Tag Archives: student loans

Is college worth it?

Lately, there have been tons of headlines touting the idea that rising unemployment, high tuition costs, and overcrowding in the post-college job market have made college degrees a poor value. Proponents of this theory believe that other career tracks — such as internships and entry-level positions that don’t require a degree — may be a smarter idea to get students into the work force faster without spending thousands of dollars.

I think this Time article does a pretty good job of dispelling this theory:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the median weekly earnings for someone with some college but no degree were $712, compared to $1038 for a college graduate. That’s almost $17,000 over the course of a year and there is an even bigger divide for those with less education. College graduates are also more likely to be in jobs with better benefits, further widening the divide. Meanwhile, in 2010, the unemployment rate was 9.2 percent for those with only some college and more than 10 percent for those with just a high school degree, but it was 5.4 percent for college graduates. The economic gaps between college completers and those with less education are getting larger, too.

These statistics paint a pretty obvious picture. It appears that college graduates are not only less likely to face unemployment, but their salaries are thousands of dollars higher than non-college grads.

That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem, though. As someone who personally made the foolish choice to unnecessarily borrow thousands for a college degree, I think college debt is a serious problem in this country.

That doesn’t mean I regret my decision to go to college. My college education opened doors for me. Not only did I learn valuable skills during my time at college, but I was able to find a job afterward that taught me even more valuable skills — and allowed me to support my husband and me while he earned a master’s degree, which is what allows him to pay our bills now. Do I regret the debt, though? You betcha.

You could argue that a college degree isn’t required for my freelance income. However, it’s unlikely I’d have the skills necessary to earn my freelance income without my degree and previous work experience. Not to mention, I don’t plan to be a stay-at-home mom indefinitely. When my youngest child starts school, I’ll be back in the job market. Depending on how many children we have, it could be a while, but I’m glad I won’t be starting college at that point like my mom did.

I think the question of whether college is “worth it” is silly. The more important question is whether college debt is “worth it.” And to me, the answer is no. The debt isn’t worth living beyond your means as a college student.

Skipping college isn’t the answer. The answer is skipping college debt (or at least as much of it as you can). Attend a state school or community college for all or part of your education. Apply for grants and scholarships. Work as much as you possibly can. Live frugally. Do not use student loans to subsidize your beer and pizza fund or buy expensive gadgets or a car you can’t afford. Work full time and attend school part time for longer than four years.

I’m not naive enough to claim that graduating with no debt is an option for everyone. I acknowledge that middle class students without a college nest egg often have limited options. As someone who attended a state school, worked two jobs in college, received financial help from parents, and still didn’t have enough to pay for tuition and living expenses, I understand that avoiding all debt may not be possible if you want to graduate in under a decade. But the point is to borrow as little as you possibly can — and the ideal is to borrow none.

If you’re a graduating senior, please trust me when I tell you — your first job will not pay you enough to make those student loans payments easy. But don’t feel discouraged enough to skip college all together. An education is absolutely worth the hard work required to pay for it — the debt, however, is not.

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Why we chose to let debt-free living wait

Update: I just wanted to clarify something. We are currently repaying our student loan debt slowly but surely. Our loans are not in forbearance. We just aren’t focusing our efforts solely on debt repayment. We’re splitting our extra income between debt repayment and savings.

In January 2009, we paid off our credit card debt. Compared to some of the debt horror stories you hear, our amount was relatively low — it was about $4,000 left over from college overspending and car repairs. We paid it off in just over a year while Tony was a graduate student and I was working in retail. Money was very tight at the time, so we’ve always been proud that we were not only able to avoid increasing out debt at that time, but we were able to pay it off.

We’re not debt-free, though. Not even close. Between the two of us, we still have a huge chunk of student loan debt — to the tune of $50,000.

For the past year or so, we’ve continued to pay minimum payments on my loans. We haven’t even begun paying Tony’s debt back because his loans are deferred until he graduates.

So here’s my confession: for right now, paying off our student loan debt is not our #1 priority. And it probably won’t be for another 5 years.

When we were working to pay off our credit card debt, we weren’t using every penny of our extra income for debt-repayment. We knew we had a move coming up in a year, and we wanted to build an emergency fund because we wanted to start a family. We made the decision to split our income between savings and debt repayment.

Right after we finished paying off our credit card debt, our plan was to use that money to pay off our student loans. But when you’re living on a small income, there just isn’t a lot of money to go around. We realized that in order to reach our savings goals, we’d need to divert a lot more money into savings.

Then we started talking about Europe. Believe me, I know that in the frugal community, saving for a vacation like that with as much debt as we have is a no-no. But you know what? We didn’t want to wait until we were debt-free to live our lives. Sure, we could put every penny toward debt and really work to pay down those student loans right now. Even then, we’d be well into our 30s before they were paid off. By then we’ll have children, maybe even a house, and a lot more financial responsibility. We’ll hopefully have more income, too.

Does debt-repayment mean putting everything else on hold when you’re young? In my opinion, no. For some people, the rush they get from sending another huge payment to pay off debt is enough to keep them motivated. Not me. If we were using every penny to pay off debt right now, it would be so depressing for me.

Unless we magically double our income overnight, it’s going to take us years to pay off this debt. For years and years, our only focus would be debt repayment. I’m not going to wait to do and see the things I want to see. I’m not going to wait to start a family or save for a house. That debt is going to be there for a long time. I can’t wait that long to live my life.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan, though. There are just a couple things that are going to come first. When we get settled in Indiana, we’ll be in survival mode until Tony gets settled in a job. Then we’ll replenish our emergency fund. Then we’ll start saving for a house. Once we’re moved into a house, it will finally be time for us to put all of our extra money toward those debts.

This method isn’t for everyone. I’m sure many of you think it’s crazy for us to leave that debt alone for the next 5 years or so, accruing interest. When it’s time to pay it off, though, I plan to do it in about 5 years. Our plan is to buy a very modest starter home, which will help us put more money toward debt. It will be tough, but at least I’ll know that I’m not missing out on experiences in order to do it.

Photo by sgw

Should we pay off all debt before buying a home?


We’ve been doing some big planning again for the future. That’s always dangerous. :) But lately, we’ve been talking about a timeline for becoming homeowners.

The closer Tony gets to finishing school (about 17 months now), the more confident we feel that we want to live near family. We’re pretty set on starting our own family shortly after Tony finds a teaching job, and we don’t want to raise our kids more than a couple hours away from their grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Now that we’re pretty sure we know where we want to settle down, we’ve been bitten by the homeowner bug. We want a backyard where the dog can run, and we want more space of our own for our family. Our original plan was to rent a house when we move. Then I started looking at the cost of rent for even small houses.

I don’t know how much the market will change in the next couple years, but as of right now with our stellar credit history and low housing costs in the Midwest, a small, older home in Indiana would likely yield a lower mortgage payment than we’d pay to rent a comparable home, especially if we can save a chunk of change for a down payment. It just doesn’t make sense to me for us to pay more in rent than we would if we owned a home, especially since we don’t want to move again for a long time. We’ve spent the last 6 years of our lives moving way too frequently. We’re ready to just settle down and stay put.

The only problem is that we won’t be anywhere near paying off our student loan debt. In the past I had lofty dreams about paying down our student loans before even thinking about buying a home. But now I’m just not so sure.

Currently, our only remaining debt is $60,000 in student loans. It’s overwhelming, and when I think about trying to pay that down, save for a house, and survive all on one teacher’s salary, it feels impossible.

The plan was to move into an apartment, pay down that debt, and then start saving for a down payment for a home after that. I’m just concerned that on that plan we’ll be 35 before we can start saving for a home.

So we’ve been talking about an alternative plan: continuing to save as much money as we can, renting a tiny apartment for a year or so after we move to save even more money for a down payment, and then buying a home. Then we’ll work toward paying off student loan debt from there.

Even the tiniest apartment will be doable for just a year while we’re working toward the goal of home ownership. The longest amount of time we’d have to live there with a baby would be 3 months (and that’s under the unlikely circumstance that I got pregnant immediately after we start trying). However, I wouldn’t want to be cramped like that for the long term while we paid off student loan debt and saved for a house for 5+ years.

Right now we’re paying a little more than the minimum amount on the student loan debt, and that’s what we’d continue to pay while saving for a house. Now that we’re out of credit card debt, I feel okay about paying off the student loan debt slowly while we’re getting started. It’s going to take us so much time to pay off, I just don’t want to wait years to start working toward other goals.

What do you think?

How do we measure up to national averages?

One of the main concepts of frugality is that life isn’t a competition when it comes to finances. I try to avoid comparing myself to other people, because we inevitably fall short in terms of material possessions.

Just for fun, though, I took a look at some national averages to see where we fall on the spectrum. I was actually surprised to discover that in some ways we’re right on target. I had hoped we’d be considerably more frugal than the national average, but it turns out we’re pretty average.


I couldn’t find any hard and fast statistics newer than 2004. As of 2004, the average American spent 21% of their income on housing costs. But that was 5 years ago, and so much has changed since then. According to CNN Money, mortgage costs should equal no more than 28% of your income. Our rent is about 26% of our monthly income, so it looks like we’re pretty average in that respect.


This is my favorite category. :) As of February, the national personal savings rate reached 4.2%. We save a minimum of 21.5% of our after-tax income every month. Yay us!


I’m sort of bummed about where we fall here. According to the USDA food plans, families of 2 living on a “thrifty” food plan spend $82.10 a week on food. Doesn’t sound too thrifty to me. We typically spend $60 a week at the grocery store, but our monthly food costs are closer to $400 total, or $100 a week.

We’ve become increasingly lazy about monitoring food costs, and those extra trips to the grocery store and occasional meals out really do add up. So we’re closer to the “low-cost” food plan, which is about $104.60 a week (again, that doesn’t really sound “low-cost” to me). We’ve always struggled with food spending, and this little comparison exercise has really opened my eyes. We need to crack down.


The average American owes $8,329 to credit card companies. We owe $0 to credit card companies. Woo hoo! When it comes to student loan debt, we fall above the national average, though. The average American student graduates with about $21,900 in debt (that’s $43,800 per couple). We owe about $60,000 to student lenders, or about $30,000 each. That’s about 37% more than the average. :(


Again I struggled to find recent statistics for what the average American saves for retirement on a monthly or even yearly basis. I guess there are too many factors. But a number that gets tossed around a lot as a “recommended savings amount” is 15% of your income. We’re just getting started on retirement savings, and we made the decision to start slow for now at a 3.5%. Not so good, but our plan is to ramp up our retirement savings when we finish paying down our debt and get our liquid savings where we want it to be.

This was an eye-opening exercise that really showed me where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We should be able to easily cut our food costs, netting us about $160 a month for savings and debt repayment. We just renewed our lease, so there’s not a lot we can do about our housing costs until we move, but when we move we’ll try to get below the national average. I’d like to fall on the lower end of the scale in all of these categories (except savings and retirement, of course).

How does your budget compare to national averages?

My biggest financial mistakes in college & what I learned

Now that I’m frugal, it’s hard not to look back on the choices I made in the past with regret. Luckily, I came to my senses pretty early in life. I could have done a lot more damage throughout my 20s if we hadn’t decided to change our lifestyle before we got married. But I’d be a lot better off if I’d avoided the mistakes I made in my teens and during college.

In the hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, here are the biggest financial mistakes I made before and during college:

I didn’t save for college.

I got my first part time job at 15 years old. I paid for my own car insurance and gas, but other than that I had no bills or responsibilities. I didn’t save a single penny. Where did my money go? I blew it on stuff that I didn’t need.

What I learned: Plan ahead for the things you want. We’re saving now so we can pay cash for our trip to Europe, we’re already saving for retirement, and we’ll start saving early for our children’s college educations.

I didn’t apply for scholarships.

I only applied for a couple scholarships. My grades were above average, and I was active in the school newspaper. If I had taken scholarships more seriously, I would have qualified for at least a few.

What I learned: A little extra work can save you a lot of money. Scholarship applications are the college equivalent of coupons, menu planning, and other frugal pursuits.

I took out private student loans to cover living expenses (and lived extravagantly).

My parents paid my rent, and federal loans covered my tuition. I was responsible for food, car insurance, and utilities. My job at the student newspaper took up a lot of time, but I managed to work part-time my junior and senior year. If I had worked more and lived frugally, I wouldn’t have needed to borrow high-interest loans. Now I’m stuck paying $20,000+ at 8%.

What I learned: Don’t borrow to live a lifestyle you can’t afford. It also taught me the importance of fully understanding all of my financial decisions before making them. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and now I’m paying the price. I wish I could take back my decision, but I’m stuck with these loans. Forever.

I ate out constantly.

At least 75% of the money I spent in college went to restaurant food. This wasn’t good for my bank account or my health.

What I learned: Eating out is expensive and unhealthy! Not only did I drain my bank account, but I gained weight. I appreciate how little we spend on food and how much healthier we are now that we menu plan and buy groceries.

I charged up credit cards and only made minimum payments.

Some of my credit card debt was due to a car that broke down every other week one summer. I didn’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but I had an “emergency” credit card.

Only $1,000 of my $5,000 in credit card debt went to car repairs, though. The rest? Couldn’t tell you. I have no idea where that money went. Probably pizza, clothes, DVDs, and bar tabs. I never missed a payment, but I only sent the minimum. It wasn’t until I graduated, after three years and who knows how much interest paid, that I got serious about paying them off.

What I learned: Plan ahead for emergencies and avoid credit cards. I lived in fear that my car was going to break down because I knew I didn’t have money to cover it. I feel so much better now with an emergency fund. It also taught me about interest rates. You can make minimum payments for your whole life and never make any headway. I’ll apply this lesson someday when we have a car payment and mortgage.

It could have been a lot worse. I had friends with twice as much student loan debt and $20,000 in credit card debt. Yikes.

What are the worst financial mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn?

A difficult decision about student loan repayment

Once we became credit card debt free, we had an extra $200 a month available. We decided to put some of that money toward retirement savings every month, so we only have $100 left to work into the budget.

Yesterday, Tony and I looked at our budget, and talked about where we’d like to put the money.

We have a huge amount of student loan debt (about $60,000 all told). My plan has always been to pay off credit card debt first, and then move on to my private student loans. Private loans account for about 1/3 of our student loan debt, but they carry about a 7% average interest rate. We also have about $40,000 in federal student loans with a much lower interest rate (about 4%).

When I think about all of that debt, I feel so overwhelmed. To make it easier on myself, I’m focusing on one loan at a time — for now the private loans (about $22,600).

I plugged some numbers into a loan repayment calculator to figure out some scenarios. The numbers are disappointing.

  • If we continue paying our current amount ($200 a month), it will take us 10 years to pay off my private loans.
  • If we put the extra $100 toward student loan debt (my original plan), it will be 8 years before the private loans are paid off.
  • Even if we could come up with $500 a month to put toward the private loans alone (while continuing to pay the minimum payment on federal loans), it would take about 4 and a half years to pay off just the private loans. Then we’d still have to pay off $40,000 in federal loans.

“Don’t worry,” people tell me. “Your income will go up.”

The problem is, it probably won’t. Right now I work full time, and Tony makes the equivalent of a part-time salary teaching. Sometime after he graduates, we want to have children. At that point, our roles will switch. He’ll bring in a full time salary, while I work part time (hopefully from home). So we’re looking at quite a while before we see a significant increase in our income.

Tony and I had a long talk about our short- and long-term goals. As much as I want to be debt free (and believe me, I really want to be debt free), at this point in our lives with our limited income and the economy a wreck, my gut is telling me that saving is more important.

Once we’re settled somewhere that we know we want to stay long term — and we have an emergency fund in place — our focus will shift. At that point, we’ll be able to put everything we have into debt. But for now, I want to have as much money stashed as possible.

So we made the decision to continue making minimum payments on student loans for the next year and a half while we beef up our savings. After that, we’ll reassess our financial situation. Hopefully we’ll have enough in savings that we can hold off on saving and shift our focus to debt.

I’m disappointed that we can’t do both, but I’m also confident in our decision. When I look at the difference an extra $100 a month will make in our savings, I feel calm and reassured. I don’t feel that same calm when I see the minor change in our debt that would result from paying an extra $100 a month on it for the next 18 months.

I also don’t regret putting $100 toward retirement every month. If we don’t plan for our future, no one else will. Putting $100 away for retirement every month makes me feel incredibly empowered.

The important thing is that we’re doing what works for us. The best part? Liquid savings is, well, liquid. If we change our minds, we can always pull that money out of savings and put it toward student loans.

Being frugal means being flexible

Over the weekend, I posted my goals for November. In summary, I planned to pay off the entire remaining balance on my credit card and finish half of our Christmas shopping without reducing the amount budgeted for savings.

Well, this week I received a letter from my student loan company that threw off my plans. My student loans are currently in voluntary forbearance, which is a lender-approved delay in repayment. It has no negative effect on my credit score, but the loans continue to accrue interest.

It’s obviously not an ideal situation. However, when I made the decision I had just transferred my credit card balance to a card with an interest-free introductory period. I was simply too overwhelmed by both payments, so I decided to focus on one at a time. I wanted to focus on paying down my credit card debt before the interest-free period ended, and start paying down my student loan debt once my credit card was paid off.

My remaining balance on my credit card is a little higher than the amount I usually budget toward credit card debt, but I shifted things in the budget to allow me to pay it completely this month. My forbearance period on my loan is set to end in December, so it would have worked out perfectly. I would have made my final credit card payment this month, then used that money in December to begin paying down my student loan.

According to the letter I received from my student loan company, even though my forbearance period doesn’t end until December, my first payment is due November 28. Because my consolidation loan hasn’t finished processing yet, the minimum payment due is $300.

I started moving things around in the budget, trying to fit in this extra $300 payment. I found a little wiggle room in our discretionary spending, but our budget was already pretty tight because of Christmas. I didn’t want to cut too much and risk spending more than our income this month. Even after cutting several spending budgets, including a drastic cut to our Christmas shopping fund, I still came up short.

I came up with two possible options to make up the difference:

We could split the difference between the credit card debt and the student loan debt. It would delay our final credit card payment until next month, but allow us to pay the minimum payment on my student loan this month while we wait for the consolidation loan to process.

Or we could reduce the amount we put into savings this month. If we cut our savings amount in half, we could pay the student loan and still pay off my credit card.

Neither option is particularly appealing to me, but you know what? Tough. This is the way it has to be.

I made the decision to cut our savings for the month. I’ve been looking forward to paying off this credit card for a year now. When I opened the interest-free credit card last December, I figured out how much I needed to pay on my credit card each month to ensure that it was paid down before the interest-free period ended.

Even though we were on a very tight budget before I found a full-time job, we diligently paid the bill every month, always looking ahead to the final payment. Sometimes when I started to feel overwhelmed, the only thing that kept me going was the thought of making the final payment this month. The idea of delaying that another month is just too frustrating. I’m willing to cut our savings for a month to make it possible for us to pay the remaining balance.

I was really bummed when I realized my plan wasn’t going to work out perfectly. But you know what? At least we have the money to pay all of our bills. Even when our plans are unexpectedly derailed, we’re still able to put a little bit in savings. It’s not as much as we’d like, but it’s something.

There was a time when $300 would have been impossible to squeeze into the budget. There was a time when we absolutely just didn’t have that kind of extra money. If cutting back our savings a little for a month is as bad as it gets right now, then we’re doing a-ok.

What would you have done?


It sure wasn’t this hard to get the student loans in the first place …

This week I received the loan application and promissory note for my private student loan consolidation. According to the letter, I’ve been “conditionally approved.” If all of my paperwork is sent back correctly and verified, I’ll be actually approved. If I’m able to consolidate these loans, I’ll cut the interest rate and minimum payment almost in half. I’ll also have a shot at paying them down in less than 5 years.

First I need to send in a long list of documents, including a recent statement from the lender with all the loan information, my latest pay stub, a copy of my driver’s license and degree, and a copy of my marriage license since the original loan is still under my maiden name.

I was on hold for an hour Tuesday night trying to get some questions answered about the documents. The list they sent me wasn’t as clear as the one above.

Once I’ve submitted all of the documents, loan processing will begin. They will verify my employment, check my references, etc. They already ran a credit check to conditionally approve me, but they may run a more detailed credit check before the loan is officially approved.

As I go through this process, I can’t help but think back to six years ago when I first took out student loans. It was a lot easier. I filled out FAFSA, which qualified me for a certain amount of student loans. Then I filled out an application, signed it, and they sent me money. They didn’t ask me any questions about employment or monthly expenses. They didn’t even ask if I fully understood the loan.

I absolutely take full responsibility for my decision to take out these student loans. It was my mistake, and believe me, I’m paying for it now. My point is just that I was only 17 years old when I started my freshman year. Because I was turning 18 within a certain number of months, they allowed me take out loans even though I was a minor.

I understand that student loans exist to ensure that every student has the chance to attend college. That’s great. However, it seems to me that if you’re going to allow a minor or even an 18 year old to take out a loan that can never be discharged, not even in bankruptcy, there should be stricter safe guards in place to prevent predatory lending, especially since repayment doesn’t begin until four or five years later. How can an 18-year-old know if they’ll be able to afford a $300+ a month payment in four years? Most of them don’t even know what their careers will be.

Student loans made it possible for me to go to college. That’s nothing to snuff at. But if I had known what I was getting myself into, I would have borrowed a lot less money than I did. I also would have stayed away from private loans and stuck with low-interest federal loans.

Obviously, I should have known better. But I didn’t, and neither do a lot of 18-year-old kids. I remember thinking that it was a lot of money as I filled out the application. I also thought, “I won’t have to worry about this for another four years. By then I’ll be a college graduate, making a ton of money!” Ha. Yeah right.

I remember how I thought about money at 18, and I think about the other 18 year olds I knew. I can’t help but think, “No wonder so many people my age are in this mess.”

Finally on my way to paying down my student loan debt

Last night I called Chase to find out more information about consolidating my private student loan debt for a lower interest rate. I was hesitant to call. With the stock market rebounding yesterday, part of me wanted to wait another week or so to see if the credit market stabilizes a little.

The truth is I was just being a chicken. The economic crisis isn’t going anywhere in the next 6 weeks, so I figured I might as well get this out of the way to find out my options.

Not only do they still offer private loan consolidation, but I’m approved! I answered all of the questions over the phone, they ran a credit report, and approved me based on my credit score, income, etc. Now they’ll send me a loan application and promissory note, which I’ll sign and return with the necessary legal documents.

Honestly, just finding a lender who is willing to issue this type of loan was the hardest part. I’ve worked hard over the past year to raise my credit score, and it seems to be paying off. I doubt I could have gotten this loan in this economic market without a good credit score to back me up.

Depending on the interest rate they offer me, I could see a 50% decrease in my current interest rate. That’s going to translate into thousands of dollars by the time the loan is paid off. It will also mean a lower monthly payment. We’ll continue to send the amount we’ve budgeted for debt repayment ($325 a month plus additional snowflakes), but more of our payment will be going toward the principal instead of interest.

This is a huge relief. I’m hoping now that I’ll be able to get the loan processed without any kinks so I can finally start paying off this debt.

For the past 2 years these student loans have been the source of a huge amount of anxiety for me. They’ve been in voluntary forbearance, which means my credit score has not be adversely affected even though I’m not currently making monthly payments, but the interest has continued to compound. I hated that they were continuing to accrue interest, but I just couldn’t pay both my credit card debt and student loan debt at the same time under our previous financial situation.

I decided it would be best to put the student loans on the back burner so I could focus on getting out of credit card debt. Credit card companies aren’t as forgiving of missed monthly payments as student loan lenders, and they don’t offer voluntary forbearance. They also have higher interest rates.

Watching this debt grow as the interest has continued to compound and knowing that I’m not doing anything about it has been the hardest part. Now that I’m on my way to paying it down, I already feel a lot better. I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve managed to get out of credit card debt, which was once equally overwhelming, so I’m feeling encouraged.

I just hope it continues to go smoothly!