When Your Student Loans Could Cost You Everything, Even Motherhood

by Allison Yarrow

Karen Teague feels like she’s drowning. The 29-year-old policy analyst in New Park, Pennsylvania, owes $259,600 in student loans, on which she pays the monthly minimum of more than $1,300. “My debt causes me to put off thinking about children,” she told Bustle. “I want children, but realistically I don’t know how I’m supposed to bring a child into this world. Kids are expensive, and some weeks I can barely afford to feed myself. It’s hard because I really want them. I hope I’ll be able to, but I don’t know.”

New York City communications coach Leah Bonvissuto can relate. She graduated from New York University $75,000 in debt, even after working 40-hour weeks while in school and charging tuition on a credit card. “I spent my 20s drowning in interest, and feeling victimized by it, and feeling like I made a choice so young that I would regret for the rest of my life, and saying things like, ‘I’ll never have a family,’” says Bonvissuto, who just launched her own company, Present Voices, which teaches presentation skills to leaders and teams.

They would be making babies if they weren’t making loan payments.

Karen Teague with her dog, Chica. Courtesy of Karen Teague

Economists have made the connection between delayed childbearing and outsized student loan debt, but there’s very little reporting of what it’s like to live in that ledger, where the barely diminished debt cancels out your dreams for a family, day after day, until it’s too late, or is so mountainous that you can’t contemplate children at all. Bustle spoke to the women who are delaying or avoiding childbearing because of their outsized student loan debt.

Plenty live paycheck to paycheck, and can’t imagine setting aside even an extra $100 a month for necessities like diapers, formula, and doctors’ visits. They lack the small fortune required for suitable childcare. Student loan debt is the reason 6 percent of millennials are postponing having kids, and why 13 percent of 20- to 45-year-olds don’t want kids at all, according to recent polls. Women told Bustle they would be making babies if they weren’t making loan payments — which range from $150-$1,400 per month. Bustle interviewed 10 women with significant debt — half of whom say that it is why they are not mothers, or contemplating motherhood. The other half had children despite their debt, but what they owe shapes their lives and the lives of their children.

Leah Bonvissuto with her 14-month-old daughter, Billie.

Student loan debt is more threatening to the lives of women than men. For multiple reasons, including the fact that they earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, women hold two-thirds of all student loan debt, which totaled $1.5 trillion at last count. Not only do they owe the lion’s share, but the gender wage gap ensures women are slower to repay their debts because their wages are less than men’s. Motherhood compromises women’s earnings even more. Mothers are offered lower wages than non-mothers and are docked money for each child they have. The New York Times recently found that women who deliver their first child between 25 and 35 years old (which is most American women) never recoup their lost income, while fathers receive bonuses after children arrive.

We can’t be sad or distraught by it, because it just never felt like something we could consider. And once the loans are paid off, it will be too late.

Mia Shapiro, a 45-year-old social worker in Harrison, New York, says her student loan debt fed years of financial insecurity and dependency that ultimately prevented her from having the children she wanted.

“My student debt definitely kept me living in less than optimal apartments over the years, kept me eating poorly at times, less capable of dressing well for professional jobs, and kept me dependent on family and boyfriends and eventually my marriage,” she says. “Looking back, for my healthiest childbearing years, I stayed in relationships with men that provided me with housing and food because I didn’t really feel that I had a choice.”

After getting divorced at 35, Shapiro moved into a studio apartment so she could put more of her paycheck toward repaying her debt, but renting a one-room home prevented her from becoming a foster parent. She was told that to foster, she would need two bedrooms.

By the time Sarah Baran finished her bachelor's and master's degrees to teach special needs kids in Taylor, Michigan, she was $200,000 in debt. She married her husband in 2015, but isn’t starting a family because of her debt. “At this point in our lives, we simply cannot afford to have children and so actively choose not to have them,” she says. What children cost is not esoteric to her — Baran sees the spending first-hand through her nieces, nephews, and friends’ kids.

“Diapers, formula, car seats, strollers, furniture — it adds up so quickly,” she tells Bustle. “I know we could not afford to do many of the things our family and friends have been able to do with their children. I see the homes they have been able to buy, the newer, safer vehicles they can afford, the vacations, trips, and experiences such as swim classes and even sending the littles to good day cares and preschool programs.”

Sarah Baran with her partner and her niece and nephew. Photo courtesy of Sarah Baran.

Baran, 36, has not been able to work since 2016, when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. She is paying the minimum amount on her private loans — $320 per month — but isn’t paying her federal loans so she can pay medical bills. But she still feels pressure from family and her community to just have children already — what are they waiting for?

“In our 20s, telling people we were waiting until we had paid down debt and made more money was an acceptable excuse,” Baran says. “Now when people ask, it’s easier to tell them we can’t have children until the doctor gives us the OK. Even though it is only half of the truth, it elicits fewer comments and further interrogation.”

Some women who are on the fence about whether they want children say that their large student loan debt is deciding for them. Jenny Lane, a 36-year-old web developer in Denver, Colorado, said her loan debt made having children seem “like it was never an option. We can’t be sad or distraught by it, because it just never felt like something we could consider. And once the loans are paid off, it will be too late.”

I cannot ‘adult’ until this loan is paid off.

She and her boyfriend, who is equally ambivalent about becoming a parent but also carries student loan debt, aren’t marrying for two reasons. First, their incomes and single status provide them each with a tax write-off on the interest they each owe. Second, Lane doesn’t want her debt burden to fall to him if something were to happen to her, which often happens for married couples.

“The loan has definitely changed the options we have had in life,” she said. Lane might consider adoption if their circumstances were to change. “It takes sacrifice to raise children even when you are financially stable,” she added. “Raising them in an environment where you are living paycheck to paycheck would put too much stress on everyone.”

Researchers and statisticians know that student loan debt is playing some role in declining birth rates in the United States, which is at a record low. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month, the national birth or “fertility” rate was 16 percent below that needed for the population to replace itself. They just don’t know the extent of the connection, given a multitude of other factors involved. The tricky part of pinning declining birth rates to lingering student debt is that millennials have so many financial obstacles to overcome.

Gretchen Livingston studies fertility trends as a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, and she says that while nearly a decade ago, procreation declined because of the recession, today it’s harder to know which financial factors are causing the drop. After all, the economy has rebounded, but the birth rate has not.

We can’t afford a home. We can barely afford clothes for ourselves. How can we add another mouth to that?

“It seems hard to tease out student loan debt as a reason for delaying or avoiding childbearing versus other things that are related,” she tells Bustle. “If you have student loan debt, maybe you have credit card debt. Maybe you can’t afford a house. It’s tied up with a lot of other financial things that I suspect are related. If people didn’t have student loan debt, would it put them in a financial situation where they would feel comfortable having kids? It’s hard for me to know.”

A 2015 paper by researchers at Rutgers University called “Can’t Afford a Baby? Debt and Young Americans” posits that while “debt is linked to fertility risk in early adulthood,” the type of debt is significant. For instance, credit card and home mortgage debt can be “attractive tool(s) for financing parenthood.” However, student loans “have delayed and uncertain payoffs, which we expect signifies an intention to delay fertility,” the authors wrote. In other words, having a mortgage or credit card debt could be linked to a willingness to have kids — people take on that type of debt in order to finance having a family. Student loan debt doesn’t immediately provide for a home or diapers, if it ever will. And it can take many years in the working world — childbearing years — before you know if it will.

Kaitlin Agulto with her husband and daughter. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Agulto.

And millennials contemplating kids don’t want to wing it — they want not just to scrape by financially but to be truly stable. Thirty-two-year-old Patty Galvan, who grades eggs for the USDA and freelances as an artist to pay her rent in College Station, Texas, isn’t having children because she doesn't want to repeat the cycle of poverty that characterized her upbringing. She has only paid down $5,000 of the $30,000 debt that she graduated with, in part because she didn’t contribute while she cared for her dying grandmother.

“We can’t afford a home. We can barely afford clothes for ourselves. How can we add another mouth to that?” she says. Similar to Baran, Galvan says having kids when you can’t afford to “feels irresponsible.”

Tiffany Slifka, a 26-year-old accountant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, says it’s less about having a set amount of money than feeling safe. “It’s not about how much I need, it’s about a feeling of security,” she says. “I feel like I need to have a safety net.”

Of course, plenty of women with large student loan debt are stretching outside of their financial comfort zones to have children, but debt looms over their daily lives and family culture. To expedite repaying the $68,000 she has left on the $123,000 she owed, Kaitlin Agulto, a 26-year-old insurance analyst and mom in Palisades, New Jersey, moved with her husband and 3-year-old daughter into her mother’s house, stored all their belongings, and relies on her mother and grandmother for childcare.

RaeAnn picket with her younger son, Noah, last Thanksgiving. Courtesty of RaeAnn Pickett.

“I cannot ‘adult’ until this loan is paid off,” she says. “I want my daughter to have her own bedroom that she can escape to; a bookshelf filled with stories that can take her on adventures, a spot for all her toys.” Instead, Agulto travels to their storage unit to swap out books and toys once a week.

RaeAnn Pickett feels like she may never escape her debt. “It might as well be a gillion dollars,” she says. But having children was a life goal she wouldn't compromise. Pickett, 34, worked continuously from the time she graduated from college in 2007 until February 2017, when she lost her job abruptly and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She called the private company that holds some of her loans to ask for forbearance — a sanctioned delay on her payments — since she was jobless and supporting two children.

The representative told her, “If you couldn’t afford your student loan payments, you should not have had your children,” Pickett says. She says she was also told to move somewhere less expensive — the cost of living in the Northern Virginia suburbs where she resides is steep. But she has family nearby, her partner's job in tech support is based there, and it's cheaper than neighboring Arlington, Virginia, where Pickett now works.

“I would literally Google how can you commit suicide and wipe away your student loans,” Pickett says.

I realize some people will think it’s lazy or cowardly, but I truly feel like I’m in so deep with the loans that I’ll never get out, and that feeling is paralyzing,

The family's financial picture is complicated. Because of RaeAnn’s debt, she has no credit cards or lines of credit, and she pays for everything with cash. “We rely on my husband’s credit in order to get anything done,” she says. “I could never put my name on a title to a home, even though I make more money than [Steve] does. I have a higher income, but he has better credit. So we rent.”

Pickett has returned to work at a childcare advocacy agency, but she isn’t currently making loan payments and believes she is accruing interest. She doesn’t know for sure because for one, she doesn’t know exactly how to find out — they are spread between multiple private lenders and collections agencies at this point — and also she feels like it’s useless to try. “I realize some people will think it’s lazy or cowardly, but I truly feel like I’m in so deep with the loans that I’ll never get out, and that feeling is paralyzing,” she says. Then she asks me, “Could I just call the Department of Ed?”

Instead Pickett focuses on what she feels she can control. She is incredibly regimented when it comes to allocating her family’s money. She hired an au pair to care for her children, which despite sounding fancy, is actually an exchange program run by the state department, and among the most affordable childcare options around. Pickett joined the au pair placement agency as a part-time employee, on top of her full-time job, to get a discount.

“I budget for what foods my kids eat. We rarely go out to eat. We don’t really travel. I do a lot of thrift store shopping,” and their high-end neighborhood ends up paying off, she says. “I like to say it’s nice to live around rich people because they throw away their nice stuff.”

For some loan-saddled families who manage some level of stability with one child, student debt is the reason they’ve delayed or decided against having another. Bonvissuto, 35, has a 1-year-old daughter and can’t see having a second. “I want one child. I see how I can support one and possibly work really hard to put her through a state school, but I don’t know if, how our lives are right now, we could do that for two,” she says.

Agulto’s debt postponed her marriage and is now impeding her plan to have a second child. “This debt is a jail sentence, but we’ve gotten used to living in the shadow of [it]” she tells Bustle. “I know in 48 months when the last payment is made, my family will finally feel freedom.”

Sarah Baran with her niece in 2018. Courtesy of Sarah Baran.

Women report that the people who seem to understand least the extreme pressure facing millennials who have debt, and how it directly conflicts with childbearing, aren’t judgmental bureaucrats or indifferent economists — they’re family and friends. Even knowing the scale of their debt, close relatives and members of their communities pester them about when they’re going to have kids, going so far as to explicitly advise starting families over paying debt. “If you wait until you can afford children to have them, you will never have children,” Baran says her mom told her.

Baran feels she has no choice but to wait until financial circumstances improve, but others in her life don’t see it that way. “In our 20s, telling people we were waiting until we had paid down debt and made more money was an acceptable excuse. As we got into our 30s, it seems like that excuse lost merit,” she says.

It can be difficult for those without college debt to understand the gravity of the predicament. Sflika sees this at home in North Carolina. “Most of the people in my community are not college educated and have children. I frequently get asked when I will have children,” she says. It’s almost like family members expect women with overwhelming student debt to ignore that reality in favor of some fantasy of things magically working out.

“You do get the ones that will tell you to have children and things will fall into place,” Lane says, “But we know better.”

As a result of that knowledge, many women with massive debt have strong feelings about how they’ll approach loans if they do one day have college-aged kids of their own. “They will never take on student debt. Ever,” Pickett says of her boys. If Karen Teague ever has kids, she also won’t let them take out loans at all. “God no,” says Galvan, when asked.

Slifka answers differently. While she doesn't like the idea, she believes loans are unavoidable. “The sad truth of the middle class is that student loans are the only way we can afford to get an education, and I would never prevent my children from getting an education.” If she can afford to have them in the first place.

Main photo credit: Courtesy of Citybird Photo.