Friday, 26 October 2012

26/10/12 - Student Loans

I received a letter from the Student Loans Company last week. It said ‘Important information – you’ve almost finished paying back your student loan!’
I wasn’t entirely convinced. I have a deep, contemptuous distrust of the Student Loans Company, and take any apparently good news from them – indeed, any communication whatsoever – with a hefty fistful of salt.
A phone call to the SLC revealed that ‘you’ve almost finished’ wasn’t entirely accurate; what they should have said was ‘you will have finished paying back your student loan in January 2014, which is fifteen months from now’.
The reason they were writing in such a chipper tone was that they wanted me to switch my payments to Direct Debit, rather than having them come straight out of my salary every month, which has been happening for as long as I can remember. Otherwise, in their words, I ‘will definitely overpay’. This isn’t something that’s my or my employer’s fault, but would occur because of the inherent shitness of the SLC’s accounting system: they send one letter a year, in October, telling you how much you still owed them back in April. That’s the full extent of anyone’s interaction with them. So they’re basically saying that I need to switch to a Direct Debit now, to stop them sending me a letter in October 2014 that says ‘oops, you’ve accidentally overpaid by hundreds and hundreds of pounds – you can have this back next April, or possibly next October’. Obviously any interest I felt like charging them for holding my money throughout this period would be ignored – the vast charges only work in one direction.

I’m very grumpy about paying back the student loan at all, to be honest. Yes, I did borrow it and spend it and it’s only fair that I give it back, but it all seems so ridiculous now. I wouldn’t have minded if the repayments had been slightly higher to begin with, and I wouldn’t have complained if they’d started taking it from me when I got my first post-uni full-time job (in a warehouse, with a £12k salary – my mum was proud) instead of waiting until I’d crossed their arbitrary income threshold when I was, effectively, still equally poor. Because at least I might have paid the bloody thing off by now. It’s a millstone. I graduated a decade ago. A decade! I can’t even remember what I bloody spent it on.

Actually, yes I can. I spent it on these things:

Cars
Obviously, I spent a lot of it on cars. But not buying loads of different cars, that didn’t start in earnest until after I graduated.
I’d sold my car - a metallic orange 1982 Ford Escort 1.3L five-door, resplendent in XR3i spoilers, rally spots and Orion pepperpots - shortly before going to university. This was on the advice of my uncle Alan, who said ‘you won’t need a car at university – you’ll always be too drunk to drive it. Sell it, and use the money to buy beer’. He’d never steered me wrong before, so I trusted him. But it turned out to be bollocks – cars are a) useful and b) ace. Having driven myself down to Portsmouth in my mum’s mkIV Escort estate with all my stuff in the back, it was a pain in the arse to then have to drive back to Kent, give her car back and then get the train down to uni. It was also really annoying to have to bring my groceries home on the bus every week, this being way before the days of friendly home grocery deliveries. Plus I just really like driving.
So the next term, when my mum had replaced her Escort with a Peugeot 309, I borrowed it to take to university… and just never gave it back. It was a 1990 309 1.6 GL (oooh, posh), and I didn’t hesitate to spend vast swathes of my student loan on GTI alloys, spoilers and bumpers, as well as blowing pretty much every penny I had on making it the lowest 309 in town. (This is actually relatively easy to achieve with Peugeots of this era – they have torsion bar suspension at the rear, so you just need to wind them down a few splines. [I wound it down all the way so that it was sitting on the bump stops; there effectively wasn’t any suspension at the back.] The expensive part was finding shocks and springs short enough to have it equally low at the front, so that it didn’t look like I was driving round with a bag of cement in the boot.) Then there was the stainless steel exhaust, the beefy stereo… loads of money poured into my mum’s car to ensure that she wouldn’t want to drive it. It worked. She signed the V5 over to me. That’s how you do it, kids. The way to get a free car is to, er, spend way more than the value of the car on monkeying around with someone else’s, until they find it too embarrassing to drive.

CDs and videos
I’ve always been a music collector. It seems somehow frivolous and inauthentic to seasoned vinyl enthusiasts to position yourself as a CD collector, but that is what I am; while my schoolchums used to read Match, CVG or Loaded, I could generally be found leafing through Record Collector magazine, cross-referencing their listings with the latest Xeroxed price lists I’d had mailed from dealers like Esprit and SisterRay, sniffing out obscure Bluetones demos, Kula Shaker white-labels and Wildhearts bootlegs. And this all spiralled out of any sense of reason when I went to university. Every Monday morning I used to get up (it was actually the only day of the week where I would get up in the morning, if I remember rightly) and stroll into town to check out the new releases at HMV. I’d buy the latest albums by any band that I liked, plus a number that sounded like they might be good – usually somewhere between five and ten albums a week. In hindsight, this was a fucking expensive habit. It would have been significantly cheaper if I’d got into heroin. But, of course, I wouldn’t then have found myself at the age of thirty with a frickin’ shamazing CD collection. When I’ve paid off my student loan, I’ll still have that. Brilliant.
I bought a lot of movies on VHS as well. This didn’t turn out to be such a good idea. The years have not been kind to video-tape as a medium. Having gradually replaced them all with DVDs, I couldn’t even sell the videos when I tried a few years ago. I gave them all to a charity shop in Redhill. They’re probably still there.

Questionable clothes
Fashion is, I’m afraid, not my business. I usually just stick with a hoodie, jeans and skate shoes because I like baggy clothes and that makes me sort of anonymous. It’s become my signature look by default, just because I can’t be arsed to put any thought into what I wear. My favourite jacket is an Adidas track top I bought second-hand when I was seventeen – it still sees regular use. Looking cool or fashionable or trendy has never been something that’s occupied a great deal of my time, because I don’t really understand it.
…I had a go at it when I was a student, though. Picture me in a pair of the widest, most ostentatious flares you can imagine, paired with a green top with ‘suck my discotheque’ written on it in huge blue letters, and a pair of shimmering gold Nike Air Max. What a tit. A lot of that kind of thing went on.

Drinkin’
Obviously, this is where the bulk of all student money goes. During Freshers Week I signed up for as many clubs and societies as I could in order to meet people and whatever, and didn’t actually get beyond Freshers Week with most of them. The Ultimate Frisbee Club, for example – I went out with them the night before my first ever lecture; there’s a dim recollection of lying on a bar with someone pouring a bottle of Smirnoff Blue Label into my mouth with a funnel, and then I woke up the next day in all my clothes with crisps in my shoes. I never actually went and played frisbee. But I can tell people that I began my university career by running out of my first lecture to be sick.
It was the Snakey B Challenge that really did it for the overdraft. The student union (which was just a weird old wooden building from the sixties in my first year, but was replaced by some ultra-futuristic multi-level über-club for the second year) sold snakebite & black for £1.50 a pint. This, if you’ve not tried it, is half a pint of lager mixed with half a pint of cider, with a squirt of blackcurrant squash in it – some call it Snakey B, some call it Red Beer. Guaranteed fally-over juice. The rules of the Snakey B Challenge were simple: to drink ten pints of snakebite & black over the course of a night out without throwing up or passing out. It got easier over time, but the potential for sabotage was huge; the drunker an opponent was, the less likely they were to notice that you’d slipped a couple of shots of blackcurrant schnapps into their pint. And so our livers eroded.
We weren’t totally irresponsible though. We always had a keen eye on value. There was a club on the grandly-titled Winston Churchill Avenue that was called ‘Uropa’ – on a Tuesday night, you’d pay £7 entry with all drinks included all night. All-you-can-drink (or was it drink-as-much-as-you-can?) for seven pounds? No-one can argue with the logic of that.
You can imagine what sort of quality the drinks were. The next morning would be spent scraping the chunky fuzz off our teeth with screwdrivers. Although that may also have had something to do with the vast ropey pizzas we’d get from Ken’s Kebabs on the way home. A 15” pizza for £4.50? No, I don’t care if the “meat” is local cats…

Ah, good times. I guess it was all worth it. And there’s only another fifteen huge payments to go!

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