This weekend, Lee Siegel wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, explaining why he defaulted on his student loans. He didn’t default because he faced devastating personal circumstances – he just decided not to pay them. Apparently, they got in the way of his hopes and dreams of writing idiotic and narcissistic diatribes. The worst part? He thinks that other young people should follow his advice.
You should absolutely NOT follow his advice, which is both incredibly stupid and incredibly dangerous. While Siegel gave few legitimate reasons why should default on your loans, I’d like to offer quite a few reasons why you shouldn’t. And further, quite a few reasons why the New York Times should be ashamed it published this Op-Ed.
- There is no shame in being practical
As Siegel puts it, the decision to default on his loans came very much down to his decision to become a writer:
“Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.
I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.”
The last time I checked, Siegel’s writing hadn’t saved any lives, nor was becoming a writer dependent on formal education. I don’t believe that Siegel needed three degrees from Columbia – a B.A., M.A., and masters of philosophy from Columbia University – to become a writer. I’m certainly getting through this blog post just fine without them. Had he not pursued worthless degrees, Siegel probably wouldn’t have accrued the debt he did.
Not everyone needs multiple fancy degrees – in fact, I’d argue that very few Americans do. There’s nothing wrong with spending part of your college career at a community college before transferring, or attending a state school that is more affordable. There’s also nothing wrong with going to vocational school, or pursuing a degree that can actually get you a job.
Plenty of lawyers who are currently employed as bartenders might be wishing they’d taken that advice instead of Siegel’s advice to follow your dreams at any cost.
I feel I can say this since I’m one of those people who chose the practical route. Don’t get me wrong – I would have majored in finance regardless – but I was extra happy about my decision when I had a full-time job offer in my hand a full year before I graduated.
And unlike the fate Siegel unfairly asserts on me, I love my career in finance. Although he claims careers in finance lead to “self-disgust and lifelong unhappiness, destroying a precious young life,” I can happily report that my self-worth remains intact and my young soul remains fully un-crushed.
- Defaulting on your student loans will cost you big time
Siegel claims, “When the fateful day comes, and your credit looks like a war zone, don’t be afraid. The reported consequences of having no credit are scare talk, to some extent.”
This might just be the stupidest thing I have ever read. The consequences of bad credit are both very scary and very real. Do you want to buy a car or a house without paying exorbitant interest fees? Fat chance if your credit score is bad. You’d be lucky to even get the loan at all.
And defaulting on your student loans is the quickest way to ruin your credit. Unlike just about all other forms of debt, you can’t get rid of your student loans by filing for bankruptcy. Once you sign for the loan you’re stuck with it. Your best option is to arrange for a repayment schedule that adjusts payments based on your income.
That also means that refusing to pay back those loans initiates some serious consequences. The longer you wait to repay your loans, the more interest will accrue – in Siegel’s case the loans and penalties are now add up to more than the original loan. And the federal government can take up to 15 percent of your wages to get your student loan money back. Not to mention, it can withhold your tax refund and Social Security too.
Siegel also conveniently overlooks the cost that defaulting on your loans has on others. Do you know why you can’t get out of student loans in bankruptcy? Because too many people, like Siegel, were choosing not to pay them back!
But choosing to default on your loans doesn’t just hurt students and taxpayers; it hurts your loved ones. Siegel’s mom co-signed the loans with him, which means she’s just as responsible for paying for them. Since she passed away, Siegel doesn’t have to mention his mother’s terrible financial situation and worthless credit that his own irresponsibility caused.
Siegel’s great advice for dealing with bad credit is to marry someone with good credit. In other words, he thinks you should take advantage of and place all of the financial burdens on the person you “love.” If that’s not the sign of an unstable marriage, I don’t what is.
- It’s just wrong
Siegel seems to think he has taken a moral high-ground with his refusal to pay back his loans. As he says, “but I have found, after some decades on this earth, that the road to character is often paved with family money and family connections, not to mention 14 percent effective tax rates on seven-figure incomes.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The road to character is paved with doing the right thing. And Siegel is doing the opposite. I find this particularly offensive, as Siegel is now the author of five books who lives in a ritzy suburb in New Jersey. He now falls into the category he lambasts, and is more than capable of paying what he owes. The fact that he chooses not to is not activism; it’s just wrong.
Siegel’s argument is essentially that he doesn’t think it’s fair to pay his loans, so he doesn’t. Following his logic, I could argue that I shouldn’t pay my taxes because I think it’s “unfair” that some of my tax dollars go to fund public schools when I don’t have any children. Do you know how many “unfair” things there are in the world? If all of us stopped doing the things we thought were unfair, society would stop functioning.
When it comes down to it, Siegel is not a financial savant or a crusader for student rights. He’s just a jerk. There are so many other (cheaper) options to pay for college, and to pay back your student loan debt. I’d be happy to work with you to figure them out. But there’s no excuse for following Siegel’s advice, and there’s no excuse for the New York Time’s decision to publish it.