cost you? You're a young guy. Obviously, you want to enjoy life.

HABY: Right. So I have a kind of unique job. I travel for a living. I've spent maybe 150 nights in hotels this year alone, so my apartment is just a place, a very expensive storage unit. When I'm home, I don't cook. Things go bad in my refrigerator. When I moved to Seattle, I searched for days. I went to every apartment building I could and walked in over 40 of them to ask what apartments they had available. And I found the cheapest one. It's very small, and I'm paying $1,650 in rent. And because I have a car for work, I pay $250 a month for a parking spot. So it totals out to about $1,900 a month.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What makes you feel that you're sort of squeezed? What is it that gives you that anxiety?

HABY: For me, it's just not being able to save at the rate that I want to save at. It still feels like that account balance never grows. It feels like I haven't - hasn't really grown since I moved to Seattle. And there's this supreme desire for me to stop what feels like dumping money down into a trash can in paying rent but never being home to buying and being able to take advantage of certain tax favorabilities like the mortgage interest deduction, things like that that can change your financial situation as time goes on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you mentioned student loans. How much of a chunk is that?

HABY: I was very lucky. I got out in four and a half years with only about $35,000 in student debt. My minimum payment when I started was around $450 to $500 a month. And now, I'm only sitting at about $20,000 in two loans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But that's still a lot.

HABY: It's very scary when you don't have job security. My company recently went through a vertical merger. And having my mom gone through that when I was a kid and been laid off, though she was a VP-level-type person, that fear was so real for me. There's this mounting pile of debt and not knowing if I was ever going to pay it off. It was very, very scary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what tax issue are you most focused on in this bill?

HABY: This is such - this is so challenging. You know, like I said, having grown up in rural Texas, there's this internal conflict to being intoxicated with financial success or my financial situation. But having grown up in rural Texas and experience real financial hardship and not knowing - your parents not knowing how they were going to put food on the table. And now I'm one of those coastal elites, a term, you know, that people in Middle America use. And it feels like betrayal.

But what I've learned in moving to the coast is there's real inequality. And the biggest driver of that inequality is the tax code. The biggest social welfare has been to the rich and powerful, giving them loopholes and abilities to keep money from the government and keep money from the rest of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Taylor Haby of Seattle, Wash. And next week, we hear from a dad in St. Paul about how budgeting for a family of five forced a tough decision.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Have two incomes, and one is essentially dedicated to daycare, or have one income and a stay-at-home parent? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.