Comic Serenades Sallie Mae


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A downtown resident takes a unique approach to dealing with oversize student loan payments


Last week, Jessica Delfino, who writes and performs "dirty folk rock" for a living, prepared to make a familiar call to the company that manages her student loans. She planned to tell whatever representative who answered the phone that she certainly could not afford to send them a check for $1,380 every month, and would have to once again negotiate a lower payment plan, knowing that doing so would not even begin to cover the massive interest accrued over the past 13 years, let alone make a dent in the principle amount.


Though she's made some version of this call dozens of times since graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia with a degree in animation in 2000, Delfino was inspired to spice things up this time around. After Ethan, the man speaking to her from a call center in the Philippines, finished his boilerplate speech, she reached for her guitar and sang him an improvised ditty about the universal experience of being a young person deeply in debt to the government.


"So here we are together in November, talking about my student loan bill once again. I have to say I'd rather be doing just about anything else today, and I'm sure that you would too," she sings to a patient Ethan on the other end.


"Oh Ethan I'd just like to thank you for being polite," Delfino croons as the song wraps up. "Have a lovely rest of your Tuesday, and tell Sallie Mae I said she can kiss my ass."


In an interview, Delfino said, "I can pay my rent and pay my bills and have a little bit left over." She estimates that she makes roughly $35,000 to $40,000 a year from her performances and various writing and comedy gigs. "But I've never had enough to pay what they want me to pay. Every year I think, maybe next year will be better."


Delfino is married and lives on the Lower East Side with her husband, a photographer, who she says makes a similar income. They recently downsized from an apartment that cost $3,000 a month and pay a bit less now. She said that she feels lucky to be able to make a living off of her art, but that she doesn't see how she can do that as well as pay off the nearly $50,000 balance on her student loans ? a balance that ballooned, sheerly due to compounding interest, from an initial $15,000 loan. After college, she said, she landed several jobs at companies that went under, and has sent out hundreds of resumes over the years. Now she cobbles together her income from various freelance jobs and from giving ukulele lessons through her own side business, [YouRockNYC.com].


"It's always kind of a sad phone call, it's a sobering reminder of how unsuccessful things are," she said of her frequent dialing to Sallie Mae. "In some regards, I'm doing great and life is really good and I can't complain. If the student loans weren't in the picture, things would be pretty much perfect. [But] there's a company that wants $50,000 dollars from me, and I'm going to have to find a way to get it to them."


Delfino wasn't planning on serenading Sallie Mae that day; she thought maybe she would record their standard spiel to use in one of her acts. But frustration and inspiration struck, and she hopes that her little song might propel her career, or at least give others in similar situations a laugh.


"As far as creativity and my music and art goes, wouldn't it be great if 10 million people, or as many people as watched like Rebecca Black's video [for the song "Friday" - actually 60,760,933 as of press time] - and I was able to take that money and pay off my degree in one lump sum," Delfino said.


Considering her predicament, that may be the most likely scenario for paying off the entire balance any time soon. Delfino knows she isn't alone ? the total student debt burden in the United States is over $1 trillion ? and said that she wishes that the government could come up with more practical ways for people to pay or work off their debts, like through teaching or social work programs. But, she acknowledges, that's not likely, considering what a big business the student loan game has become.


"It's not unlike a movie where the gangsters want $50,000 'or else,'" Delfino said. "Except they're not threatening my family, they're threatening my sanity."


Watch Jessica's video "What Happens When You Try to Pay Student Loans with a Song Instead of Money," below or on YouTube at http://youtu.be/i8nmqWdHgkA.


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