Monday, November 4, 2013

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Student Loans vs. Home Ownership: (How I became a home owner through the help of my wife)Part I

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I met with a mortgage broker named Jason in November of 2012. His office was on the east side of our small Oregon town. We’d been living in Oregon for about six months when Mel and I decided to try and buy a house. Jason came highly recommended by our real-estate agent, a bubbly bleached blond woman whose age I couldn’t seem to determine. She could have been anywhere from 35 to 45. But she seemed competent and was easy to talk to and I respected her opinion.
Jason was a stout man with broad shoulders and a round stomach. He stood about five foot ten, and seemed uncomfortable in a shirt and tie. He often tugged at his collar or the front of his shirt as though he was negotiating for more room.
I was there alone. Mel was at home with the kids. We could have found a sitter, I’m sure, but meeting with a montage broker seemed like something I was supposed to do alone.
Each wall of his office was decorated with framed bills of different denominations: $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. I recall looking around his office and thinking, who the hell does this guy think he is? Decorating his office with money? I even commented on it.
“Your office is decorated with money,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, straight-faced. “I like money.”
No shit, I thought.

What I liked about him, though, was that he was straight poop, the kind of man that didn’t mince words or laugh much when I tried to make a joke during our introduction. He flat out said, “By the time you leave this office you will know if I can get you into a house. I don’t like to waste people’s time, because time is money.”
And I didn’t like my time or my money wasted. At least not by other people. I will admit that I am really good at wasting my own money on soda and fast food. If a dictator took over America and his first order was that all Americans could only drink Mountain Dew, I would celebrate that man. And time, I am good at wasting that, too. TV, Internet, gazing at nothing and thinking about something. But I didn’t like other people doing that for me. And frankly, shopping for a house felt like a huge waste of time and money.
Mel really wanted one. And I did, too. But I didn’t think it was going to happen. I’d been in college for nearly a decade, so I was saddled with a surprising amount of student loan debt, a little over $70,000. More money than I would ever make in a year with a fine arts degree. I recived a notice in the mail from Fed Loan Serving just before graduation that showed how much I owed. After I added it all up, I went through a few different emotional states in a very short amount of time:
Shock: Damn! That’s a lot of money.
Fear: My kids are going to starve.
Anger: What the hell was I thinking getting a Fine Arts degree?
Sorrow: This is hopeless. I’m never going to pay this off!
Suicidal Thoughts: If it’s an accident, the government will pay off my loans.
Determination: To hell with it. I’ll find a way!
I didn’t show Mel the letter for several months. I kept it hidden in my backpack, stuck in a copy of Contemporary American Poetry. Every once in a while I’d take out the letter, go though the same emotions again, and then put it back. To Mel’s credit, once I did show it to her, she blew past all other emotions and landed on determination. 

Poetry: the cause of, and solution too, all of my financial troubles.

“Wow!” She said. “ That's a lot of money. We’ll find a way.”
She said, “We’ll find a way,” while I thought, “I’ll find a way.” She often saw our financial struggles as a team effort, while I had the problem of seeing it as a lone effort.
While in college, I’d gotten really good at not thinking about how much debt I was taking out, denying it too myself, and dreaming of the huge royalty checks that were surely heading my way once I published my first book (which has still yet to happen). But once the debt was all added up and staring me in the face, I really didn’t know what to do. From what I hear, student loans are the plague of my generation.
I suppose this is the reason I found Jason’s straightforward disposition so refreshing. I was tired of lying to myself and I liked the idea of someone giving me the truth. I felt confident he wouldn’t lie to me about my chances of getting into a house.
My financial life was all on Jason’s desk. I felt naked. My faculty contract with Oregon State University, my adjunct teaching contracts with Ashford University (where I taught online to make extra money), my tax return, my bank statements, my student loan statements, and my apartment contract.
He looked over them; his lips were puckered, face half confused, half thoughtful. On the computer was a copy of our credit report, and he often referred to it. And I will be honest, at the time I didn’t even know how much I made a year between my two jobs. Money, numbers, have always confused the hell out of me. They get jumbled up in my head. Before I met Mel, I kept all my money in labeled envelopes: $40 gas, $200 rent, $30 fun, and so on. I needed to keep things tangible, just like when I was a kid and had to act out my math problems with real apples.
When Mel and I were dating, I showed her my budgeting system with pride, and she laughed a little.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothing. Nothing. It’s just. Here, let me show you Excel.”
She has managed our money ever since. 
Clint's Envelope Budgeting System

I explained to Jason that my loans were in Income Based Repayment. It was a new payment plan put out by the Federal Government. “More or less,” I said “I only pay 15% of my income towards my loans. Each year I have to reapply, show them my taxes, and they give me a new payment schedule.”
Jason nodded. He’d been looking at my paper work for about 20 minutes, asking me questions about this or that. Finally, he said, “I have no doubt that you can afford a house in the low one hundred thousand range. But I don’t see how I could convince an underwriter of that. I’m sorry.”
He started to explain why, and my face flushed. I felt like I was in a glass box, a feeling I often get when I fail a test or do something stupid at work and receive a scolding from my boss. Jason was talking, and all I could do was think about how I was failing at life and at fatherhood. I felt like this dream of becoming a writer (the dream I’d been chasing with seven years of college) combined with my inability to be pragmatic and look at the fact that I was obtaining very few marketable skills, while taking out large amounts of debt, was finally catching up with me. I’d been chasing a foolish dream.
Part of my anxiety was based on the fact that there is a lot of pressure in the Mormon faith for a man to be the only provider. For the wife to be at home: the traditional nuclear family. But I don’t know if I’d ever felt that pressure as strongly as I did while sitting across from a mortgage broker. I’d never really thought much about getting a house, security, having nice things, until after college. For the past several years I’d been focused on the one goal, obtaining my gradate degree. But there, in in the mortgage broker’s office, as he told me that I couldn’t get a home loan, I felt a great pressure on the chest. Almost like an elephant squatted down on it.  Jason kept talking, telling me that I needed a bigger down payment, or a co-signer, or my wife could get a job, or at least a full year of projected payments on my loans (I only had ten months). Perhaps a combination of these things. And sadly, I almost cried, right there. I felt like a piss poor provider because I couldn’t accomplish a critical part of the American Dream: home ownership. 

You would also enjoy Confessions Of A Stay At Home Dad.  

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.