New York just became the first state to put a program in place, called The Excelsior Scholarship, that will cut the cost of tuition for families with an annual income of less than $100,000 (although it’s a bit more complex than that; The NY Times broke down the controversial terms). While this is a great place to start, it’s going to be a while before anyone else gets to graduate without a pile of student loan debt. So how do the rest of us pay for college? Unless your parents are paying (and if this is the case, you are #blessed and you should call your parents and thank them right now) or you have a full-ride scholarship (you go, Glen Coco), you’re probably considering taking out a few student loans. According to Forbes, the average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt.
But is it worth it? We recently chatted with Bridget Casey of Money After Graduation (aka an expert on all things debt) on our podcast, EVEsdropping, and she said the only thing worth going into debt for in life is your education (as long as your degree will help you pay it off later on, of course). Everyone handles their money in different ways, however, and our contributors have some mixed feelings about their own student loan debt (or lack thereof). So before you make a decision, read their stories.
One. “I had $40,000 in student loan debt when I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree in chemistry in May of 2013. It took seven years from start to finish, including a one-year break in the middle. As a result, I used up my deferment grace period and interest started accruing right after I graduated. I didn’t have any kind of job when I finished and I wasn’t in a rush to get one. I got a job near the end of 2013 and started paying my student loans back in 2015. I ended up with more student loan debt because of the interest I gained in the two years of forbearance. Today I have about $37,000 left to pay off.
“My student loan payments are automatically drafted out of my checking account every month. Almost a year ago, I started paying more than the minimum amount required each month to try to pay my loans off faster. At the rate I’m going, I should be able to pay my loans off in about seven years. My plan is to keep increasing the amount I pay each month when I can afford too. I would prefer to pay them off in the next five years. I could use that $500+ a month in student loan payments for other things, like a mortgage!
“The student loan debt I have came from living expenses while I was in college. I had PELL grants and a few small scholarships which paid for most of the cost of school. For the entire degree I would have needed about $5,000 in loans for books, dues, and supplies. If I could go back in time I would change it! I would have lived at home instead of having my own apartment, I would have found better jobs while I was in school, I would have applied for more scholarships, and I wouldn’t have let my boyfriend at the time convince me to max out my loans each semester (when I really didn’t need too). I am lucky though. I entered a career field that pays well and found a great job. So I try not try stress about my mistakes in college. In the end, I set myself up for a great future and I learned how important it is to be financially responsible.” —Amanda
Two. “I was lucky enough to have had a full ride to college, so the only student debt I have is from a few summer classes, which totaled to about $3,000. The Dave Ramsey podcasts I listen to (my guilty pleasure) in combination with the horror stories from my mom’s friends about interest accumulation seriously affected my plan to repay it. So far I’ve been paying the minimum payment, but after I get married next month, I plan to throw all of my extra money at it. Hopefully this time next year I’ll be free of student loan debt.” —Mariah
Three. “I’ve got somewhere in the ballpark of $25,000 in student debt. When I graduated, I got a great job with the state that I was going to try to get public service forgiveness from, but I got fired. I mean, I earned it, but it was because I had to realize my limits with my mental illness and I just didn’t measure up to the job. Now I’m at another place that pays the same, but I totaled my car, so now I have a giant car payment to wrestle with. I’m currently in forbearance until this summer, but I don’t know what happens after that. I have no options. I could ask my grandparents, but they’re aging pretty rapidly and probably couldn’t help enough anyway. I’m estranged from basically the rest of my family and we were poor to begin with, so student loans were my only shot.
“If I had the money, I’d happily pay it, but I just don’t. I’d probably still go to college if I could go back in time, but I had a drug problem in high school and a host of other sob stories, so I didn’t have great grades and I applied last-minute because my high school counselor made me do it (bless her). My degree has opened so many doors for me, so I think the debt was worth it. They can’t take blood from a stone, so I’m just going to do the best I can and if I’m in debt for the next few decades, whatever. Fine. That’s the way it happened.” —Claire
Four. “I currently have $15,221 in student loan debt through a single company. I’m paying off a little more than $162 per month, so it will take me 10 years to pay all of it off. Considering how long I was in school (six years total, with a break in the middle), I didn’t accumulate much debt.
“Thankfully, I could use grants to pay for most of my schooling, but it required a lot of work and networking. I contacted the Department of Higher Education for my state directly to see if I could speak to someone about any possible grants that I could receive. I was eligible for FAFSA and two smaller grants due to my financial status. In my state, the Department of Higher Education website wasn’t that great and told me I wasn’t eligible for some grants that I later learned I could get. Additionally, my school’s financial assistance office helped me find another scholarship for which I was eligible and hadn’t been receiving.
“After graduating, I started making payments and realized how much the seemingly ‘free’ money would cost me. I realized how important it was to pick a major and a field that would help me pay off the student loans I needed. Because I got extremely lucky and found a job in my field, I wouldn’t change a thing–but I know there are many people in a different boat.” —Shannon
Five. “I was dedicated to living a debt-free life before graduating high school. I had watched my parents work hard to pay off the mistakes they made early in their marriage and then build a life that allowed them some financial peace. All their efforts meant they were able to pay for a percentage of my tuition. I knew that someday I wanted to be secure enough to do the same, and that started with no student loan debt.
“It’s more than possible to graduate without student loan debt. Working hard to get scholarships, choosing an affordable (probably in-state) school, and holding a job during college are all necessary. Personally, the remainder of my balance was covered partially by scholarships, and I worked two, sometimes three jobs, to cover the rest. Friends tried to convince me to take out loans to free up some time for studies, but I actually found that working provided the motivation and structure that I needed.
“It wasn’t an easy process, but it was beyond worth it in the long-run. I flexed my dedication and discipline muscles early on in life and set myself up for success. Saving and delayed gratification are traits I’m well-acquainted with and this helps me live well within my means even now. As a result, my twenties have been focused on building up my nest egg instead of making payments. I’ve also enjoyed experiences and purchases that I would have otherwise not been able to afford so early in life.
“At the end of the day, my efforts to be debt-free allowed me to find a comfortable balance between enjoying my hard-earned money (work hard now, play hard later!) and saving for both short- and long-term goals in my post-graduation years.” —Hannah
Six. “I currently have $6,500 in student loan debt, down from $16,000. I’m doing standard repayment, and the amount paid off thus far has all come from the Student Loan Repayment Program via a six-year contract with the Army National Guard. Through standard repayment, it will take until April of 2020 to pay off the remainder.
“If I could go back in time, I would have made so many changes. Mainly, I would not have lost my scholarship. I had nearly a full ride (with my parents covering the rest), but after joining a fraternity and discovering beer, I wasted the opportunity by letting my grades slip. My parents refused to co-sign any loans, so I was on my own to cover school. Another change would’ve been to ONLY TAKE OUT WHAT I ACTUALLY NEEDED FOR SCHOOL!!!! I was one of those morons who took out the max amount available to cover credit card bills and other non-essential purchases. DUMB. FAKE NEWS.
“Lastly, I would’ve joined the military to start paying for school immediately after losing the scholarship. If I would’ve had the military benefits the whole time instead of waiting until I was pulling my hair out over a growing pile of debt, said pile would’ve never accumulated. So I guess the lesson there is that if you think the military is an option for paying for school, do it as soon as possible to take full advantage of the benefits.
“A few words on joining the military as a means to pay for school: There are pretty substantial opportunities available for students in the military, but YOU have to put in the effort. There is paperwork required every semester that YOU have to fill out and keep up with. Nobody will email you reminders or anything of that nature. If you don’t do your part, they won’t pay, and there is nothing you can do about it. Learned that one the hard way. Also, it is incumbent on you to keep up with rule changes. As the military is controlled by the federal government, the rules change all. of. the. time. If one year they require some new or different bit of documentation, it is ultimately on you to figure it out. Most schools have counselors or VA reps employed specifically to help military students navigate these ever-murkier waters, and they should be your best friend when dealing with all of this mess.” —Jordan
Seven. “I did have around $4,000-$5,000 in student loans; it’s been a while so I don’t really remember exactly how much that I did have. It took me three semesters to pay it off, so a little more than a year.
“I was a very ‘mediocre’ student in high school; I got A’s and B’s and I didn’t have a very good ACT score, so I never got the best scholarships to begin with–so I ended up just going to the school my big brother was at (we shared a car at the time so my options seemed pretty slim). After two years, I had racked up all the student loan debt, but I worked my butt off and had a good GPA, so I applied for a transfer scholarship–which was SO much better than any scholarship I had from high school stuff. I actually got around $1,800 back each semester and I was able to pay off all of my student loans before I even graduated and before interest even started accruing!
“Looking back, there are definitely cheaper ways I could have gone to school; my first two years I could have gone to a community college instead of a private school. But if we’re being completely honest, I would never go back and do it differently. I met the love of my life at that school, and I still graduated with no student loan debt, so I think I did pretty well. I did learn that I NEVER want to go through that again though. Having that student loan debt put a lot of stress on me. I’m getting my master’s degree right now, and we’re cash flowing it instead. Even if it takes a little longer, that is definitely what I suggest.
“Seeing the money go out of your bank account hurts, but if feels SO much better watching a number go up with how much you owe to someone, not to mention interest that would start to pile on top of it. There are plenty of ways to get a college degree without going into debt, and you should always try to go that route first; just because you start school somewhere doesn’t mean you have to be there all four years.” —Amber
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