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Do you hate student loans as much as I do?
I’m sure you and I can agree that student loans suck because they can hold us back from living the life we want.
It would be nice to be able to spend on things we enjoy without having to stress over student loan debt.
Not to mention, wouldn’t it also be nice to be able to save for financial independence on the side?
According to this CNBC article:
Over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. That means that roughly one in four American adults are paying off student loans.
Fortunately, the good news is there are things you can do to save money and pay off your student loans faster!
Today, I’m excited to have Bob Haegele, from The Frugal Fellow blog, tell us his story of how he paid off nearly $100,000 in student loans!
On top of that, he will be sharing some life lessons learned and what he would’ve done differently to save money and pay off his student debt faster.
Pin this for later!
What is your story, Bob?
Thanks for having me here!
This is my story of how I repaid my student loans and how to avoid them!
My student loans probably had the biggest impact on my financial life of anything I’ve experienced to date.
Fortunately, I was able to repay them in full – almost two years ago.
Still, it took me nearly eight years to pay them off. And even then, I consider that at least moderately impressive given that I had to repay nearly $100k in total!
So how did I do that, and is there anything you can do to avoid student loans?
Well, you may already know the answer to the second question, but I’ll give more details on that.
How I Ended Up with So Much Debt
One thing you should know is that I attended a private university. That was not planned for. I was going to attend one of the state schools where I’m from.
Unfortunately, my application was rejected, and the private school was the best school into which I was accepted.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.
In high school, they don’t teach us what an unfathomable amount of money $100,000 is – at least for the average, middle-class person.
So, while I knew it was a lot, I figured I would just deal with it.
Fast forward four years, and I find myself with $975 per month MINIMUM payments. Keep in mind, the reason I had to pay so much was because these were actually Parent PLUS Loans.
Yes, technically my parents were the borrowers, but since I was graduated and working, that just wouldn’t make sense.
They didn’t “make” me pay, but I knew it was my responsibility. Plus, they are not rich by any means. Not poor, but certainly not rich.
Plus, I majored in IT and started working in that field right after college. I made enough to assume responsibility.
But it wasn’t just having a decent-paying job. There were plenty of other little things I did.
How I Took Control of My Student Loans
As I often say, interest on student loans is basically throwing money away.
At least with a mortgage or auto loan, you get the daily benefit of a tangible item you benefit from using.
With a degree, though, there is really no daily benefit, and very little benefit to be had after you land your first job. For that reason, I knew I had to pay them off as soon as possible.
There were lots of little things I did to pay off my student loans.
Funny enough, some of them were kind of by accident – at the time, I still wasn’t thinking about my financial future.
But if I found myself in that situation again, I would have done the same.
1. I worked throughout college.
This falls into the category of things that proved to be helpful in terms of repaying my student loans – although I didn’t think of it that way at the time.
I’ve never considered myself to be a workaholic, and I didn’t look for a job with the intent of graduating debt-free. Basically, I knew that one way or another, I would need money. Be it for food, beer (I mean, ahem…“beverages”), or whatever else I might need.
So, I worked odd jobs.
During my school years, I worked at the university library.
During the summer, I worked various seasonal jobs.
I worked in retail, food service, and most interestingly, for a tourist photography company in downtown Chicago.
Ever ride a roller coaster and have someone try to sell you your photo at the end? That’s what they did, except at tourist attractions rather than amusement parks.
In any case, that extra money was helpful. Okay, so I spent most of it, but I was able to save a little bit, too.
I only worked part-time hours during the school years, so perhaps I could have put in more hours if I really wanted to.
2. I lived with my parents after graduating.
This was honestly the single most helpful thing I did to help me repay my student loans. That’s because my parents didn’t charge me for rent!
I feel very fortunate to have had the option to do this. After all, housing is where most of us spend the biggest percentage of our budgets.
That’s especially true because I wasn’t making very much money right out of college.
At my first full-time job, I made about $39,000/year. That is not very much for someone working in IT, particularly in Chicago.
Even though I was a new grad, I probably should have started at least a few thousand higher. But being the desperate new grad that I was, I took the offer despite it being low.
However, because I was lucky enough to live with my parents, I was still able to make those crazy $975 payments.
Speaking of which…
3. I refinanced my student loans.
I actually wish I had done this years earlier! I really could have, and I don’t have a great explanation for why I didn’t.
Regardless, this really help me reduce my payments.
Personally, I refinanced through SoFi.
There are other lenders here that offer student loan refinancing, but I went with SoFi due to their great reviews. I did have a great experience and was able to reduce my payments to a MUCH more manageable $275/month.
I also reduced my interest rate from 7.8% to around 5%. Much better for sure, and something I should have done much sooner as I said.
4. I graduated in four years.
The reason I call this out is because, while I thought it was a given, it turns out that it isn’t!
Not only that but my time in college was far from perfect. I switched my major after freshman year; as a result, I had to a whole new college within the university.
As a result, there were a few credits that wouldn’t transfer. Oh yeah, and I actually re-took two classes. Ugh.
But I still graduated in four years. I had to take on 18 credits a few semesters (in addition to working at the library), but I made it work. You do what you have to.
Even just one extra semester would have been a lot more money! I’m glad I graduated on time.
How to Avoid (or Reduce) Student Loans
It’s important to understand that, while it’s possible to lessen the burden of student loans, it’s even better to reduce the burden before it starts – if possible.
So, what are some ways to do that?
1. Pick a cheaper school.
This is the most obvious way to reduce tuition costs.
Of course, that was my original intent, although I did not get accepted to my first choice.
To give a real comparison, though, the difference (at least here in the US) can be huge. I wanted to attend the University of Illinois, which currently cost $15,058. Where I actually went was Marquette University, where the current tuition is $38,470.
Yes, you read that right.
Granted, where I went, the cost was ~$27,000. After factoring in inflation, the cost is still around $4,000 more. Nevertheless, the difference between private and public is huge!
According to CollegeData (registration required to view), the average cost in 2017-2018 for private tuition was $34,740 vs. $9,970 for public universities.
It’s tough to recommend a private school unless you get a full – or almost full – scholarship.
Which brings me to my next point!
2. Get as much financial aid/scholarship/grant money as possible.
This is something I definitely did not look into as much as I probably (definitely) should have.
When I was “but a boy,” I was very nonchalant about all this – big mistake there!
Only later would I find out that there are lots of ways to potentially lessen the cost of tuition.
In addition to things like Pell Grants, there are other ways to lessen the cost as well. For example, I ended up meeting Evans scholars at school.
They were given a full scholarship just for being a golf caddy! The only other caveat is they had to live at the house for scholarship recipients, but still – obviously that is not a bad deal.
In addition, one of my roommates was awarded a full scholarship plus room/board/a meal plan. All of this was fully paid for!
So how did he score such a sweet deal? He was part of the Navy ROTC program.
And that was actually pretty intense – he had to do intense psychical training where he ran six miles per session. That won’t be for everyone, but it’s great for those who are up for the challenge!
The point is, there are lots of ways to lessen the student loan burden.
Once you have your college picked out, you can contact the financial aid office before you start and ask them what is available.
3. Consider alternatives to a four-year degree.
Really, there are a lot of options here; so many that I couldn’t possibly cover all of them.
However, I like to challenge this narrative that we “have” to go to college.
Don’t get me wrong – it is still financially beneficial for many. It’s been said that college graduates earn about $500,000 more over the course of their lifetimes.
However, one can still get a four-year degree while attending a community college for a couple of years. I know, you’ve probably heard that one before, but I wish I had considered it back then!
Another option is going directly into a trade, such as being an electrician, plumber, or construction worker. Again, while not for everyone, these trades can be quite lucrative without the burden of any student loans at all.
And, as of late, I have been hearing more about things such as Codeacademy. The idea is that you learn to code on your own time without needing a school to guide you.
I think it’s a great concept because for most employers, showing you can do the work is what really matters.
After all, a degree is just a piece of paper.
Student Loans Don’t Have to Suck
I definitely had a lot of lessons learned when it comes to student loans, but they really don’t have to be all that bad if you do your “homework” ahead of time – pun intended.
There are so many options, but the most important thing is to not assume “that’s just the way it is.” That is largely the attitude I had throughout the process, and that is what was my major stumbling block.
You may need to think outside the box; you may even need to be a little creative.
But, indeed, don’t assume “that’s just the way it is” like I did.
Reach out to your student office, do your own independent research, and just try to find as many options as you can.
If you do that, I’m confident you will fare much better than I did!
Bob Haegele is a personal finance blogger who blogs at The Frugal Fellow. In addition to personal finance, his blog is about promoting a sustainable lifestyle. That means not only being more environmentally-friendly but also challenging the idea that the 9-5 is “normal.” Having moved to various parts of the US, he is a bit of a nomad. He’s working toward financial independence while blogging and traveling the world.
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