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Posts Tagged ‘student loan debt’

Couch-surfing: Commonly Asked Questions

People often private message me and ask for tips on couch-surfing, as well as ask me other questions about my experiences, so here’s some answers to some of the most common questions:

YOU:  Where do you find your couches? Websites like Couchsurfing.org?

ME:  Actually, I am fortunate to have many friends and friends-of-friends who offer me couches, air mattresses, floors, and the like. Sometimes, even guest rooms! I usually stay with each person for three-to-seven nights, though I house and pet-sit, also, and so my time at someone’s place is usually longer then, anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

Couchsurfing.org is a fantastic organization, though. Sort of like an online dating site – but not for dating; rather, to find couches. People have profiles akin to Facebook, and have testimonials from others on their pages, so you are not choosing couches blindly. I have used Couchsurfing.org when traveling abroad, and had nothing but positive experiences. Feel free to private message me for more specific information.

YOU:  You said you would couch-surf in L.A. for fifty-two weeks, but it has been much more than a year now. Why?

ME: Unfortunately and fortunately, yes, it has been over a year now. Actually, over three years. All because I spent the majority of the first year getting out of default with my numerous (about a dozen) student loans, making very high payments to student loan collection agencies, in order to get back in their good graces and to improve my credit score (which is important, and which many people my age/Gen X-ers don’t always take too seriously, though we should).

Long story short, the more I pay off my student loan debt, the better I feel about whittling down that $98,000 to thousands and thousands less now. Since I still make several student loan payments each month, I often say that I still have a landlord – not some middle-aged man, but the faceless Department of Education. J To pay off all my debt and to pay a three-dimensional landlord would be out of my means, financially. And for now, I choose my student loans.

Plus, I really love living with my friends. I recommend that everyone try it, whether or not you’re in debt. It will make you and your friends much closer… usually. ;)

YOU:  Do some people not understand your couch-surfing lifestyle?

ME: Of course, not everyone gets it. I think it’s a creative way of dealing with a serious problem. In 2009, I could not pay my rent and I did not want to leave L.A., either, for I feared that if I left, I would not return (as I had seen so many others do; working in film and TV is not easy and takes a lot of perseverance). So I turned to the one thing I had: friends. And they have been immeasurably kind and generous in opening up their homes and pull-out sofas for me. And I swear I will return the favor one day, when I get an apartment of my own again.

Also, couch-surfing and living on as little money as possible has taught me a lot. For instance, there are so many free things to do in the world, where money is not even required. Not to mention I have learned to travel with one, airline/carry on-sized suitcase and a sleeping bag. Sure, I have some things in storage, but I have realized that, when it really comes down to it, I can live without all that other stuff. People are really the most important commodity, hands down.

I can go on and on about couch-surfing… (If you have more questions, feel free to post them here or send me a message.) Thank you!

Happy anniversary… to me

I just had my couch-surfing anniversary: two-and-a-half years. Who knew a 52-week project would turn into a 130-week one… and counting. The thanks and gratitude I have to every friend and acquaintance who have opened up their homes – and loveseats, sectionals, and yoga mats – to me is immeasurable.

“So why are you still couch-surfing?” people ask.

With the still-unstable job market and my ever-excessive student loan debt (which is where my “rent” money goes each month), taking my sofa out of storage and putting it into a place of my own hasn’t happened yet. Nor do I want to risk it… and then discover I can suddenly not make rent one month. Believe me, that was the most stressful part about having an apartment.

Besides, I still have many friends’ couches to sleep on…  :) Have I slept at your place yet? ;)

One resolution at a time…

So far, I am behind on my New Year’s Resolutions. Are you?

On Facebook today, I saw that many people made a resolution to not make any resolutions. Why?

Are they afraid to? (Fear of failure? Fear of commitment?) Think it’s silly? Or have tried in the past with no luck, so why bother again? Or perhaps they are already meeting all their goals, so no need to reaffirm them or create new ones?

I am of the “afraid to” ilk – though, every year, I make them anyway. Although I have found greater success in calling them goals vs. resolutions, of making them monthly versus annually. Because, eventually, whether we like it or not, the months add up to a year. And who knows – by the end of it, perhaps we have met a lot of our ambitions. (Or maybe we just have to be more dedicated the next year.)

Even though I am trailing so far this year, I don’t think it’s too late to catch up.

I also believe, like anything requiring discipline, putting these goals down in writing helps – instead of tracking my daily caloric intake as though I were on a diet, I created a notebook to chart my daily progress of meeting (or not meeting) my aspirations. My New Year’s Diet. Even though I am not eliminating things so much as adding them. So we can say it’s My New Year’s Lifestyle? I plan to review it every night before bed.

Next to 01/01/12, “church” is the only mini-goal accomplished so far… I can surely reach the others though, right? And so can you!

Here are some of this month’s goals:

-Blog every day.

-Work on a piece of writing (book, short story, essay, script) every day.

-Continue to not text. (After three+ months of practice already, I am becoming an expert at this. Plus, I still won’t have a working phone until February, so…)

-See people in the flesh more (versus email or phone calls).

-Reconsolidate all dozen or so of my student loans at a lower interest rate.

-Continue to make student loan payments each month like I did for most of 2011.

-Pay off remaining debts to friends.

-Go to storage at least four times a month to get rid of more things I will never use & have happily lived without for over two years now!

-Volunteer at least once a week.

-Go to church every week. (This is a Repeat Resolution from 2011. I was pretty good in 2011, but then lapsed a bit.)

-Get closer to being able to attain an apartment/housing of my own again. However, until the student loan debt mentioned above gets lower, this is not likely anytime soon. (See my Money, Money, Money entry for more details on this.) (Also, I cannot imagine a non-couch-surfing life anymore!)

-Get at least one piece published by the end of the month. (Or get notification of publication by the end of the month. Knock on wood!)

-Do my TSL column twice a month.

-I think I am a pretty optimistic person almost all of the time… But when tempted not to be, to remember to focus on the positive in every situation/person/etc. instead of the negative.

So these are the goals for January… so far. Hopefully, they will be the same for February…

What are some of yours?

And if you don’t believe in making New Year’s Resolutions, why not?

Free Faith for Sale…

My Money, Money, Money blog post about my excessive student loan debt made me think of a short story I had published, “Free Faith for Sale,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People: 101 Stories about Overcoming the Economic Crisis and Other Challenges.

As you may have guessed, it’s all about having – and maintaining – faith… :)

The story took place in late 2008/early 2009. Here you go:

After I was laid off last winter, I didn’t know what to do. Having worked in television as a writers’ assistant on several different shows, I was used to them being cancelled; such is the life of a freelancer in entertainment. But I wasn’t used to not having another TV show to go to. I had bounced from show to show for nearly ten years straight. And now… nothing?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t eligible to get unemployment (that’s what happens when you default on your student loans enough times). And my temp agencies were all on a hiring freeze until January; it was only November.

I made a list of everything I could do for money (everything that was legal, anyway): baby-sit, dog-sit, plant-sit (don’t ask), return unworn new clothes, brew coffee at home versus buy it out, and so on. But it still wasn’t enough money to live on.

My family in Chicago had none to spare, nor did my friends, for many of them were unemployed, too. Maybe they couldn’t loan me money, but they could help me out with other basic needs? I decided to put my requests on Facebook. After all, God had said, “Ask, and Ye Shall Receive,” right? I couldn’t afford to pay for heat in my apartment; a friend loaned me her space heater. My cabinets were bare; friends gave me food. (I would also go to the grocery stores for free samples; I had each store’s free sample days memorized.) My laptop died (not good for a writer); a friend loaned me one for “however long you need.” I got a flat tire; a stranger fixed it for free. I couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas for the first time in ten years; my L.A. friends hosted a dinner for me. My cell phone broke; Verizon discovered that my plan was up and I could get a new phone for just thirty dollars. The list goes on and on, all in the same few weeks.

I kept job-hunting, but to no avail. Finally, I remembered my roommate was up in Mammoth, snowboarding. That was it – ski resorts were probably hiring! I immediately applied and got hired.

Everything L.A. is, Mammoth is not. In L.A., my life is all about working 60-80 hours per week, networking, trying to get hired as a writer, and no longer having to work 60-80 hours as an assistant… which leaves very little time for the key component to being a writer: writing. In Mammoth, I only had to work around twenty hours a week, didn’t have any entertainment people to network with, and had all the writing time in the world. In L.A., “the industry” is entertainment. In Mammoth, “the industry” is snowboarding (or “riding,” as they call it, which I kept mishearing as “writing”). In L.A., I see the beach from my apartment. In Mammoth, I’d see mounds of snow. In L.A., I drove everywhere. In Mammoth, I didn’t (my MINI Cooper didn’t like the snow). In L.A., my roommates and I had WiFi. In Mammoth, we didn’t. I learned to rely on face-to-face interaction, something we tend to forget about in big cities, where texting someone is easier, even if the person is just in the next cubicle.

Soon, I learned to enjoy the simple life, to take in and appreciate the beauty of the mountains around me. I started to not fret over things I did in L.A. – mainly work and guys; I just focused on the thing I love most: writing. I spent every free moment working on a book, and finished it by the time I left seven weeks later.

All was going well, until there was a snow and economic drought; everyone’s work hours were reduced. Just my luck. I went from working 28 hours a week to eight. So much for the idea of going to work at a ski resort. Now how would I pay my rent?

I realized the only thing I could do to save money was give up my apartment I so loved by the beach. All day, I prepared my “Sorry, but I have to move out” speech for my roommates.

I decided it was time for some inspiration, to finally read “The Secret.” I would read a chapter every night. Tonight, I was on the money chapter, which encouraged you to think positively about wealth, even when you don’t seem to be making any money. To pretend you have money, even when you don’t. To pretend your bills are paychecks written out to you, and so forth.

I drove back to L.A. that night and found a stack of mail – all bills. Except for a greeting card-looking envelope. I went into my room, to rehearse my moving out speech once more, and looked at the card’s return address. It was from a writer I knew, David, who was like the father I never knew growing up. Also one who had tried to kill himself a year prior. At that time, he had been obsessed with Starbucks CDs; he said he couldn’t believe that his morning cup of coffee always ended up costing him twenty dollars instead of two. And what do you say to someone who tries to commit suicide, anyway? So I made him a card, telling him how happy I was that he was alive, bought him the latest Starbucks CD, and popped it into the mail. A few weeks later, he thanked me, and we have sent emails to each other about once a month since.

Now, I opened up David’s card immediately, hoping he was all right, for he was not particularly a letter-writing type. I read the card, “Merry Christmas, sweet girl. I hope you have a good holiday. I miss you! Love, David.” I was touched. As I reread the card, a check fluttered out of the envelope. I got tears in my eyes: it was the exact amount of my rent. I wouldn’t have to give my moving out speech, after all. I didn’t know if the note from David was karma, faith, God, “The Secret,” a Guardian Angel, my biological father in heaven…? Whoever it was, I thank you. I immediately had renewed faith that all would be okay. The odd thing was, as I looked at the postmark, I noticed that David had mailed the check over two weeks ago; it had gone to my previous apartment first. And, now, I received it the same day I needed it most. I hoped the same would happen with a new job.

The next day, I got a phone call from a friend who had seen my status on Facebook, which read: “Natalia will be sleeping on your couch soon if she doesn’t find a job.” My friend said to call her friend right away about a new TV show. I interviewed, and got it.

Being unemployed was not fun, but it did re-instill my faith in the goodness of people. It also reminded me to continue to have faith in myself, even when it seems like all is lost (like a ski resort without snow). And the good news is, faith is free.

*******************************************************************

Funny about that Facebook couch status, huh? :)

Money, Money, Money…

When I couldn’t sleep the other night, I thought it was a sign that right when I turned on my couch host’s 500-some-channel TV, Suze Orman’s Money Class came on.

Everyday people from the audience asked her all kinds of questions – When should I start saving for my child’s college education? (Her child was less than a year old. Suze advised the woman to check out savingforcollege.com.) My girlfriend and I are moving in together, she makes twice as much as I do, how should we split the rent? (Suze advise that if he and his girlfriend have different incomes, they should contribute the same percentage toward their rent versus the same amount.) And the good old, I have almost $100,000 in student debt and am thinking of filing for bankruptcy to get rid of it. What do you think?

Of course, this last question was the one most relevant to my financial situation and to many of my friends’ as well. Suze told the teary-eyed man that even if he filed for bankruptcy, it would not take care of his student loan debt. Rather, interest would continue to accrue and he’d be in even more financial trouble later. (I think this is a common – and scary – myth, people thinking bankruptcy will erase their student loans.)

As many of you know from this CNNMoney article about my couch-surfing that ran a few months ago, I have a lot of student loan debt. A LOT. As of April, it teetered around nearly $100,000.

Like the man, I wanted to cry. (I think more from shock than anything else.) But as I figured out a payment plan and solution, instead of seeing the debt as a burden, I saw it as an opportunity. (After all, if I had not lost my job in 2009, I would not have given up my apartment and started couch-surfing, which is an incredibly fascinating/rewarding/too-many-things-to-mention-here experience that I would not trade for anything.)

When people ask me why I still do not have an apartment, I remind them that I do pay rent – but to a collection agency; the Department of Education is my landlord. (They obviously had no home to garnish, just wages, so setting up a monthly rehabilitation payment plan was my only option, which was scary for someone who freelances, especially at times when my freelance jobs ebb more than they flow.)

As ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” song (from the mid-‘70s, mind you) says: “I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay/Ain’t it sad/And there still never seems to be a single penny left for me/That’s too bad…”

Yes, it is too bad for the millions of us who are under- and unemployed, wondering when we will be out of debt, when we don’t have to worry about every penny, when we will no longer have to work three jobs for the price of one.

We all know people in this situation: ourselves, friends who have lost their homes or downsized, Boomerang Kids who have moved back in with their families… And as Suze said on her show, we used to live beyond our means and now we are living below our means; our pleasure in saving money needs to exceed our pleasure of spending money; and don’t let one dollar go to waste.

It’s all about adjusting our attitudes, I think. That’s all we can do, right?

I know it’ll still take months – years – to pay off my loans, but after doing so for several months now, I have to say it is a very satisfying feeling. Instead of being depressed about the insane amount of money I still owe, I get excited about all the money I no longer owe.

We just have to make the most of it in this economy, even if the most seems like very little. But if we add up all the “very little”s, they amount to a lot. Someday, to $98,122.30.