Monthly Archives: May 2014

What I Learned in Washington


I was lucky enough to go on a true adventure last week.  I accompanied a group representing the Pennsylvania Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators to Washington, DC to talk with various groups about issues of concern to the financial aid community.  We met with staff from several Pennsylvania Representatives, and also met in person with Representatives Charles Dent and Glenn Thompson. In addition to these meetings, we also met with staff from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, as well as a representative from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  These last three I mentioned were perhaps the most valuable meetings, as they had as many questions for us as we had for them.  Talking with the people in the trenches, dealing with real students, is quite valuable for these folks and they were happy to pick our brains a bit.

While the other aid administrators in my group were focused on things like Pell grants, my focus was strictly on the income-driven loan repayment plans and the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) plan. The Pay as You Earn (PAYE) loan repayment option and the PSLF plan have been under the microscope a bit too much for my comfort lately.  These programs have been tagged by both sides of the political fence as being unsustainably expensive…though there is no real proof that that is the case.  President Obama’s most recent budget proposal called for capping the amount forgivable under PSLF at $57,500, as well as increasing the number of years required for non-public service loan forgiveness under PAYE from 20 to 25.  A recent Senate tax reform proposal called for making amounts forgiven under PSLF taxable.  Assorted other changes have been tossed around as well.  Thankfully every one of these proposals has been tied to legislation that is doomed not to move forward.  But once something is placed on “the list” of things that can be looked to for budget cuts, it is in danger of change.  It was my mission in DC to remind the decision makers that these programs were created in order to make it possible for student loan borrowers to be able to afford to choose a career in public service work.  I sat in various offices on Capitol Hill and explained how important it is for students to be able to choose their loan repayment option based on their chosen career path, rather than letting their amount of student loan debt choose the path of their career.

The reactions I received were a pleasant surprise.  I did not encounter anyone who wants PSLF to be taken away.  And of the eight Representatives’ staffs we met with, only Rep. Dent expressed strong feelings about wanting to make changes to the PSLF program.  I find this encouraging for the future of this program.  Maintaining the PSLF program protects career choice for prosecutors, public defenders, government workers, and public interest attorneys.  The other positive response was in regard to grandfathering existing borrowers if future changes to these programs should come.  The general consensus on the Hill is that if changes do happen to these programs in the future, those who have already borrowed student loans relying on the existence of these programs should not be subject to any changes—the changes should start with new borrowers as of a certain future date.

It was a whirlwind tour of Capitol Hill.  And I don’t know if I made any difference at all.  But I definitely feel a bit better knowing that I gave it a good effort.  And I definitely feel a bit more confident about the future of these federal student loan programs that I care about.  Change may come.  But I’m feeling like my current students and alumni are going to come out just fine.

How Much is OK to Spend on Hobbies?

As you may already know, one of my favorite hobbies is performing in community theater musical productions.  Just yesterday I closed a production of Sweeney Todd at Altoona Community Theatre.  And all that time on the road between State College and Altoona got me thinking about hobbies and how much money we spend on them.

This particular theater production racked up a pretty hefty tab for me. $5 for sheet music for the perfect audition song.  $30 for the right pair of period-appropriate shoes for my ridiculously small feet that no theater group ever has shoes to fit.  $20 for a makeup kit.  $12 for a commemorative Sweeney Todd t-shirt.  $5 toward a gift for the directors.  Probably $50 in convenience foods that I wouldn’t have purchased were I not in a show and super busy.  And then there’s gasoline.  I’ve driven my car more than 2,500 miles just going back and forth to rehearsals (an average of four 80 mile round trips per week for the last two months).  And even in my Prius that works out to more than $200 in gasoline.  So in the course of two months I have spent in excess of $300 on a hobby.

I take some comfort in the fact that this particular hobby is sporadic for me.  This is the only show I’m planning to be in this year, so $300 a year on a hobby doesn’t sound nearly as horrifying as $150 a month.  But it’s still not something I would be able to attempt if I were working on a smaller budget.  I feel fortunate to be able to sink my money and time into something I love.

So how much is ok to spend on your hobbies?  That depends largely on how much income you have and how much your other expenses are.  Any hobby can be as expensive or inexpensive as you allow it to be.  If your hobby is following a sports team, that can be as cheap as watching games on TV or as expensive as buying season tickets to watch every game in person.  If your hobby is exercise, that can be as cheap as one pair of running shoes or as expensive as purchasing your own home gym.

Every hobby has a low and a high price point.  The trick is to recognize where within that range you can afford to fall…and to make sure that’s where you stay.