Student Loans, Uncensored: My Experience

The road to success isn’t always easy. I speak from experience. Long before I became a professional writer, I struggled with the question many students ask themselves today: How will I pay for college?

I wasn’t blessed with family support. As the only person in my family to ever pursue college, I found myself alone in uncharted territory. In one hand I held an acceptance letter from Purdue University; in the other hand was an overwhelming list of expenses. I didn’t qualify for aid because I was still listed as a dependent on my parents’ income taxes. I earned $5.75 an hour as a Subway sandwich maker—hardly enough to cover books and meals. With few options and no qualified advice, I turned to federal and private loans. By the end of four years, my debt had accumulated to $89,124. Yes, you read that right.

The Aftermath

Graduating college with a mortgage-sized debt is sure to derail even the best-laid plans. In my case, the effects were polarizing:

Negatives:

  • Income. My first student loan payment was $917. I was working in Chicago as a junior copywriter, earning a monthly net income of $2,100. My take-home pay after expenses was        -$225. After a lot of bargaining, yelling and outright begging, I was able to reduce my monthly payments to $557. Of course, this “discount” payment barely touched the principal balance. I stashed my measly savings into an account for emergencies and the occasional night out. It would be two years before I was able to save more than $350 a month.
  • Choices. Gone were the days of idealism and working toward the “perfect” career. Saddled with student loans, I was working to survive. While I qualified for several internships—including one with The Chicago Tribune—I couldn’t venture into unpaid territory. I applied for jobs based on income alone, abandoning my dreams of writing for a major daily newspaper. I lived this way for four years before forming my company.
  • Credit. My credit score hovered around 710 for many years, partially due to my student debt and unwillingness to take on new credit. I was terrified of applying for a credit card or auto loan. I adopted a “cash only” mindset that would not change until 2009, naturally, when I began blogging about credit repair.

Positives:

  • Connections. Attending college opened a world of possibility to me. I learned from bestselling authors and world-renowned professors. I met professionals who gave me advice on how to pursue a successful writing career. I was inspired by a group of people who possessed similar goals. (Bonus: I also met my future husband in our junior year, a connection that is impossible to quantify!)
  • Potential. Although I’m still burdened with student debt, a college degree gave my earning potential an undoubted boost. Purdue’s name carries weight with employers and I’m still surprised by its ability to open doors.
  • Strength. Student loans have limited my choices, but they’ve also given me strength. Supporting myself since early adulthood has challenged me to find resources where none existed. If I want something, I know I have the moxie to get it. Over the past six years, this perspective has helped me reduce my debt to $34,000.

My Advice

Students and parents, I encourage you to consider this advice. I wish someone had led me through the college funding process. Take a lesson from my mistakes and avoid making your own. Begin by:

  • Getting a second (and third) opinion. If I had a time machine, I would travel back to the moment I considered private student loans as an option. I didn’t fully grasp the implications of my decision and let’s just say, the marketing department at Sallie Mae knows what they’re doing. Tune out the PR noise and seek advice from non-biased individuals. Ask a financial planner to help you project debt payments based on balance and interest. Ask a lawyer to help you decipher the loan agreement before you sign it. Don’t rely on student loans without understanding the facts first. Make an informed decision.
  • Considering your initial earning potential. My starting salary wasn’t prepared to deal with a high loan balance. Examine your own earning potential before taking on student debt. A writer is likely to have more trouble making ends meet than a mechanical engineer for instance. While there are exceptions to every rule, don’t assume that exception is you.
  • Avoiding unfounded encouragement. Friends and family want to support and encourage you. When it comes to student loans, they might say,

“Don’t worry. I think there’s a rule that lenders can’t take more than 20 percent of your monthly income.”

“You can’t worry too much about it. Sallie Mae wouldn’t loan you money and then gouge you after graduation.”

“You only live once! Pursue your dreams.”

Don’t listen to this advice. Lenders can take more than 20 percent of your income, and Sallie Mae will gouge you without a second thought. Don’t pursue your goals without a concrete game-plan. It’s no one’s dream to deal with lifelong debt.

  • Exhausting every other option. I recently learned that my many-great-grandfather (too many to count) fought in the Revolutionary War. This knowledge could have secured me a $20,000 scholarship from Daughters of the American Revolution. Use your brain and your lineage to fund a college education. Look for free money wherever possible, including:
    • Family ties. Is your grandfather a Freemason? Are you eligible for a VA scholarship based on your mother’s military service?
    • University programs. An acquaintance of mine scored free Purdue tuition by caddying at the university golf course. Talk to your academic advisor about similar programs that offer tuition, room and board in exchange for work. What you discover could help you avoid years of student loan payments.
    • Grants and scholarships. There are thousands of grants and scholarships that go unused due to lack of visibility. Dig deep into these resources. Why let a free ride slip beyond your grasp?

They say hindsight is 20/20 and I completely agree. While I can’t say I regret the path I chose, I would definitely give my younger self a healthy slap. The bottom line: College is valuable, but funding it could change the course of your life. Take steps to control your course as soon as possible.