My personal (student) loan experience

by Karen on September 18, 2008

As part of the Extended Group Writing Project at the Personal Finance Bloggers Network, I’m sharing the story of my biggest financial mistake: my student loan debt.

I was in the same position as many high school graduates. I knew I needed to go to college if I ever wanted a chance at a successful career. Unfortunately, two of my sisters were also in college at the time. I didn’t qualify for grants or financial aid, but my parents simply didn’t have enough money to cover the high cost of tuition for three children simultaneously. My grades were good, but I didn’t think they were good enough to earn me scholarships, so I didn’t apply. I know, stupid.

I didn’t choose an expensive Ivy League or out-of-state school. I was happy to attend a state school. State schools are still expensive, though.

I often hear people say that living in an off-campus apartment is a luxury that students on a budget can’t afford. I completely disagree. For the first year I lived in the dorms. In addition to tuition, my food and boarding costs alone were $800 a month. It was much cheaper for me to live off campus in an apartment with roommates.

My parents generously contributed by covering my rent. I worked part-time all the way through college, but most of my time was devoted to classes, homework, and extensive work for the campus paper. I didn’t have time to work the hours I needed to cover my tuition and living expenses.

Each year, I took out federal Stafford loans to cover my tuition. Then I took out additional private loans to cover my living expenses.

The truth is, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I was very young, and I thought, “I’ll be making so much after I graduate, paying these loans won’t be a big deal!” That might be true for low-interest federal loans. Not the case when it comes to $20,000 in private loans at 8-12% interest. Ouch.

I had no understanding of interest rates. I didn’t know the difference between a 4% and a 12% interest rate. I’d never paid down debt, so I didn’t know that the difference between those percentage points was thousands and thousands of dollars.

That money paid for me to eat and live, but I certainly could have lived more frugally. I didn’t really shop for groceries. I ate out constantly. I bought stuff I didn’t need. I had a lot of fun.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would still go away to school. Those four years were essential to my personal growth. I became the person that I am today because of those four years of independence and learning. If I hadn’t gone away to school, I never would have met my husband. I’ll take some debt in exchange for my husband and an invaluable education.

I would have stopped at the federal loans, though. I would have taken out as much as I could at 4% interest and worked my butt off in my part-time job, lived as frugally as possible, and earned my education without that extra $20,000 at an average of 10% interest.

I’m paying the price now. My private loans have a minimum monthly payment of $250. If I paid the minimum payment, it would take 30 years to pay them off.

They’ve been in forbearance steadily accruing interest for the past 2 years. I simply don’t have the money to pay the minimum payment and pay off my credit card debt. Paying down this debt is my only way out of it. Like federal student loans, private student loans cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy.

My federal loans are $75 a month, and my husband’s small amount of federal student loan debt is deferred until he graduates. When we finish paying our credit card debt in November, those private student loans will become our focus.

My credit score is very high, so I should be able to consolidate them for a lower interest rate. That will cut the minimum payment almost in half. Then my goal is to pay off the high-interest student loan debt in 3 to 5 years. I don’t want to be paying my own student loans when it’s time to send our kids to college.

My biggest mistake was that I signed up for a loan that I didn’t understand. I will never again do anything with my money that I don’t understand.

I’m overwhelmed by the debt, but we have the tools now to pay it down. It took four years to acquire it. My hope is that it won’t take 30 years to pay it down.

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{ 1 comment }

1 Kacie September 18, 2008 at 1:20 pm

I have a feeling you’re going to get those loans taken care of a LOT sooner than you think. For one, you’re motivated. And two, you’re awesome.

You’re going to continue to learn new ways to save money, and every extra dollar you can scrounge up to throw at debt will make a big difference.

Especially once your credit cards are paid off (November is soon!!), you’ll really pick up speed.

Srsly.

Oh, and yeah I lived in Briscoe during my freshman year and holy cow man, that’s an expensive way to live! I think it was like $680 or something per month for crappy food and a tiny bit of space.

I saved so much money when I lived off campus, but I wish I had a clue and cut my expenses and avoided eating so much fast food and Union junk. Maybe I would have had less debt upon graduation. Oh well.

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