There is a great financial burden I carry around with me. It is a burden that millions of people share. It is a burden that seems so big and so strong that many of us stop fighting it and accept it as part of us. At least this is where I have found myself. Although it makes my face cringe up when I say it, I guess I just need to come right out and do so; the burden of student loans. I think I may need to sanitize my laptop after typing that. (Maybe I am being a little over dramatic.)

The Convenience

Let’s face it, as a teen coming out of high school, even into our 20s, perhaps even into our 30s, when it comes to finance, we do not always make the best decisions in the world. I do strive to live life without regrets. After all, our lives are a giant series of experiences and how we react to them. We have the opportunity to learn something from every situation and experience.

When I first started my college adventure, finances were the last thing on my mind. The thousands of dollars I spent each semester did not even seem like real money to me. The way I saw the world, college was a way to get ahead and since I was not making any decent amount of money, student loans were the logical thing to use to pay for my education. They were convenient. I am grateful that my parents were able to help out with a lot of the costs. With the insanely high-cost of college (at least for me), there were still some costs that were not covered.

Starting at a community college, upon realizing that I needed some assistance with making the payments for classes, I walked into the financial aid office of my community college and ask what I needed to do. Since my government assistance was not enough to cover my expenses, the answer I was given was to apply for student loans.

It made complete sense to me, after all it was the only way to pay for the classes I have already signed up for. Besides, I was told that I would not have to worry about any repayment until a few months after graduation. My thought was “Awesome! I don’t need to worry about this now and I can work on my degree that will lead me to a terrific paying job that will have these loans paid off in no time.” (I apparently was very optimistic about the future of our economy).

After a few years at the community college, I moved across the country and decided to finish my degree at a private university. I took a tour, found a program I really enjoyed and worked with some great people for 2 more years as I finished my degree. Life is good! After moving, starting school and getting a new job, I was lucky enough to find myself in a position where my employer offered tuition reimbursement. This was a great benefit that I was excited to take advantage of and knew that it would help to cut down on the loan balance that would become due after graduation.

The Mess

It was August of 2009, I was 5 months away from graduation; something I had been looking forward to for a long time. When I was in high school I had always knew that I wanted to get my degree and here I was with the finish line in sight. After just getting married to my beautiful wife, I had been laid off and out of work. It was hard to find anything! It had been years since I had taken that first class at the community college and the student loan interest was building up. At the time, I paid no attention to it. It was not even a worry in my mind. After the layoff, I knew I had to stay focused in order to be able to finish classes and get to graduation day.

I did it though. I complete all of my requirements, passed all the final exams and walked with my classmates on that glorious day in December 2009. It seemed so surreal. This was an accomplishment I was looking forward to for so long.

Six months after graduation, the student loan repayment statements started rolling in. I gathered all the info and looked at what I owed. That number couldn’t be right, could it? Between all the different loans I had, the numbers added up to over a year’s salary (and I am not even working any longer)! How am I ever going to pay this off?

The Realization

I finally understood the true cost of what I had experienced. Having attended a private university for 2 years, the bill due was much more than I even anticipated. I am glad to say, however, that I really did enjoy my time at the university. I learned so much, gained some great relationships and had an experience of a lifetime. However, it all came at a high cost.

Although the financial situation of students during this time has been labeled as an “epidemic” by some, I do not see it this way. I need to be honest with myself. I knew exactly what I was signing up for. The costs and loan amounts were all provided up front. There really was no place for a surprise to hide. Looking back on this now, I realize that at the time, I really did not care about what I was getting into anyway. The costs of college were so much that it didn’t even seem like real money.

My Advice to Current and Soon-to-be Students

When entering into college, students are embarking on an experience that has an incredibly high expense. Due to the lack of financial education, high school students may not be prepared to understand and know what they are signing up for. My advice to these students is to simply pay attention to what you are getting into. Pay attention to costs and finding the best deal. Ask yourself what it is you want and what consequences you can see happening.

(See Also: “I Can Only Practice What I Learn”)

Don’t go to a school because you like the name or the campus looks pretty. Do your research, find out the costs and find out how you are going to pay for it. If you are going to use student loans, know your rates and terms.

  • Will your degree help you to get a career that will support you?
  • Is this magical payment to the school we call “student loans” cause you a burden in the future?
  • Will it linger on for decades upon decades after graduation?

Education is the key to our futures; not only education received when obtaining a degree, but education of knowing the true costs of things.

Have you relied on student loans to get your degree? What is your plan to defeat these loans and get them paid off? If not, what strategies did you use to avoid them? If you could go back and change something about your college finances, what would it be? What would you love to be able to tell your past self?

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