Almost eighteen years ago, half a lifetime, I took up a place at art college, and signed up for a student loan. I was lucky to study in a time before insane tuition fees kicked in; my fees were capped, and means tested, and paid up front – around £500 per year. But still, I took out the loan to cover my living costs: rent, bills, transport, food. My pay as you go mobile phone that was too expensive to make calls on; Thursday nights in the student bar when synthetic-tasting pints were a pound.
I survived exactly one term on my student loan before realising it just wasn’t going to stretch, even on a diet of pasta and tomatoes – even on Cup-a-Soup. So I walked around town handing in my CV to every shop and restaurant and cafe. I’d had part time jobs since I was 16. I received no job offers – but then a classmate mentioned her boss was looking for more staff – and I became a cleaner, for the rest of my time at art college. I liked it, as I worked early mornings which meant I still had my weekends free. Until my third year, when my rent rose and the costs of materials for my degree show soared and I realised I needed a second job – and my Saturdays were spent working in a shop. I still graduated with an overdraft – but it was a few hundred pounds, thanks to the extra money I’d earned, and I was able to pay it off within the year, working odd jobs in galleries, restaurants and cafes. George Osborne has nothing on me in my 20s.
This week my Student Loans Company statement came through the post. Fifteen years after my last installment was deposited into my bank account, it has still not been paid off. Not only that – the statement summary revealed that I had merely paid back the interest. I owe almost exactly what I did fifteen years ago.
I thought I had been making progress recently. I’d paid a big lump sum due to a self assessment tax return, small pay rises were reflected in the amount being deducted my payslip each month. I’d only reached the minimum payment threshold six years ago; but the amounts coming out now are substantial. Every month, this was money that was not going into my ISA, towards a house deposit, or into a pension scheme. Buying a house and having a pension are safety nets I desperately need – both seem increasingly less likely, regardless of how much I save each month. The one constant is the student loan, and the repayments. The lines on the statement reflected the UK’s economic history since I had started my degree – a steady rise, reaching 4.8 per cent in the months before the financial crash. Then a sudden fall. At its peak, I was being charged £55 a month interest on my student loan. I had no idea. Even if I had – there was nothing I could have done about it. At the time, I was surviving on a few hundred Euros a month, living on lentils and Spanish sunshine.
The media says young people – and the not so young – aren’t planning for their future, but the financial adviser I spoke to said no way should I be putting loads into my pension until I have bought a house. So I squirrel away money every month, and feel proud of how much I’m saving – until I realise that flats in my area have gone up by three times the amount I manage to save each year, and it all seems a bit pointless, and I wonder if it’s even worth it. And then Brexit happens and everyone’s too scared to buy homes in case prices drop, but they still can’t buy because prices haven’t dropped. And every month, another hundred quid comes out of my salary and goes into paying off 17 years of interest on my student loan, and I wonder – how much would I owe now if I’d been paying £3,000 a year in tuition fees? What about £9,000?
People call it the rat race, but it doesn’t feel like a race. No one’s competing to get ahead of each other, we’re just trying to stay afloat. It’s a hamster wheel, treading water, a treadmill – every year I put money back into my student loan, and every year the interest mounts. Every year I put money into my “flat deposit” – yet at the end of the year I’m just as far from buying a home as I was at the beginning of it. Earlier this year I lost my rented flat, a tenancy agreement came to an end, I was asked to move on. I write, surrounded by cardboard boxes, again. The couple of bits of furniture I had finally acquired are mine no longer. I’ve learned not to put down an anchor; it’ll just hurt more when it gets ripped out. Float on the surface, we’ve learned; keep paddling, unmoored, adrift.
We lead lovely lives, my friends and I – full of culture and learning and laughter, of good food and spontaneous holidays and afternoons in the park – but we lead precarious ones. Even if we gave up the spontaneous holidays and good food, and stayed at home and ate frugally, we’d be no closer to safety. We can tread chilly, dirty water – or we can tread water in the turquoise tropics, and we choose the latter, as often as we can. It’s lovelier, it’s beautiful here – but still, we can’t do it forever. One day we’ll need our feet to touch dry land.