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Sarah Pool tries not to think about the monster outside her door.

The one who demands every extra cent she earns. The one she keeps trying to appease, but fears she will never be free of.

Three years ago, when she finished her master’s degree, Sarah’s student loans totaled $60,000. She has paid steadily ever since and now owes $69,000 — more than twice the annual income she earns working as a children’s librarian.

“I keep paying,” the 31-year-old says. “But it’s like pouring into a bucket with no bottom.”

Before 2014

  • Undergrad degree in English from Malone University in Canton, Ohio
  • Hoped to start a career where she could put her education to use, but had to settle for a job at a yarn-dyeing plant.
  • Then worked part time as a library page and supplemented her income with shifts at a coffee shop.
  • Then came the positive pregnancy test, at 25, and the realization that she had to do better. Her undergraduate degree didn’t seem to be getting her anywhere, so she enrolled in graduate school to get a master’s in education at nearby Mary Baldwin University.
  • Went to school part time and continued to work at the library and coffee shop. Her boyfriend took care of their baby, Max, during the day and worked at a bakery overnight. Student loans took care of tuition, books and leftover living expenses.
Sarah Pool. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post; iStock illustration)
Sarah Pool. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post; iStock illustration)

Life with a master’s degree

Sarah graduated with a 3.95 grade-point average, that $60,000 bill and, after a terrible student-teaching experience, the sinking feeling that teaching wasn’t for her. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have I done?’ ” she remembers. A few months later, Sarah and her boyfriend broke up. The debt, and all of Max’s expenses, were on her.

After stints as a teaching assistant and working on a bookmobile, Sarah was hired full time as a library assistant in a neighboring town. Within 18 months she was promoted twice and is now a children’s librarian, presiding over toddler story times and teen reading groups.

“I love my job because I feel like I help people. And it’s tangible,” says Sarah, who speaks softly as she brushes away her wavy hair to reveal a “Where the Wild Things Are” pin attached to her gray cardigan.

Sarah would not have this job, she knows, if she didn’t have an advanced degree. Yet she has a hard time convincing herself that it was worth the price she continues to pay.

Sarah is on an income-based repayment plan and pays about $280 a month. Without that income-based plan, she’d be paying $780.

She feels perpetually on the edge of peril — one car breakdown away from disaster.

  • Sarah buys clothes for herself and Max almost exclusively at Goodwill.
  • They don’t have WiFi at home — only movies from the library for entertainment.
  • No meals out or weekend getaways.
  • When Sarah fantasizes about the future, what she dreams about is being able to pay more than the monthly minimum on her student loans.


She has learned the hard way to bring up the topic of debt sooner, rather than later, on dates. It has scared men off in the past, and she wants them to understand the dictating factor in her bare-bones lifestyle. Some hit the door right away. Others casually mention that they owe just as much or even more. Then Sarah starts thinking about their student loans combined.

“That’s over $100,000,” she’ll calculate. “That’s a lot of money. ‘I’m glad you get it, but . . ..’ ”

The program

The glimmer of hope Sarah clings to is her enrollment in a public service student loan forgiveness program that would clear her remaining debt if she puts in seven more years of work with the government and continues to make payments on time. But she’s heard horror stories of borrowers being disqualified from the program — which is available to people who work for the government or certain nonprofits after they have paid their loans on time for 10 years — because of a paperwork error. And she’s terrified the program will be quietly eliminated. (President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal did suggest cutting it for new borrowers but would still forgive debts of people currently enrolled.)

Not having the program, she says, would “kind of end my life. I‘ll be paying student loans until I’m dead, basically. Which is really scary.”

The upsides

Sarah applied for a mortgage for a house just over $100,000.

“And I still don’t really understand how I got approved,” Sarah says while sitting on a hand-me-down couch in that house, which now belongs to her.

Though there aren’t any luxuries, Sarah says she and Max don’t lack anything they really need. When she can block out anxiety about the debt, what Sarah feels, mostly, is lucky. She lives in a town that feels like home, has a job she loves and is the mother of a healthy, happy, charismatic little boy.

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