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Their cost to bear

Is 'Generation Me' being set up for failure by entering adulthood with mountains of financial baggage?

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"I guess it would be more pleasant than holding on to the two and having to crunch numbers and actually look at what's going on," he says quietly.

Until last year, Phillips never carried credit card debt. He used his American Express, the one he signed up for during his freshman year at New York University, and always paid off his monthly bill. But a few late nights at the bar, splurges on clothing and dinners out with the guys ran up his tab. His constant use of the card caused Nellie Mae -- the lender that gave him money for his first year of law school -- to insist he get a co-signer for his second-year loan. But Phillips didn't want to ask his parents for help. So he took out this year's $56,014 loan from Citibank instead, which let him borrow without a co-signer. Almost every penny he spends comes from those loans.

About a month ago, a direct-deposit mix-up left Phillips virtually broke. His cell phone got shut off because he hadn't paid his bill in several months, and he had to ask for a $1,000 emergency loan from Emory so he could pay his rent and eat while the banks sorted out the mistake.

Finally, in mid-September, the $9,000 he gets from the bank for the rest of the semester (once Emory took its chunk) arrived. But Phillips was so freaked out that he wrote his first personal budget. He calculated that if he spends around $250 a week on entertainment, gas and food, he should be OK for the semester. He even thought about asking his roommate to carpool to school to save gas.

"It's nickels and dimes, but maybe that's the attitude I need to have," he says.

When Phillips first got to law school, he wanted to get his degree to advocate for social change. Now, he's not sure he'll be able to follow those dreams because he'll owe $220,000 in student loans -- and that's before interest.

He needs a high-paying job so he can repay the loans, which include debt from his undergraduate degree and a master's program at King's College in London. If Phillips gets a corporate salary between $85,000 and $100,000 and chooses a standard repayment plan for 10 years, his monthly repayment will be more than $2,500 a month. If he opts for a long-term repayment plan for the next 40 years, he'll pay around $1,300 a month and will accumulate $420,000 in interest debt.

His entire future rests on his ability to get a corporate job.

"What I'm coming up against is this whole idea that I can't work hard enough at being the lawyer for social change because it's economically impossible," Phillips says. "I've essentially sold myself to these banks for this opportunity. When I pay myself off, I'll be an old, wrinkled man."

Even though he'll have to borrow $60,000 to pay for his last year of law school, he continues to spend money he doesn't have. He tells himself it's OK to get a third credit card. He tells himself it's OK to buy the two Ralph Lauren polo shirts for $95 a pop. And he tells himself everything's going to be OK.

"The future me wants the present me to live really well," Phillips says. "Who wants to stop living well?"

Due to an editing error, this story previously reported that Congress rewrote the bankruptcy law last year so that student loans have been one of the few things that don't get erased if a person files for bankruptcy. The correct information is since the 1970s, student loans have been one of the few things that don't get erased if a person files for bankruptcy. And recently, filing for relief is much more expensive and complicated, thanks to a newly minted law Congress wrote last year that gives bankers and lenders added ammunition for collecting unpaid debts.

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