Saturday, November 2, 2013

My Big Dumb Debt Story and What I've Learned

I've never written about personal finance here before. But why the hell not? I write about my kids, my marriage, my hypochrondriac freakouts. This isn't so much a "mom blog" as it is a "I'm-ignoring-my-toddler's-temper-tantrum-may-as-well-blog" kind of blog. So I'm just gonna write about whatever. Including our student loan debt and our struggles to get out from under it. Cool? Cool.


And post funny pictures of chickens because obviously

My name is Sarah. And I have student loan debt. When I graduated from college, the number was astounding -- almost $62,000. My husband was smarter than I and got more scholarships, so his debt load was smaller, but still substantial -- about $30,000. Thankfully, my husband's debt (if you want to qualify it as "his debt" and "my debt") is already gone. One of the reasons I love my husband so much is that he works hard for what he wants. He's steadfast and dependable and when he sets a goal for himself, he hustles to get it accomplished (sexy, right?) When he graduated college in 2007, he moved back in with his parents and threw nearly all of his monthly income at his debt load. He paid off his debt in just over two years. By the time we left on our honeymoon, he was completely debt free. He was responsible. Sexily responsible.

I, however, was not that responsible. Until I graduated, I gave absolutely no thought to how much debt I was taking on, or how much it would cost me per month to repay. The thought hardly ever occurred to me. All I knew was that I was going to college, and college cost money. The government was offering money, so I took it. And I would figure out how to pay them back later. How I would ever pay back sixty grand with an English degree, I never bothered to think about.

I realize that now. 

I don't think I could have given any less thought to my debt load if I had tried. I went out of my way at every step to avoid talking about debt or how much my college was costing me. When my dad told me flat-out my sophomore year that I should consider transferring, I was like but dad, this school has free breakfast during finals! This school is the BEST!. When other students would live off-campus to save money, I just lived wherever was closer to class. And the entrance counseling for federal aid? LOL. I just clicked and guessed and tried my hardest not to absorb anything it was telling me. I didn't get the terms I was agreeing to, I didn't know how I'd pay it back, and I tried my hardest not to think about it.

My reaction to the loan counseling: TL;DR

Denial. It's a helluva drug.

So I'd have to say the first lesson I learned from my extraordinarily stupid foray into student debt, is that you have to treat debt like it's a communicable disease. Do anything you can to avoid it. Work late, work overtime, live off campus -- live in a box, for God's sake. Just don't take on debt if you could ever possibly help it. And I could have. If I had gone to a cheaper school, or had applied for more scholarships, maybe I could have escaped with less debt, or maybe none at all, since my parents paid for some of my schooling. But I did literally no thinking ahead and just applied to whatever school had the major I wanted. (I ended up switching majors like four times anyway, so that criteria was pretty useless in the end.) Actually, scratch that -- I applied to my college because it had my major, but I enrolled because I liked the campus, the school was in the middle of a big city I wanted to explore, and there was a statue of Mother Theresa in one of their lobbies. Not kidding. I thought it was a sign from God, and maybe it was, since I met my husband during our time at the school newspaper. Still -- don't do what I did. Don't base one of the biggest investments on your life on the fact that you like its lobby.


Seriously cannot believe I just wrote that sentence. 

Anywho. If taking on debt is a necessity, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it, and you've done everything possible to minimize it as much as you can, then for the love of God, do what my husband did and throw as much money as you can at it, as quickly as possible, to crawl out from under it. The minimum payment is not your friend. Before we were married, Lou made probably $2k a month, if that. And every month he wrote a check for at least $1500, and usually more like $1700 or $1800. He paid his phone bill, bought his train ticket to work, and we occasionally went out for Thai food. That was it. His debt was gone in two years, and he saved thousands of bucks in interest as a result.

If I could do it all again, I would do what my little brother did. Our parents were generous enough to pay for a portion of our college; they saved up some money and divided it among my brothers and I equally. To this day, I still don't know how much he gave me, because like a dumb ass, I never bothered to ask. Money was taboo and I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so when my dad said I could afford a year or two at Loyola, I enrolled with no questions asked. Awesome, I thought. I'll ride on whatever my dad gives me, and then sign up for loans when it's gone. And that's exactly what I did. Don't ask, don't tell.



Jake, on the other hand, learned how much my dad was planning on giving him, exactly, to the cent. After high school, he delayed college for two years while he put himself through community college and worked full-time at Burger King to pay for school. He got all of his core credits completed for cheap, with his Burger King earnings, and all the while built up his photography portfolio in his spare time. When his core was complete, he applied for a scholarship at Columbia with that same portfolio, and won it. Between my parents' generosity, the school's scholarship, and his unbelievable hustle, he was able to go to his dream school and graduate with almost no debt. Jake had a plan, a budget, and ambition.

Meanwhile, I'm like

When I got married, I got the balls to look up my loan amounts on the National Student Aid website, and boy was that a rotten surprise. I think the final total was somewhere around $62k, although I was too buy puking and passing out to really let it sink in. Ouch.

Right in the net worth. 
I felt awful. My husband had worked so hard to pay down his debt and he had done a fantastic job. Now he was $60k in the hole again. I had buried my head in the sand instead of taking on an extra job and throwing extra money at it to bring down the total, and now we were both stuck paying it off for years to come -- maybe even decades. Oh hell no, I thought. I want babies. I want a house. Ain't nobody got time for this. I had my epiphany about four years too late, but at least I had it: Student debt sucks. Any kind of debt sucks. We had stuff to do. A life to live. Babies to raise. And Sallie Mae didn't factor into any of that.

Me and Sallie Mae. She's a harsh mistress.


So, Lou and I started throwing money at Sallie Mae like a cheap stripper. Every cent we made went right to her, and we hated it, but we made incredible progress in a very short amount of time. After I finished school and got pregnant with June, my parents invited us to live with them so that we could pay down our debt, and we accepted graciously. Two years later we're still living here, still throwing money at our loans (we actually paid the minimums for a year, so we could save up for a second car) and I'm psyched to say we have "only" $23k left to go. Right now Lou and I are doing everything possible to save more and pay everything off quicker -- I clip coupons, I make my own laundry soap, I cloth diaper, I freelance. And Lou as I write this is working overtime at his office, on a Saturday, so we can get that much closer to living our dream as homeowners. I'm proud of how hard we've worked and how far we've come, but we came by these successes the hard way.

So. Student debt blows. And I have a lot of it because I didn't make the smartest decisions. Don't do what I did. Plan. And save. And work your ass off. Pay more than the minimums. And get rid of it as quickly as possible.

I'll be over here, paying off my own debt, rooting for you.

7 comments:

  1. I'm kinda glad I didn't finish college. I didn't rack up too much in loans but my husband whoo! We are still paying it down and dumbass college kid credit card debt on my part. That capital one crap is killing us monthly.

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  2. Honestly I'm just closing my eyes not thinking about Paul's (and he's now been in grad school for six years...). Because I just can't. I'll have a nervous break down if I do. When it comes up I basically mentally stick my fingers in my ears and hum. And the amount.. ugh. It makes your loans look soooooo responsible! I just... can't even... yeah...

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  3. Um, I love you. *fangirls*
    No, really. Be careful. I crush hard.
    I have paid off all my loan debt finally (TOOK TEN YEARS) but then we stupidly bought a house we can't afford. Because... we're stupid. GAAAAAA. I hate money. FUCK YOU MONEY.

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  4. I feel so lucky that I did what I didn't want to do when I was 18. I had applied to a school and gotten in, I went with my parents to the loan counseling and they told us what we'd have to come up with and my parents flat out said they couldn't do it. I was crushed, and ended up having to enroll in community college in the first week of August. I was humiliated - community college was where the losers went in my mind (in more than 10 years the perception of community college has changed drastically). In the end I basically went there for free because we could afford my 2 years there. I went to in state public school for my remaining 3 years with a few small scholarships and left school with 16k (my husband had the same without finishing his degree). Since my first jobs didn't pay much (though I was working in my field) we're not as far as I would like, but this last month we celebrated when we saw that we're both officially in the 9k digits. We plan on paying off in full once each loan get around 500-600 and the first is coming up soon and I'm budget crunching to find more money to throw and are hoping that in 3-4 years when my oldest is in kindergarten/1st grade we'll be done and able to throw that $400 a month into our mortgage. Our big goal is debt free (including mortgage) by 50.

    I don't know about you but my experience has changed how I look at my kids education - we're saving up some money (but not looking at being able to pay their ways - honestly we'd rather send them on foreign language trips and summer experience in high school), but already know that college is not something we're going to push. I'd rather have my kids get a technical degree and work through college once they really know what they want with that than go in from the start.

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  5. Yeahhh. I think this is common for people in our age bracket. I thankfully paid off my loans by the time my husband and I got married, but I had to make a decision when I was in school. After two years at the private college where I met my boyfriend, now husband, I decided to switch to a public state school as the tuition was 1/4 of the cost. My sister on the other hand, is still paying off her school loans and she's 2 years older than I am. So you definitely are not alone.

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  6. My husband and I went to FUS, then both went to grad school, and we JUST paid off our student loan debts this past summer. It felt AWESOME!! It was a lot of work and scrimping, and took us 11 years to do it, but that's better than the 20 it was supposed to take us! Plus we had 5 kids and bought a house during those years, so ya know, life. I don't regret having to take out the loans though, I loved college (we met there) and those degrees got us the jobs to pay them off.

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  7. What an awesome post! I'm going to make all my teens read it! Thanks for sharing it and congrats for taking control!

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