We Make Six Figures But Student Loans and Daycare Are Keeping Us Broke

One in eight Americans has student loan debt, and over 40% have children under 18 living at home. We're in both camps, and we're broke.

An image of a crumpled dollar bill.
Photo: Getty Images.

Last month, I decided to create a spreadsheet of all the debts my family has. Between student loans, a credit card, a car payment, and some home repairs that we had to finance, I found out that my husband and I currently owe $131,985.17. This is, I admit, both better and worse than I thought it would be by this point in our lives.

Today, my husband and I are making more money than either one of us has ever made—and yet we're barely surviving. Our income should be more than enough to let anyone live a good life (after all, I somehow survived living in New York City in my early 20s barely making $30,000 a year) but we are currently broke due to our student loan debt and rising child care costs. And sadly, we're not the only ones.

As of 2021, one in eight Americans had student loan debt, according to the Department of Education. And over 40% of American families have children under 18 living with them. We're in both camps.

Living the DINK Lifestyle

When we first met, my husband brought $100,000 in student loans into our relationship. I also brought in a bunch of credit card debt from when I got sober the year prior. Shortly after, I had to buy a car—my first as an adult—and I incurred another $25,000 in debt for our household. Still, we were DINKs (people who had a dual income and no kids) and enjoyed the lifestyle that provided.

We paid our bills on time and were still able to travel plenty—both in and outside of our home state of Florida. In our first few years together, we went to Chicago five times, New York City three times, Mexico for a week, and New Orleans for my brother's birthday. We spent two weeks in Europe (The Netherlands and Germany), flew to Los Angeles to visit friends, took a honeymoon cruise to Havana, and went to Denver for Thanksgiving. We also took numerous short trips in our home state, going to Orlando three times, the Florida Keys twice, plus Miami Beach, Saint Augustine, and Sarasota.

We had a lot of debt, sure, but we were able to manage it on our six-figure combined income and still live a good life. We were even able to buy a house (primarily due to my parents' financial help) and save some money before we became parents in March 2020.

Having a Baby in a Pandemic

When we decided to have a baby at the beginning of 2019, my husband and I made a serious commitment to pay off our credit card debt. We traveled less and focused all of our extra income on paying our bills. We were able to get our credit card balance from $15,000 to $0 within six months.

We were proud of our achievement—and I was finally pregnant after a previous miscarriage. We spent the rest of 2019 saving money before our son's arrival. By the time 2020 began, I finally felt secure in our finances, so we opted to upgrade my car to better fit a car seat for our new baby.

By February 2020, we were ready for our child—the baby shower had come and gone, providing us with everything we needed for our little one. We had spent the months prior putting together the baby's room. And we'd even been able to continue saving money, even with our new car expense.

I thought we were in a great place as a family—and then the pandemic hit. Our child was born at the end of March 2020, just as the world was dealing with the first lockdown.

I spent those first few months of the pandemic on maternity leave, happy to have my baby safe with me. And because we weren't able to go anywhere, our savings miraculously began to grow again, despite the added expense of having a baby and needing to buy formula when I couldn't breastfeed fully. I consider us incredibly lucky to have two stable jobs that we love.

Then, my hours at work were cut by half when I returned from maternity leave—and it stayed that way for almost an entire year. And although my job eventually bounced back, we now had many more added expenses due to the baby continuing to grow and needing more.

Growing Income, Growing Expenses

A year into the pandemic, just after our baby turned 1 year old, my husband got an amazing job opportunity in Denver, Colorado—so we decided to move from Florida (where our families are) to this new state. Around the same time, my job went back to normal, so I assumed that we would go back to being on good financial footing. But, boy, was I wrong!

Moving cross-country is expensive, even when a new employer helps. We decided to buy a house in our new hometown because all of the rentals were, shockingly, more expensive than it would be to have a monthly mortgage. But, we had to drain our savings to make that purchase. And we now had to factor child care into our expenses, too—something which was not true for the first year of my son's life, thanks to my mom being able to watch him while I worked part-time.

Within a couple of months, we had a new mortgage, child care expenses, and credit card debt that quickly rose from $0 to $15,000 due to unexpected moving expenses like having to buy a new washer and dryer for our home. Additionally, we refinanced the student loan in early 2021—which halved our interest rate but doubled our payment. So, despite making good money in our jobs, we were now deeper in the financial hole than ever.

As a family that makes almost $150,000 combined, I thought we would be doing OK. But instead, we are broke and drowning in debt.

Between the student loan payment and our new child care expenses, we're paying $3,000 a month—which is just a bit more than our new mortgage payment. We also still have car payments, credit card debt, and a couple of crucial house repairs we had to finance. Every month, it feels like all we're doing is paying bill after bill after bill—while wondering when and if things will get better.

As a family that makes almost $150,000 combined, I thought we would be doing OK. But instead, we are broke and drowning in debt. 

Although the student loan has gone from $100,000 to $85,000 in the past five years, it feels like we're never going to be done with it. Meanwhile, I know that our $20,000 in daycare tuition is temporary (I mean, eventually, my child will go to public school, right?) but it feels like we're going to be paying that amount for a long, long time.

The Financial Toll on American Families

I know how lucky my family is. We had financial help from my parents to buy our first house. We make good salaries, and my husband's industry is pretty damn stable (even if writing, for me, isn't). Plus, our baby is healthy and safe—and we've all been able to maintain our mental health during this pandemic, if only just barely. But the financial toll that all of this is taking on us is a lot. The financial anxiety is ever-present. I'll be honest: I had a breakdown just before I decided to create that debt spreadsheet.

Very often, I worry about how we're going to be able to provide my child with a decent life when we can barely afford any kind of life at all. Once our own student loan debt is paid off, we'll have to begin saving for his college costs. And sure, someday he will be in public school and we will no longer be paying for his daycare, but I'm sure we will have plenty of other new expenses by then. For instance, both of our parents are close to retirement age, and I have no idea if they have prepared for it. Will it fall on me and my husband to help?

Unfortunately, this is the current state of the "American Dream" for so many millennial parents—stuck between a rock and a hard place as we deal with our own debt and rising child care costs while living paycheck to paycheck.

A 2019 Child Care Aware of America report stated that millennials spent 18% to 42% of their income on daycare. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends spending just 7%. Although I have hope that, someday, this will change—and the U.S. will adopt free college tuition and/or universal pre-K, I'm afraid that it will be too late to help families like mine.

So, in the meantime, the best I can do is try to keep my family afloat and hope that our work situations don't change. Yet, it often feels really hopeless to be a family that is doing well on paper but is broke in reality. And if our family is drowning, what about those that are less privileged?

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