Paying for College, Part III: How Much Do Student Loans Actually Cost?

Student loans

I am 33 years old and just last week, finished paying for college (yes, that’s right–we made it! We paid off around $100,000 in college, car, and credit card debt. Read more about how we did it here). I got my first credit card when I was 18 years old and took out my first student and car loans when I was 20. For well over a decade, I have had these weights pressing down on me, steering me towards jobs that I had to take because I needed ANY paycheck, then spending money that I didn’t have in order to make myself feel better.

While it’s been an exciting week for us, I can’t help but look back at all of the money that has gone into paying off debt. It’s hard to fathom it when you’re taking out the loans–how in order to pay them off, you will bleed hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars of your salary each month. It’s hard to comprehend that the debt will steal your future ability to make the choices you want to make, and will instead force you to make choices out of necessity.

While I explained many of the mistakes that I made in previous posts about student loans, I think it’s also important to determine what they actually cost in the long run. Earlier this year, it was reported that student loan debt in the US has surpassed $1.3 trillion dollars. TRILLION (at least that means I wasn’t alone in my poor decision-making, right?). I know that personally, I went into it thinking that this is just how you pay for college and I’m going to get a good job and these won’t even be an issue. Over a decade later, I can see how wrong I was.

Here’s How Much a Loan Really Costs

To illustrate how a little student loan becomes a monster, allow me to share the fresh hell that was my own student loan repayment experience. This is one of my grad school loans that I took out through Sallie Mae (which later morphed into Navient).

Loan Type: Unsubsidized Stafford Loan

Original principal (original amount I took out): $4810

Interest rate: 6.8%

Date the loan was disbursed: 1/28/2008

Date I started repaying the loan: 8/29/2011

Loan repayment term: 10 years

When I started paying on the loan in August 2011, the principal balance of the loan had grown to $5344.97. That’s an additional $534.97 that literally paid for NOTHING. It did not pay for classes, or books, or supplies–it was just interest added to my loan before I even started paying on it. So first, for those of you who think that the loan company is being sweet by allowing you a “grace period” before you have to start making payments, don’t forget that interest is still building up during that time. In fact, when I look back at the payment history for this loan, my monthly payments didn’t start touching the principal balance of the loan until November 2012, over a year later.

If I plug the principal balance of $5344.97, the interest rate of 6.8%, and the repayment term of 10 years into a loan calculator, it tells me that I will pay a total of $7373.02 on this loan. So my original “small” loan of $4810 suddenly has $2563.02 in interest added on to it. If I take out 2 of those loans every semester (which I did, for the most part), you can see how they quickly add up and leave me as a college graduate with a very deep financial hole.

How to NOT End Up With $100,000 in Debt

Now that the math lesson is over, here are a few suggestions for how to avoid being a 33-year-old paying for decisions that you made when you still thought that ramen noodles and Gatorade constituted a well-balanced meal:

Avoid student loans like the plague: Get a side job. Work during the day and take classes at night. Go to a community college for the first two years of undergrad, then transfer. Go to a state school. Apply for every possible scholarship, even if it’s only $100. Start a 529 or other college savings account. Do whatever it takes to avoid taking out student loans in the first place.

If you’re already out of school, make a plan to pay them off as quickly as possible: Make a budget, then start attacking each student loan with extra payments. Once you pay off a loan (starting with the smallest one), roll that extra money into the next loan. Get them off your plate as early as possible so that you can avoid all of the extra interest payments, and begin enjoying the freedom of making decisions that aren’t based on how much money you owe.

 

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When You Don’t Hit Your Financial Goals

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When I started this blog, I released my secret goal to the world: be debt free (minus the mortgage) by 33! So exciting!

Nope.

Once it became clear that we wouldn’t quite hit that goal by my 33rd birthday, I revised it to: be debt free (minus the mortgage) by the end of 2016! We can do it! Go team!

Nope.

We had guests over on New Year’s Eve, and our friend took a look at our debt snowball chart on the fridge. She remarked about how well we were doing. All I could feel was the distance between the last $8700 and the finish line. We’d failed to reach our goal.

I have always been my own harshest critic (or at least I think I have. Maybe there’s someone out there who also enjoys keeping track of my failures. Weird hobby, though.) It’s easy for me to overlook my own successes and instead see where I’ve fallen short. We all do that to some degree. While it can be valuable to recognize your failures, it’s even more important to learn from them, then create a plan to either revise your goals or revise your approach.

If you, like me, missed your 2016 financial goals, then follow these steps to get back on track for 2017:

STEP ONE | Celebrate the progress that you HAVE made: We missed our goal by $8700. In the meantime, we paid off over $21,000 in debt last year. If someone else told me that they paid off that much debt in one year, I would congratulate them, not ask, “yeah loser, but how much do you have LEFT?”

STEP TWO | Do a financial goal post-mortem: Identify the why behind missing your goal. We had a few big unexpected expenses last year–a tree that needed to be cut down, hospital bills–but those were only part of the equation. We couldn’t control those. What we could control was our monthly budget. Every time we overspent, whether it was on groceries, going out to eat, clothes, or gifts for others, it moved us further from our goal.

STEP THREE | Check your budget: If you’re consistently missing the mark on your budget, check to see if your numbers are realistic. I’ve found that if I set a budget category too low, I inevitably overspend, and then for the rest of the month, very easily slide into a “oh well…might as well keep spending, since I’ve already missed the mark this month” mindset.

STEP FOUR | Set a new goal: Now that you’ve celebrated how far you’ve come, figured out why you missed your goal, and checked to make sure you were taking the best approach, it’s time to set a new goal. If that one big goal feels too big, try breaking it down into a few smaller “milestone” goals (instead of “pay off $20,000 by the end of this year,” try, “pay off $5,000 by the end of March.”) Breaking your big goal down into chunks might help you wrap your head around it.

STEP FIVE | Enlist support: Don’t keep your goal to yourself. By telling friends and family, having a shared goal with your spouse, or partnering with a friend, you create a source of accountability.

Tell me: what financial goals did you reach (or miss) last year? What are your financial goals this year?

Recovering From a Spender Bender

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I didn’t write any posts in September. It wasn’t because I didn’t have time; it’s because I was embarrassed. Over the summer, I had written about how we have paid off almost all of our non-house debt. Then about a month ago, I hit a wall. Even though I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to treat myself and not think about money. I felt tired of seeing other people buy new clothes. I wanted to go out to eat more than once a month and go to the non-Aldi grocery store to buy whatever I felt like buying. I wanted to go to the movies with my husband and decorate my home. I wanted to buy my daughter new books and clothes because darn it, she’s so cute. My friends, I went on a spender bender.

At first, it felt pretty good. It’s been a long time since I spent that much money on myself. As the month went on though, it stared to feel a little uncomfortable. Then the guilt started to set in. Sure, the dates with my husband were fun, but that’s really because of the time we spent together, not because of the locations. The clothes that I had bought are just clothes now- not nearly as exciting as the day that I purchased them. My daughter still looks cute in her new clothes, but I could wrap her in a garbage bag and she’d look adorable.

So, lesson learned (again). No matter how much money you spend, any happy feelings that you derive from your purchases will be temporary. It’s all just stuff.

Luckily, I managed to get my head screwed on straight around the end of the month and recommitted myself to paying off the rest of our debt. Just yesterday, we made the final payment on my student loans. For the first time in almost 15 years, I have no student loans or car loans in my name. We have one student loan left in my husband’s name and then WE ARE DONE with non-house debt.

So for all of you out there who feel like you keep screwing up- it’s ok. Fix it, then move forward. When you screw up again (as most of us do), fix it, and move forward again. You’ve got this.

Paying for College, Part II: Budgeting with a Student Loan Payment

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If you read my last post, then you know that I amassed a pretty serious amount of student loan debt. While some students are wise enough to understand the future implications of taking out loans, many are blind about what a personal budget actually looks like (I certainly was), and how a student loan payment fits in.

EXAMPLE: Post-College Budget

Assume that you graduate with $40,000 in student loan debt, with a 5% interest rate and a 10-year repayment plan. Luckily, you get a job with a starting salary of $50,000. To a college grad who may have only worked hourly jobs in the past, that probably sounds great.

Let’s break down your paycheck first. After state and federal taxes are taken out, you have about $35,000 left as your take home pay, or about $2917 per month. Your student loan payment is about $430/month.

Here are your other anticipated monthly expenses:

Expense Monthly Amount
Rent $800
Utilities $150
Car Payment $250
Gas $200
Car Insurance $100
Groceries $400
Cell Phone $125
Cable/Internet $150
Entertainment/Misc. $200
TOTAL EXPENSES BEFORE STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT: $2375

Now tack on your student loan payment of $430:

$2375 + $430 = $2805 in total monthly expenses

If you stick to your exact budget, that leaves you with $112. Still ahead of the game, right? Well, what if…

…your apartment rent goes up?

…you have to pay for parking at work?

…the transmission goes out on your car?

…you want to go on a vacation?

…you decide to go to graduate school?

…you want to buy new clothes for work?

…you are invited to be in a friend’s wedding?

All of a sudden, your budget starts to feel much tighter. $112 feels like pennies. A credit card begins to look like your best option for meeting all of your short-term wants and needs, and you can’t even begin to think about saving for a house, or retirement, or…anything.

Is that the life that you want? Probably not. But if you do the leg work ahead of time–you apply for scholarships and work during the school year; you go to community college for 2 years, then transfer or you choose a state school instead of a private school; you live at home and commute or find the cheapest college apartment you can–you know what that does for your budget? That leaves you with $542 at the end of each month, instead of $112. Over the course of a year, that’s over $6500, and THAT is how you begin to live the life you want after college.

Paying for College: What NOT to Do

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I loved college. I lived with a fantastic roommate who is still a close friend and I even met my husband there. I learned a lot and still have fond memories of that time in my life. I’ve also spent more than a decade paying for it.

Before I share my mistakes, here are the things that I did right:

  • I took college courses in high school. They were general education classes (English, French, etc.) that knocked out a few of the required classes I would have otherwise had to take my freshman year. It was also cheaper to take them while in high school.
  • I went to community college for my first two years, even though I had good grades in high school. During that time, I worked several jobs to pay for school and I lived at home. I also took summer classes in order to finish in a year and a half so that I could work for a semester before transferring to a 4-year college.
  • I chose to finish my bachelor’s degree at a state school. It was a very highly-regarded school in a small, semi-rural town (Its nickname is “Harvard of the Cornfields.” I kid you not).

That all sounds great, right? Well, if you’ve read some of my other posts, including this one about paying off almost $100,000 in debt, then you know that I still ended up with a massive amount of student loan debt. Some of that was from graduate school loans, but a great deal of it was from my last two years of undergrad. Looking back, I wish I could give myself a solid roundhouse kick, a la Chuck Norris, because…

Here’s what I didn’t do right:

  • I didn’t apply for scholarships. At the time, I made every excuse in the book: it took too much time to apply, there were too many people applying and I would never be chosen, the amount for a particular scholarship was too little to matter, etc. But you know what? It takes a lot more time to pay off student loans. I had good grades, was involved in extracurricular activities, and could write a decent essay. And $500 IS NOT A SMALL AMOUNT OF MONEY (in 2003, that would have bought me at least one semester’s worth of books).
  • I didn’t get a job while I was at school. Although I did work when I came home during breaks, I chose not to get a job during the school year. I believe it had something to do with “cramping my style” (a.k.a. “preventing me from being able to go out with my friends.”) I also didn’t save any of the money that I earned during breaks, nor did I use it towards tuition or books (see: “going out with friends”). Between the hours that I worked during the holidays and the summer, I could have easily paid for a semester of classes.
  • I didn’t plan my classes well. I originally went to school to become a teacher. Imagine my surprise when, while planning my classes for what I thought was my last year of college, I realized that student teaching would add an extra semester. If I had planned out my strategy on day one, I could have loaded up a couple of extra courses throughout the two years, maybe taken one or two summer classes, and graduated on time. Instead, I had to pay for an extra semester.
  • I took out the full amount in student loans. Instead of taking out just enough to pay for classes, books, room, and board, I took out every last penny. After tuition was paid, I used the rest of the money to rent an overpriced apartment and to pay for groceries, going out, clothes, and anything else I wanted.

What about you–what money mistakes did you make in college?

What is the Real Cost of Your Purchases?

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There is something about getting closer to paying off debt that sometimes makes it feel more difficult not to overspend. It’s odd, I know–you would think that with the end in sight, I would be hyper-focused all of the time on spending as little as possible. After working on this goal for so long though, I see how much we make and what we could be doing with that money instead of paying for our past financial mistakes. Some days, that can feel incredibly frustrating.

Several months ago, when my husband and I had our financial breakthrough and finally got on the same page with our budget, I remember him being shocked to find out that there were plenty of times that I wanted to spend money. He was under the impression that I had trained myself to want as little as possible. That couldn’t be further from the truth! I am tempted to spend extra money all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME. Here’s a sampling of purchases that I was tempted to make just in the past week:

  • An iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts
  • A movie on Apple TV
  • A subscription to StitchFix
  • A book on Amazon
  • Another pair of Frye boots (Amazon Prime Day, you are a seductive temptress)
  • A hat at Target
  • A new air conditioner from ANYWHERE
  • A membership to our local co-op grocery store

If I had thrown the budget to the wind and made all of those purchases, I would have easily spent around $700. In the course of a year, $700 might not seem like a big deal. That’s when I have to stop and remind myself what that $700 represents:

  • That’s a $700 step back from paying off a loan with only $4,500 left on it.
  • That’s a $700 step back from creating our full emergency fund
  • That’s a $700 step back from funding our daughter’s 529 account
  • That’s a $700 step back from putting more into retirement
  • That’s another month in between us and the celebration vacation we plan to take when we finish paying off debt

And for what? For a coffee that I could make at home, a movie that I don’t need to buy because there are literally thousands to choose from on Netflix, a clothing subscription I don’t need because I can go to the consignment store, a book I don’t need because I have a library card, boots I don’t need because I already have a pair, a hat that I don’t need because I never wear hats during the summer, an air conditioner that I don’t need because we already have two that (mostly) work, and a membership to a grocery store that I can shop at without a membership.

So to those of you who get down on yourselves about spending money you don’t have–I get it. I’ve been there before and I’m still there sometimes. It’s hard work to stick to your goal of paying off debt. It’s hard work to have budget conversations with your spouse. It’s hard work to put most of your paycheck towards mistakes you made 10 years ago. It’s hard, hard, hard. But the payoff will be amazing, and so worth it. Don’t give up.

How to Pay Off Nearly $100,000 in Debt

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“Ok, I have to ask. How on earth do you pay off almost $100,000 in debt??”

As my friend asked the question, I heard the familiar sounds of frustration and disbelief in her voice. I recognized the sounds because about five years ago (and many times since), I felt the same way. Debt feels stifling and overwhelming. It’s that weight on your chest that seems to get heavier every time you want to buy something. It’s that monster whose eyes you try to avoid, knowing that eventually, it’s going to bite. I KNOW that feeling–the “that plan works for those people, but WE could never pay off all of our debt” feeling. But now, we have paid off our cars and are on track to finish paying off our student loans before the end of this year, totaling nearly $100,000 in debt payoff. How? Two words:

Debt. Snowball.

About 7 years ago, I came across a book called The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. At the time, I was finishing my second graduate degree and working at a low-paying job. My husband, who I was dating at the time, was also working a fairly low-paying job. We assumed that car payments were normal–everyone we knew had them–that student loans were meant to be paid off over 20 years, and that as long as we were making the minimum payment on our credit cards each month, we were doing just fine. The problem was, we were barely covering our bills and were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then I was introduced to the concept of the debt snowball. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you have 5 debts (not counting your mortgage, which Ramsey does not include in the debt snowball. The mortgage gets paid off later):

  1. Student Loan A: $15,000
  2. Student Loan B: $2,000
  3. Student Loan C: $7,000
  4. Car Loan: $30,000
  5. Credit Card: $3,000

 

Step One: List all of your debts from smallest to largest, regardless of interest rate.

Student Loan B $2,000
Credit Card $3,000
Student Loan C $7,000
Student Loan A $15,000
Car Loan $30,000

 

Step Two: Pay the minimum on all debts except for the smallest. Any extra money in your budget should go towards the smallest debt. (Not sure how to create a budget? Here’s how we do it). Do that every month until the smallest debt is paid off.

Loan Balance Min. Payment Addl. Payment
Student Loan B $2,000 $50 $98
Credit Card $3,000 $60 $0
Student Loan C $7,000 $80 $0
Student Loan A $15,000 $120 $0
Car Loan $30,000 $250 $0

 

Step Three: Take the money you put towards the smallest debt ($50 in the example above), plus any extra money in your budget ($98 in the example above) and put that towards the next smallest debt. Keep doing that until the second smallest debt is paid off. Repeat the process with the remaining debts until all are paid off.

Loan Balance Min. Payment Addl. Payment
Student Loan B $0- PAID! $0 $0
Credit Card $3,000 $60 $148
Student Loan C $7,000 $80 $0
Student Loan A $15,000 $120 $0
Car Loan $30,000 $250 $0

Here’s why this works: little wins motivate you to achieve bigger wins.

Why not arrange your debts by interest rate? Imagine that Student Loan A ($15,000) has an interest rate of 6.8%, and Student Loan B ($2,000) has an interest rate of 3.5%. It would take you much longer to pay off Student Loan A, right? It’s a lot harder to keep up your momentum if it takes you 5 years to achieve a goal, instead of 1 year.

The same holds true for trying to spread out extra money across all of your payments, which is exactly what I used to do. I thought that I would chip away at all of them at the same time. IT DOESN’T WORK. Compounding interest erases your progress, leaving you to wonder, after 8 years of paying on a student loan, why you still have a principal balance of $8,500 on a loan that was originally $10,000. Why. WHY?

By focusing on the smallest debt first and getting it out of the way, you see that you can actually do it. You don’t have to live with these payments forever. That motivates you for the next one, and the next one. Then you get to the point that we are at, where you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s beautiful. I’m talking Will Ferrell in Old School, “I saw Blue, and he looked gloooorious” kind of beautiful.

Have any of you tried the Snowball Method for paying off debt, or has a different strategy worked for you?