Their student loans were forgiven. Now they're reclaiming life after decades of debt: 'I've found dreams I never knew I had.'

Student loan relief offers more than just a clean slate. For millions of borrowers, it's a second chance at life.

For millions of borrowers, student loan forgiveness is a fresh start at life. (Getty Images/Illustration by Yahoo News)
For millions of borrowers, student loan forgiveness is a fresh start at life. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

This was no ordinary letter. For Israel Harris, 48, it marked the end of two decades haunted by a six-figure student loan debt with accruing interest.

“Congratulations! The Biden-Harris Administration has forgiven your federal student loan(s),” it read, making good on a promise by the White House to cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt for qualified borrowers this year.

And just like that: Harris’s debt was wiped clean.

“You can't know that it will happen until it does,” the New York City-based musician told Yahoo News. “And there's still a part of me working on accepting it.”

Harris is one of the nearly 4.3 million Americans who’ve had their debts forgiven by the Biden administration. Almost $153 billion of canceled debts have been wiped clean since he took office, according to the Department of Education. Over 30 million borrowers are now eligible for debt relief through Biden’s newly released plan to waive accrued and capitalized interest, cancel loans that are over 20 years old and assist borrowers dealing with hardships.

According to financial therapist Aja Evans, chronic financial stress can take a physical and mental toll — from a weakened immune system and high blood pressure to shame and resentment about making significant life changes because of accruing debt.

“When people are trying to get out of debt, they often have to prioritize their goals differently,” she told Yahoo News. “That could look like someone not being as social because they are concerned about spending, or putting off having children and changing where they live in efforts to decrease cost.”

Cary Chandler, a 42-year-old nonprofit manager from Boston, worked in human resources at various nonprofits for over a decade. As a side job, she worked as a waitress to make the monthly payments toward her student loans.

“I felt free, like a huge barrier had been lifted, like I stepped off an ever-spinning hamster wheel,” she told Yahoo News, days after learning that her $108,000 debt was forgiven. Still, she couldn’t fight the sinking feeling that it should have happened a long time ago.

“There was a base layer of annoyance,” Chandler said in hindsight. “My loans were so convoluted and brought so much unnecessary anxiety into my life for so long.”

Emotions like the kinds Chandler and Harris described can shift once a debilitating debt is gone, Evans explained. While there’s tremendous relief, it can also run the risk of fueling an identity crisis: Who am I without debt?

Chandler described 10 years of endless phone calls with loan services like Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority and FedLoan, many of which required her to excuse herself from parties, work and even dates to take. The calls often led to frustration and tears.

“It’s as if I have finally ended a toxic relationship,” she said. “Now, I can open my own business. I could figure out how to live in another country or take a sabbatical year. Ideas I didn’t even know I wanted to do because I couldn’t conceive of them before, suddenly became actually attainable. I’ve found dreams I never knew I had.”

Harris spent years working and volunteering in public service — one of the eligibility requirements for the Biden administration’s loan forgiveness program. Getting their loans wiped clean, Harris said, felt like “vindication” for what felt like thankless hours.

“I didn't know how heavy a load I’d been carrying until it was suddenly not there,” Harris shared. “I’d reconciled myself to the eventuality that I would be paying student loans well into retirement, maybe even the remainder of my life. There is now a sense of possibility.”

Dr. Kojo Sarfo, a mental health expert and content creator, said those coming out of chronic debt often experience a “mourning period” that creates bigger questions about their future.

“So much of money is emotional, and it’s deeply connected with one’s mindset,” he told Yahoo News. “You have to give yourself time to grieve the old version of yourself and the old way of living.”

That adjustment isn’t always easy.

“For people who were on a long debt payoff journey, it can be hard to start enjoying their money,” said Evans, noting that bringing responsible and “joyful spending” back into one’s life is a vital step toward creating new habits.

“When financial uncertainty goes away, it gives you a chance to make decisions that benefit not only what you're doing in the current moment but also your future,” said Kujo. “That's when people start having a cumulative effect in the decisions they make going forward.”

For people like Harris, that journey is something worth cherishing.

“I am much more aware and wary of taking on debt, and am much more engaged with my financial future,” he said. “This feels like a fresh start, and I feel protective of that.”