‘My face hurt from smiling’: After 20 years, this artist got $60,000 in student loan debt forgiven

Wendee Goles

Courtesy: Wendy Goles

In July, Wendee Goles saw headlines that the Biden administration planned to cancel the student loans of more than 800,000 people. Even though she seemed to fit the description of eligible borrowers — those who had made payments for decades through an income-driven repayment plan — she didn’t get her hopes up.

Ever since Goles graduated from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago in the early 2000s, her student debt was a constant source of anxiety. Her original loan balance of around $50,000 had only grown over the years because she wasn’t able to make consistent payments. Even when she tried to, the interest still accrued faster. Along the way, she got confusing information from her loan servicers, and her lender was always changing.

Goles resigned herself to the fact that her education debt, and its myriad consequences, would always be a part of her life.

“I knew I was going to take this debt to my grave,” said Goles, 53, a painter and educator.

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But on Aug. 18, when she signed into her loan account, she was in shock: Her balance had gone from $60,000 to $0.

“It was incredible,” Goles said. “My face hurt from smiling.”

The Biden administration announced this summer that it would automatically forgive $39 billion in federal student debt for hundreds of thousands of borrowers. The news, separate from President Joe Biden’s proposed sweeping forgiveness plan that was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, was a result of fixes to the lending system’s income-driven repayment plans. Under those plans, people are supposed to get their loans forgiven after 20 years or 25 years of payments, but in many cases that wasn’t happening.

The debt relief grants many borrowers, like Goles, a chance to see another way of living.

Balancing life dreams and monthly bills

Goles has a studio in the basement of her house in Villa Park, Illinois, where she works anywhere from five hours to five months on a single painting. Her favorite piece is the one she did of her father, who died in 2019. “I captured something in him that was very special to me,” she said. “It’ll never be for sale.” Her paintings have been privately commissioned and appeared in galleries.

She began drawing at 13 and never stopped, eventually moving to painting, puppetry and set design.

Artist Wendee Goles’ painting of her father, Greg, from 2008. He died in 2019.

Artist: Wendee Goles

“I don’t think I can focus in life except for that,” she said. “It takes me somewhere else.”

Still, Goles’ monthly student loan bill, which was last around $450, meant that she always had to balance trying to make it as an artist and raising two children with working other jobs.

For close to 20 years, she waited tables. She currently works as a sales representative at a manufacturing company.

“Job stress was always a big deal,” she said.

I feel like I’m just starting my life.

Whenever Goles found herself with extra cash, she threw it at her student debt. Her balance seemed only to rise, and so some relatives suggested she just stop paying it. But she was scared of the risks. Goles knew she wanted to be able to help her children financially as they got older. “I didn’t want my credit to be affected,” she said. At times, she put thousands toward her student debt in one payment.

As a result, most of her life she never had any savings. “It was scary,” she said. “Jobs come and go.”

When medical bills for the family came in, she only sent back partial payments. And so her student debt led to medical debt.

When her husband lost his job a little before 2008, it was an especially hard time. (They eventually couldn’t afford their house and had to move.) She put her student debt into forbearance, and it grew faster from interest.

Student debt ‘factored into every decision’

Goles’ painting of a fisherman.

Artist: Wendee Goles

The debt was constantly on her mind.

“It factored into every decision I made,” Goles said. “How much can I spend on groceries? Can we go on vacation?”

Although it was hard to believe at first, she’s finally coming around to the idea that she doesn’t have student debt any more.

She and her husband recently celebrated by getting dinner at a fancy restaurant, where they ordered steaks and mango margaritas.

“I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I think is, ‘I don’t have a student loan,’ and I cry,” Goles said.

In the following months, however, a more somber truth has set in.

She can only start salting away money now, in her 50s. At this point, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to retire.

She’s also thought about how much her student debt and the job stress she faced limited her as an artist. Often, she didn’t have enough cash to buy certain art supplies. On many nights, when she got home from waiting tables, she was too tired to paint.

“I feel like I’m just starting my life,” Goles said.

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