My student loan debt terrified me for a long time. Together, my wife and I had over $100,000 in student loan debt, the majority of which was mine at over $75,000 in total.
It’s not that I had collectors beating on my door or that I thought about it constantly (but it rarely left my thoughts) (we paid our bills on time). Instead, I believed that debt would be a constant in my life. Student loans had parked themselves in front of my house like Uncle Eddie in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” with no plans to move until they had drained all the resources they could find nearby.
The really shocking part is that I chose to take on those loans. I made my mark by signing. And I needed to do all in my power to take care of every bill and every last penny to make sure my parents, who co-signed on my loans, never paid a dime more than they had already generously given to my education. We agreed that while my parents would support my decision to attend college and assist pay for my education, I would be responsible for the remaining sum.
According to a recent Google Consumer survey from Credit Sesame, conversations like this take place all over the United States. More over 20%, or one in five, of the 5,400 persons we surveyed who were questioned about student loans, said they had one or more. Those who have loans, like myself, worry about repaying them.
The student loan holders gave the following responses:
Two-thirds of people worry about paying their debts back, and a third of them worry a lot. I would suggest that the 27.5 percent who claim they are not concerned should be.
Debt levels differ greatly. Nearly 39% of respondents indicated that they had debt of between $20,000 and $100,000, which is the most common loan amount revealed in the poll. The category that best reflects my circumstances was stated by little under 10% of respondents, while 30.6 percent reported $5,000 to $20,000, 21 percent reported under $5,000, and just under 5 percent reported under $5,000.
Like myself, these respondents had some mixed emotions about the degree they obtained in light of the amount of money they had to borrow to finish it. Only 41% believe that the cost of their degree was worthwhile. The remaining 59% either believed that their degree was not worth the debt or were unsure.
How we fell so far short
When you combine the various consumer debt that the ordinary American has with their student loan debt, you have the ideal environment for deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. You can easily be driven over by the debt like a Mack truck because you see it but your brain doesn’t recognize the danger.
My wife and I had a $10,000 auto loan, several thousand dollars in medical costs related to the birth of our oldest kid, and roughly $2,000 in credit card debt during the early years of student loan payments. Despite having taken part in student debt deferment programs while finishing our master’s degree and despite having decreased payments through a forbearance plan, it almost got too much to think about.
Reality finally struck us where it ached. We moved to St. Louis for my full-time journalism career soon after the birth of our first son. We were enjoying the area and the friends we had met, I was making more money than I ever imagined, and my wife was able to stay at home with our infant boy. But because of how far apart we were from our loved ones, our jobs, our churches, and our favorite attractions, we had to spend far more money on gas than we had anticipated.
We struggled to make ends meet due to transportation costs, other expenses, and $800 to $1,000 in minimum monthly student loan payments (all on one wage). We had trouble paying for our monthly groceries. We understood that something had to change.
My wife came upon Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps plan one day while browsing a message board for mothers. Many of our friends adopted his strategy and had significant financial gains, but in my opinion, there is no strategy that can help you pay off $100,000 in student loans. Simply put, the debt is excessive.
Nevertheless, this time, we were intrigued. What other options had we attempted that had worked at all? The book was borrowed by my wife, who devoured it in a few hours. I finished it in a day or two as well, finding motivation I never imagined.
The things we did to begin gaining traction
You’ve probably heard of individuals who took debt repayment seriously and eliminated tens of thousands of dollars in the first 18 months. Although I’m ecstatic for those people, I must be clear that my family and I do not belong in this group. In the end, we made progress, but not without many pauses and starts.
First, create a rainy day fund. We didn’t finish the first baby step—saving up a $1,000 emergency fund—for at least a year. Every once in a while, an unforeseen expense would arise that prevented us from achieving our objective, and because we had to spend so much money each month to cover the minimum student loan payments, we had to create a strict and extremely thin budget in order to move on.
It is very possible to pay off your student loan debt. However, it will be a struggle and may take longer than you anticipate.
Step 2: Increase income. The second thing we did was add more work to our family’s income. In order to dig your way out of debt, as Ramsey is used to remark, sometimes you need a bigger shovel, i.e. money. Once more, my wife took the lead by accepting extra work that she could complete from home at night when our son was asleep.
My wife, a scientist who is currently earning her Ph.D., began by contacting academics with whom she had previously developed contacts. She subsequently expanded her circle and made friends with numerous people she had never met. She also developed contacts that ultimately resulted in excellent funding for her present degree program in addition to additional earning options.
We relocated while I started a new career in a rural area of the state. One of our better choices turned out to be moving. Living expenses in our new home were incredibly affordable, and every amenity we required was nearby rather than 20 or 30 minutes away. I started doing freelance writing and editing within a year of the relocation. I’m appreciative of those possibilities, my full-time position with, and the advancements I’ve attained thus far.
Eat a cheap and healthful food as the third step. For a long period, we reduced our monthly shopping budget for a family of three to around $100. Even though we only have roughly $24,000 left to pay off our student debts as of the time of this writing, we nonetheless ate a balanced diet and avoided the temptation to dine out by consuming a considerable amount of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Build momentum with loan payments and items made below retail prices in step #4. Though it took well over a year for my family to really be able to pay much more than the minimum each month, we started paying off debts from smallest to largest. Until we reached a monthly payment of $3,000 or more, we made a few extra payments here and there totaling $100 or $300. We now know how to haggle over major items. For instance, our first two cars had substantial debts, but we paid cash for our family’s van since we expected to require a car that could accommodate more people.
Without a doubt, purchasing anything that aren’t brand new or have some wear comes with dangers. But for our family, the short-term losses result in long-term gains.
Why once you start, it’s difficult to stop
I’m here to tell you that you will experience a sense of pleasure you’ve never had once you start making regular student loan payments over the minimum. You’ll ultimately read “paid in full” notices, which are much better.
It is a blessing to be able to pay off college loans. Be incredibly proud if you’ve been given incredible possibilities and are utilizing them to alter (for the better) the financial trajectory of your family.
Let’s also acknowledge that I did not achieve this on my own. My friends, family, and other supporters all contributed to helping me cross the finish line. Daily, I give thanks for everything. My wife has endured a lot of crazy things. That debt was primarily mine before we exchanged vows. However, we both believe that the experience has made us stronger and that we will never go back.
We’re currently noting the date on our calendar when we can pay off our last school loan. We are thrilled to be able to make significant retirement investments and college savings for our children. After all, they were the ones that genuinely motivated us to alter our way of life and pay off our debt. Being parents taught us that some sacrifices are worthwhile.
I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have gone to a four-year institution, to have earned a master’s degree, and to have parents who made significant and ongoing sacrifices so that I could attend college. I’m extremely appreciative of them. I’m incredibly appreciative of my wonderful wife’s dedication, hard work, and willingness to pay off what were primarily my loans.
However, I’m still unsure about student debt. Currently, my wife and I do not intend to allow our kids to take out loans for their schooling.
Whatever your situation, you can overcome the mountain of debt. You must examine every aspect of your financial life and make compromises, no matter how painful they may be. Observe not only the trees but the entire forest. Beyond those payments, which are the trees, a portfolio of paid-off student loans looks really, really nice, particularly when you can declare that you’ve reached the clearing and can leave those woods behind for good.