Friday, July 31, 2015

Death to Sallie Mae: How Refinancing My Private Student Loans Made Me a Happier and Financially Responsible Person

This is basically a love letter to the student loan refinancing company Earnest. I don't like throwing money away, but I do love throwing it away at a way better rate (I shaved nearly 2 percentage points of my loans) over less time and not in the general direction of Sallie Mae/Navient, the Sauron of the sinister world of lending large sums of money to dumb 18 year kids (like me).
Me, six years ago...and now too, actually.
After six years of letting Sallie Mae ruin my life to a small degree, I have finally slain the dragon. No, I didn't pay off my $30,000 debt to a company that is effectively the Devil, but I did refinance my loans to a lower rate with a different company. Call yourself Navient all you want, you'll always be Sallie Mae to me. The same Sallie Mae who called me at 6AM on Sunday mornings via some swaggering bro telling me to pay up or have credit ruined. "How about I just walk in front of a bus?" I asked a representative on one of those early morning wake-up calls. The poor girl seemed rattled. It wasn't her fault. She was probably just working there to pay off her own private student loan debt.

Private Student Loan Debt is a monster. Unlike government student loan debt, there's no getting around it. It'll haunt you all your days. When you are 18 and desperate to get out of your parents house, it is very easy to snatch up the money that is effectively being freely given. Unless you are a savant, interest rates mean absolutely nothing and repayment is so far off (four years, five in my case) that it's very, very easy to ignore the fact that taking out a loan with a 9.75% interest rate means you'll be making interest only payments when you are working a minimum wage job because the economy sucks and you got a worthless English degree because you had it beaten into you that you had to go to college or somehow you were lesser.

You don't have to go to college. No one ever tells you that. But if you do, and you took out private loans and they're giving you that heavy feeling of hopelessness, all hope is not lost.

I tried refinancing my loans a year ago with Sofi. After hours of hoop-jumping and paperwork and faxing documents and a month of waiting to see whether I was approved or not, I got an email telling me that my application was denied due to my debt-to-income ratio. It's a Catch-22. I'm buried in private student loan debt, I don't get paid enough, and the only way out is to get a better interest rate so I can make some headway on paying off this loan but I can't get a better interest rate because I don't make enough money and all my money goes to paying off loans with a too-high interest rate that seems to spin its wheels. It was a nightmare.

I had five loans with Sallie Mae/Navient. The highest was a $6000 one with a 9.75% interest rate. I refinanced that one with Wells Fargo for a 7.5% which brought it in line with my other private loans (two with a 7.25% rate, two with a 6.5% rate). It wasn't optimal, but it gave me the sweet sweet taste of the prospect of casting off Sallie Mae for good. At this point I hated them so much I didn't care that I had so much debt, I just didn't want them to get my money. Surely, someone out there wanted to take my money. And then I stumbled across Earnest.

Having been burnt by a loan refinancing company prior, I was not hopeful. The application was much easier than Sofi's and it took less than an hour to get all the financials and documents lined up and sent off for approval. A couple days later I was approved and instructed to select how much I wanted to pay! Holy shit! You mean I can pay as much or as little (down to like $200) as I want? Get out of town! They have a nifty little widget that adjusts the rate you will get compared to the monthly payment you want to make. I spent hours agonizing over this. Do I continue paying $420 a month towards private loans like I have been doing since 2009 or does it now make financial sense to lower my payment a little and still pay off my loans faster than I would with Sallie Mae?
Hey what's with that penny, Navient? Is this going to be a big fat headache for me, trying to pay this penny off for the next six months? Are you gonna make me do a rush payment so that penny doesn't keep accruing interest? Seriously you people are the worst.
Ultimately, I lowered my payment to $375 a month. Jenny and I are saving up for a down payment and I have our budget on lock down and have basically become Scrooge McDuck at this point. That's an extra $45 a month for savings. Not a lot, but it hit the sweet spot between a very doable interest rate (5.26% with autopay) and payoff timeline (just a smidgen over 8 years). All the loans got transferred over yesterday and I felt the happiest I've felt in a long time (since I'm still dealing with thyroid cancer, eliminating some financial stress eases the stress burden that sits on my chest at all times). Refinancing my loans led me down a personal finance rabbit hole. "Where else can I save money?" I wondered. I opened a high yield savings account. I applied for an American Express that gives 6% cash back on groceries (the second biggest part of our budget after student loans). I locked myself into an acceptance of want vs. need. I went to my parents house and dug up all the weird stuff I've been hoarding and started listing it on eBay. (Almost) everything must go. There's so much excess, I started looking at everything in terms of dollar signs. It's a nice side hustle, something to focus on to compensate for the fact that I'm still not making enough money to provide for my family like a grown man should.

A snapshot of our monthly finances. Yellow - Groceries. Orange - Student Loans. Light Blue - Car Payment & Gas. Dark Blue - Medical Bills (thanks cancer). Pink/Red/Green - Shopping/Misc Expenses/Chaff 
It feels good getting our financial house in order, and I feel like thanks to Earnest it is finally possible to set realistic goals. Both Jenny and I have our government loans on Private Service Loan Forgiveness because we work at non-profits, so those will take care of themselves after ten years of full-time employment. My private loans will be done in 8 (or sooner should we get to a point where we can afford to throw extra money at it or, better still, refinance it to a lower rate somewhere down the line) which would leave us with a (prospective) mortgage payment as our only debt before Rosie is even out of grade school (depending on when Jenny goes back to work full time).

It feels awesome, and while it's definitely weird to shill, I can't recommend Earnest enough. It also helps that they give a referral bonus and that nothing in the world would make me happier than everyone with Sallie Mae/Navient loans jumping ship to better rates and watching that company crumble to a pile of dust and ashes (my resentment is obviously, still very strong). Financial independence or bust.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Shufflin' - July 2015

Since we upgraded to a computer that can actually handle the catastrophically large iTunes collection I have been cultivating since my freshman year of college (2004 - Hashinger Hall - Everyones' iTunes libraries linked via the dorm internet - Oh those glorious days) it has been fun to actually listen to some of the music I've been hoarding instead of ignoring it because it takes iTunes two minutes before it can figure out how to play the next song. There is so much chaff. 25% of it is obscure indie pop grown like a laboratory culture when I hosted a twee-centric radio show called Pop Rocks! on KJHK. Shuffling is basically a nightmare. Since everything is backed up (should I ever desperately need to listen to 800 Cherries or Akron/Family or the Judys or Rex) I am deleting anything that I know is just taking up space. I've just been shufflin'. The converse to deleting everything is that I've been finding all sorts of good stuff. Stuff I loved a few years ago, stuff I loved ten years ago, stuff I never even knew I had, and stuff I had never heard that is blowing my mind.

So how can I turn this process into something I can vomit back into the world? MONTHLY PLAYLISTS! Cultivated from the bog of eternal tunes. I worked at KJHK for four years, and was on music staff for three of those years. I often reviewed up to 8 albums a week and more the year I was music director and I kept EVERYTHING. Even the shittiest, most tepid, most derivative, most hateable stuff is on here clogging up my hard drive and preventing me from shufflin' like a normal person.

4367 Artists
7302 Albums
82273 Songs
502.73 Gigabytes
That can play on repeat for 205 days.
Good Grief.

I know some of these are duplicates, but I did a mostly solid job of weeding out the dupes when I backed everything up off the old computer and transferred it all over to the new one. I weeded a little bit during that process too, but just barely.

But I digress, on to the shufflin'!


Pulp - "Dishes" - Go figure, Jeff Rosenstock covers this on his first album. His latest--We Cool--is most likely going to land in my Top 5 this year, and it makes sense that this track popped up independently of me learning that Rosenstock connection. The chorus, "I'd like to make this water wine/ But it's impossible/ I've got to get these dishes dry," is about the most accurate description of my current mindset I can find.

Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs
"Goddess of the Hiway" came on shuffle and I thought, "Oh, is this an early Flaming Lips record?" Nope! Just their contemporaries. The spiritual connection between Deserter's Songs and The Soft Bulletin is tangible and quite beautiful. Like long lost twins who are different in their own way but share the same DNA.

Rainer Maria - Catastrophe Keeps Us Together

This one wasn't on Spotify, but I listened to this album a few times and it helped me get in the mindset to work on "My Novel." The one I've been working on for like 3 years and hit a wall when we got pregnant and there it sits, in all its angsty, teen fictiony glory. But Rainer Maria's beautiful tunes always stood out in the emo revival of the early-to-mid 00s and I think this album holds up whereas most of that stuff is basically the hair metal of the Facebook Generation.

Swervedriver - "Just Sometimes (Song of Laughter and Forgetting)"

TWO Swervedriver tracks ended up on the shufflin' list and Spotify didn't have those either! These albums were no doubt acquired shortly after Loveless blasted a distortion-shaped hole in my skull and shoegaze became a permanant part of my vocabulary.

Swervedriver - "Bring Me the Head of the Fortune Teller"

This song perplexed me. There was a lot to like, but there was also an undercurrent of 1995 mainstream modern rock that is weirdly nostalgic, but also kind of gross sounding if only because Creed was born out of that sound. I'm still a pretty big fan of the alternative rock radio hits from 1993-1997 (more on that later, that's a whole playlist unto itself) so at the end of the day this feels right at home.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Top 10 Most Baseball-ass Baseball Player Names

Some people are born to lead. Some people are born to sing and dance. Some people are born to be doctors and lawyers and librarians. Some people, though, well, some people are born to be baseball players. And some parents have the foresight to identify this trait at birth and give their son a baseball-ass baseball player name (yeah I know I know some of these are nicknames but PLAY ALONG OK?). You know what I’m talking about. Zip Zabel, Orval Overall, Boots Poffenberger, Grover Lowdermilk, Trick McSorley, Catfish Hunter, Harmon Killebrew. These are baseball-ass baseball names. And here are some of the best baseball-ass baseball names we have in today’s game:

10. Dansby Swanson
The Diamondbacks first round draft pick hasn’t made it to the Bigs yet, but goddamn that’s a helluva name. Perhaps Swanson will start his career in rookie ball for the D-backs affiliate the Downton Abbey Valets.

9. Donnie Veal
Or as I know him, Donnie “Try The” Veal. There’s nothing particularly baseball-ass about Mr. Veal’s name on the surface, but there is a slow-burn of excellence to it that I noticed every time I saw his name pop up on Rotoworld (even if the left-handed pitcher’s relative un-excellence led to his recent release from the Braves).

8. Maxwell Muncy
Good alliteration is an element of many great baseball-ass baseball names, as is being fun to say. As is looking like “Maxwell Munchy” which makes me hungry. The As infielder

7. Al Alburquerque
As a Royals fan, I get to see the Tigers a lot, and though I love watching all-time great Miguel Cabrera slug (even against my beloved ‘yals!), I love seeing Alburquerque’s name arcing around the back of his jersey. His name is so long is practically extends to the belt line! But in addition to what is effectively a cosmetic effect, A. Alburquerque’s name has excellent alliteration and seems fake, like any good baseball-ass baseball name should. (Note: I am also compiling a baseball-ass baseball player names - Latin American edition because that’s a whole different animal with equally delightful monikers, and though Alburquerque hails from the Dominican Republic, Alburquerque is an American city and thus I have made an executive decision to include him here).

6. Darwin Barney
So many of these guys have been recently designated for assignment or demoted to Triple A ball, I’m starting to wonder if having a baseball-ass baseball name isn’t a good thing. Barney’s name makes me think of both Charles Darwin and Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which is, as Rex Hudler would say, a beautiful thing.

5. Tuffy Gosewisch
I would love to see the Diamondbacks draft board. I’d love to be in the room with the scouts as they order prospects based on how goddamn ridiculous their names are. Because this is obviously a thing. (See Also: Archie Bradley, Socrates Brito, Stryker Trahan, Touki Toussaint, and (yeah I know he was traded over from the Marlins but) Jared Saltalamacchiaccalmatalamacchiccalia. Shit, I should have just done a Baseball-Ass Baseball Names - Diamondbacks Edition since their farm system is a treasure trove of the weirdest goddamn names I’ve ever seen).

4. Buster Posey
Giants catcher Buster Posey’s name sound like that of a precocious 12 year old boy detective. Maybe then it’s no coincidence that Buster Posey looks like he’s about 12 years old. All I can think about is Buster Bunny, and wouldn't you know it, there is a resemblance. Seriously though, I hope the Giants choke. I hate them forever. I hope they lose 100 games for the rest of history. Signed, Still Sore Royals Fan.

3. Mookie Betts
Every time (read: it happened once) I see a highlight of Mets outfielder Mookie Betts (I feel like there is one a week, he’s really good), I text my brother (who owns Betts on his fantasy team, which is basically as good as owning him in real life) “ALL BETTS ARE OFF!” It just ain’t baseball if there isn’t a guy named Mookie out there. Just a classic, baseball-ass baseball name.

2. Scooter Gennett
Never mind that the Brewers infielder’s name makes me think of a labrador scooting it’s butt across a newly carpeted living room floor (maybe because this is something I live with on a regular basis), but damnit if that isn’t an amazing baseball-ass baseball name. Fun to say too! I’d love to see him steal a base and Bob Uecker go, “Look at him scoot down that line like a dog scooting its rear end across the Reds infielders!”

1. Lonnie Chisenhall
The Indians third baseman (when he isn’t residing in the minors for being not-great) has a name that demands to be orated by an old-timey baseball announcer. Every time I see it, I feel like it’s 1935. It just SOUNDS good, you know? Especially in an old-timey baseball voice. I think he owes it to the world to grow a twirly handlebar mustache.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Soviettes - "Roller Girls" 7"

The Soviettes – “Roller Girls” 7”
Fat Wreck Chords, 2005
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $1

Fast and blasting ladypunk from my beloved Twin Cities! Featuring actual roller girls on backing vocals! That’s really all I got for this one. It's fun stuff that's no doubt much more compelling at a live show than it is on record.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Soul Vandals - "Flower Killer" 7"

Soul Vandals – “Flower Killer” 7”
Scat, 1993
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2007
Price: $.25

The “Flower Killer” 7” is the lone release in Soul Vandals’ catalog. I love these weird mystery 7”s. Since it’s on Scat, I’m guessing these guys are from Ohio and, based on a quick google search…shit. Here’s what I got: a lady from South Euclid, OH posting RIP Chris Marec (Soul Vandals’ songwriter/frontman) on a Facebook page for Marec’s former band Spike in Vain. I can’t verify that. I also can’t verify if Chris and his brother/bandmate Andrew spell their last name “Marec” (as listed on the 7”s sleeve) or “Marek” as it is written on the handful of web entries about the brothers’ music careers. This lineage of obscure alt-rock bands from the 80s and 90s is of great interest to me. Alas, I am have not the time that I once did to dig in to this obscure shit but I’m hoping one of the dudes in this band has “Soul Vandals” set as a Google alert and I’ll hear from them at some point for the full story!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Crawlspace - "Solitude Smokestack Head" 7"

Crawlspace – “Solitude Smokestack Head” 7”
Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1990
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2007
Price: $.25
If you’re a band and you want to get on my bad side, make deciphering the band name/song title/album title as difficult as possible. Couple that with a lack of clarity as to which side is which and I will hate you forever. There is no need to be this willfully opaque goddamnit! This 7” has resided in the S section of my 45s for years and now I see that it should be in the Cs. I suppose the LEGALIZE illustration on the inside sleeve has something to do with it. I digress. The music has grunge/protogrunge leanings (this is 1990 after all) but mostly plays like a darker iteration of college rock. B-side “Ocean = You” is the more interesting track of the pair and builds some severe moodiness. I dig it, and it’s almost enough to forgive the band for RUINING THE PERFECT ALPHABETIZATION OF MY RECORDS!

Monday, July 6, 2015

So Many Dynamos - "New Bones" 7"

So Many Dynamos – “New Bones” 7”
Vagrant, 2010
Acquired: KJHK Music Staff, New, 2010
Price: $0
St. Louis’ So Many Dynamos was a band I always heard about (given their relative proximity to the Kansas City Metropolitan Area) but never heard a single one of their songs until just now. The rhythm section of “New Bones” has lingering aspects of mid-00s dance-punk craze which makes it feel ten years old rather than five. It’s like a Tapes n’ Tapes song. I remember that band, I remember liking their music, but I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what a single one of their songs sounds like. “New Bones” just finished and it has already faded from memory. Hang on let me dig around in my desk for the commonplace response to this music: It’s technically fine, these guys know what they’re doing, it’s definitely not a mess, but it lacks the necessary personality to create any sort of engagement outside of Eastern Missouri/Western Illinois. The remix on the b-side replaces the dancey drums with a run-of-the-mill dance beat and I wish they’d just put a stripped-down demo of the track on the b-side instead.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Smugglers/ The Hi-Fives - "Summer Games" Split 7"

The Smugglers and the Hi-Fives – “Summer Games” Split 7”
Lookout/Mint, 1996
Acquired: Love Garden, Used, 2012
Price: $1

The Love Garden Dollar 7-Inch bins are my favorite place to hunt. On my limited budget, it’s a way to A.) Take a chance on weird stuff B.) Get more bang for my buck and C.) Not feel bad about spending a dollar on a 7-inch because it’s no worse than buying a bag of sour gummy worms every time I go to Target. This split betwixt the Smugglers and the Hi-Fives is a whole mess of good clean fun. Ska-punk, surfy riffs, and a grungy garage-y jangle permeate the tracks and, while there’s not really a lot to latch onto on these four songs, they’re the sort you’d hear on the radio in the midst of a great set and wouldn’t reach for the dial. The Hi-Fives track “I need Your Lovin’ Like a Chicken Needs an Oven (When I’m a Little Bit Hungry)” is worth the price of admission alone because what a song title! A band after my own heart!

Random Smuggler's Track because I can't Find the Chicken-in-an-oven song:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Gut Feeling: Fred Thomas - All Are Saved

Fred Thomas – All Are Saved
Polyvinyl, 2015
“Who is this guy?” I thought to myself whilst staring at the cover of Fred Thomas’ latest solo effort. “Is he from Brooklyn?” He looked like he might be from Brooklyn, which immediately brought on the reservations and mistrust I usually harbor for New York City bands. When I found out Thomas was from Michigan, all those reservations melted away. When I then found out he was the frontman for the excellent 00s indie pop group Saturday Looks Got To Me, I was sold. And then I listened to the record. This is what it’s like for me these days. There’s a vetting process based on ridiculous information, misconceptions, and it’s basically all about gut feeling and the strength of a band’s cover art.

One listen through it’s clear that you’ve just heard a man’s soul smeared across 11 tracks. Thomas is an excellent tunesmith (SLGTM’s 2003 hazy pop masterpiece All Your Summer Songs was an immediate staple when I found it in 2004), and while many of these songs are stuck in my head, they’re not there for the typical hooky pop reasons. They’re stuck there because they’re haunting. The images Thomas conjures in his lyric sheet are beautiful, rotten, and poetic. The songs themselves are a kitchen sink’s worth of quickly hammered out guitar chords, glaring electronics, latent pop flourishes (“Cops Don’t Care Pt II” is the earwormiest of the bunch, sporting the terrific sing-a-long refrain “They don’t give a fuck/ They don’t give a fuck about us”), and impassioned spoken word delivery.

All Are Saved is disarming. That’s the best I can do for it. It’s a bundle of raw feels that will give you the feels if you stick around and let it, which I recommend, because getting the raw feels is one of those things that makes you feel like you’re not totally alone in this world. Fred Thomas has released like 50 (fact check: 8) solo records but this is the first one to garner anything resembling attention. I am now wildly curious whether those albums are weirdo dabblings and it took him 8 records to figure out how to best sling his poetic alt-folk-pop or if he’s been churning out solo songwriting wizardry for the last 12 years behind everyone’s backs. I guess there’s only one way to find out, and by the time I work my way through that massive backlog hopefully Thomas will have unleashed another masterful record to the masses.

Check out that aforementioned excellent lyrics sheet here

"Cops Don't Care Pt. 2" - This is the one that'll hook you. 

"Bad Blood" - This is the one currently occupying the top spot of my "Favorite Songs of 2015" list. An absolute gut check. Beautiful writing, passionate music making, holy shit.