Over the last several decades, the cost of education has gone up, but wages have remained mostly the same. As students and families have had to take out bigger and bigger loans in order to afford a college education, many struggle to pay them off long after leaving campus. That’s why nearly 45 million Americans share over $1.64 trillion in student loan debt.
Where you live while you pay off your student debt can make a difference. Saving on monthly expenses like rent or mortgage payments might help you make heftier payments on your student debt. Which brings us to Charlotte, N.C.
The average North Carolina resident leaves school with $26,583 in student loan debt, according to The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). So how did Joshira Maduro graduate with about $132,000 in loans?
First, factor in the cost of out-of-state, private university tuition. Second, consider that Maduro was the first in her family to pursue higher education in the U.S. She and her parents didn’t know if it was “normal” to borrow six figures-plus. They just valued attending a good school and, ultimately, the chance at a worthwhile career.
Fortunately, in the eight years since she received her degree, Maduro has shrunk her outstanding balance to under $50,000. She credits living at home, refinancing three times and using other debt payoff strategies for her speedy progress. Here’s her story.
|Maduro at a glance:|
|● Age: 30
● Salary: $58,000*
● Student loan debt: $49,763.20
● Monthly payment: $550
|● First in her family to attend a U.S. university after emigrating from the Netherlands
● Graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and marketing from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania
● Lives at home with her parents in Charlotte, N.C., to save money for her student loan repayment
● Worked as a market research project lead for an advertising firm before joining LendingTree**
|*Joshira’s earnings at her position through April 2020, before joining LendingTree.
**LendingTree is the parent company of Student Loan Hero.
What is it like living in Charlotte?
I have lived in Charlotte for about eight years, and I really like it. Coming from New Jersey, I enjoy the nice weather and sense of community.
There are tons of local businesses to support, which create a unique culture that I can appreciate. There are many local meetups to get to know new people, and I especially enjoy the local circus and fitness scene. Getting to take trapeze [classes] and see some familiar faces definitely brought some normalcy, even though we wear masks and are social distancing now.
Has living at home helped pay down student loan debt?
I know living in the same area would cost me about $1,100 per month for rent, internet and utilities, so I am saving $870 by living with my parents.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but with a minimum [student loan] payment of $1,300 and paychecks of $650 biweekly when I first started working, it was hard to help my parents out with anything financially.
So, frankly, I spent the first few years only focused on my student loan bills and have been helping out my parents with bills more recently…typically paying $230 for their cable, phone and internet bundle.
|Joshira’s pros and cons of living at home to repay student loan debt|
|● “Saving money, no lease, and while I did my own grocery shopping pre-pandemic, I still got to enjoy eating meals my parents cooked and never had to worry about an empty fridge before payday.”
● “I am very grateful to be living with my parents during the pandemic as I saw my peers worry about when they will see their parents next with the concerns of travelling and social distancing. I would have a lot of worry and anxiety if my parents, who have health risk factors, were on their own.”
|● “I don’t have my place to set up the way I ideally would want for working remotely.”
● “I also live in an area of Charlotte that has less people my age around. South End, NoDa and Plaza Midwood are key spots for people in their 20s and 30s to hang out, and I live 20 to 30 minutes away in Ballantyne, which caters to a more settled population that skews older.”
● “The money I saved was well worth it, but I also felt like I was missing out on opportunities to network more and build closer friendships with people in my neighborhood.”
What’s your salary range, and does it make repaying debt more feasible?
My salary is $58,000 [as of April 2020]. With my living situation, it does [make repayment affordable].
It certainly would not be affordable if I decided to move out with that same salary, unless I saved six months of rent in advance. I also want to make sure I am saving money for emergencies and upcoming expenses, like buying a car.
Has working in financial services helped with your personal finance know-how?
I first worked in financial services in 2013, and besides providing a major bump in salary, it connected me with financial advisors who gave me advice on refinancing and paying off my debt. I was able to start [applying] extra payments in 2014 and did my first major refinance in 2015.
Without working in financial services, I probably would not have been able to pay off as much debt by now.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your repayment?
I’m definitely slowing down on aggressive repayment due to the COVID-19 crisis. I would normally put $1,300 per month on my loans. Now I aim to put around $700 to $800.
With the freeze on federal loans, my current minimum payment is $544, so I’m [now] putting close to $200 extra in student loans to pay down sooner… [and] also to lower federal debt while it’s interest-free.
When did you first begin borrowing student loans and why?
I started borrowing in 2008, my freshman year of Lehigh University. I received a grant for half of my tuition and federal loans but needed about $20,000 in private loans each year to make up the difference — tuition plus room and board.
I did not have any college funds saved. My family and I are permanent residents from the Netherlands, and I was the first of my family to attend a four-year private college in the U.S. We had no idea what was “normal” in terms of taking out loans for college, we just assumed that we would need to get loans to pay for education and that the return on investment would be worth it.
Did you have a full understanding of education debt when you took it out?
No, I did not understand the interest rates at all. I chose variable-rate loans because they were lower, but I didn’t understand how quickly they could increase. I also didn’t understand the concept of capitalized interest, otherwise I would have considered paying down the new interest each month.
How equipped were you after graduation to repay your loans?
Beyond making my minimum payments on time, I was not equipped at all. All I knew was how to avoid defaulting on my loans. I wish I had a strategic debt payoff plan. I wish I understood the debt-to-Income (DTI) ratio so that I would make a plan to improve my financial situation and become eligible for refinancing options sooner.
How did you first learn about refinancing?
I first learned about refinancing from my colleagues while working at MetLife. I knew about consolidation, but didn’t view it as useful because I preferred having my loans separated versus one large monster payment.
My colleagues had various financial advisor backgrounds and some were in their 30s and 40s, so I had the advantage of learning from their experience and knowledge — I was 23, 24 years old at the time.
Around 2014, 2015 was when I first discovered Student Loan Hero and loved reading the debt payoff stories. I recall speaking to another finance professional at a networking event who recommended SoFi as well. Additionally, my job had an employee discount program with SoFi that gave an extra $300 for refinancing with them. That finally sold me into doing my next refinance with SoFi.
I also began a more aggressive payoff plan, paying off $18,000 of principal in just one year!
Since then, I refinanced two more times: once with SoFi again [to get] a better rate and faster payoff timeline, and last time with Earnest [for a] lower rate, and decided to extend the payoff timeline for more flexibility to save and start investing.
How much were you able to lower your interest rate?
In 2013, all my loans combined had a minimum payment of $1,300 a month, and the largest loan had a [variable] interest rate of 10.5%.
Now, in 2020, my minimum payment on all my loans combined is $544 (accounting for the federal loan suspension) and the largest loan has an interest rate of 3.44%. Refinancing saved me a lot!
Besides living at home and refinancing, what strategies have helped you whittle down this number?
I have refined my budget over the years to get as easy-to-follow as possible. At first, it would be monthly budgets, but the months when I had three paychecks instead of two would always throw me off, as [would] different billing cycles.
In part of 2019 and for all of 2020, I switched my budgeting strategy to match the frequency in which I got paid, which is biweekly. So I budget $650 to put into my loans on a biweekly [basis] instead of $1,300 in a month.
It made it more manageable, it gave me room in each paycheck to still save, spend on things I love, and pay bills, and it was an effective strategy to cut down my principal to help the monthly interest amount decrease.
Cutting down my budget like that makes it less overwhelming and more achievable, kind of like how the snowball method works on a psychological level.
|Maduro’s loan repayment strategies|
|● Living at home to lower costs
● Enrolling in autopay to score a rate discount and avoid late payments
● Student loan refinancing to lower interest rates
● Making extra payments beyond the minimum due
● Switching budget methods to account for biweekly income
● Student loan forgiveness programs for North Carolina residents
Your success aside, what challenges have you experienced in repayment?
It’s challenging to not feel overwhelmed by the leftover balance. It was highly discouraging the first year, paying so much per month but only seeing the loan go down by so little because of the high amount of interest that is continuously building.
Also, there are compromises. I felt insecure [being] an adult living at home for a while, even though coworkers who were older or had college-age children themselves told [me] it was the smart thing to do.
Will your repayment progress allow you to move out soon?
I think something has to give. I can find a very affordable home that will be less than ideal and then have money to pay off my loan quickly. Or I can live in a more ideal area, but the rent might be too high to afford more than just the minimum payments.
It will be something I need to think about and really see my full range of expenses, because it is more than just rent — it requires looking at utilities and other bills, as well as whether or not the new location requires me to have a car to commute to work.
Personally, I will favor convenience and quality of living over fast debt payoff. I think it’s stressful and easily leads to disdain to have to accept living conditions below your standards to pay off debt. I want to find a good compromise, which will take a while to find my best deal. I know having a roommate will also be a consideration for moving out.
What’s your advice for other indebted borrowers?
Lower your expenses as much as you can. Find a budget that works and syncs up to the frequency in which you get paid — biweekly, monthly, et cetera. Break down your loan payoff per pay period. Paying down over $10,000 seems overwhelming, but $400 biweekly feels more manageable and ends up being $10,400 in a year.
Also budget activities and things that bring you joy. I budget about $100 biweekly for aerial circus art classes, and while it isn’t a necessity, it brings me joy and happiness that makes my loan payoff journey more motivating.
|Do you have student debt of your own? Tell us your story!|
“Paying Off” is a Student Loan Hero series featuring borrowers across the U.S. We hope these interviews inspire readers to accelerate their own education debt repayment. If you would like to be featured, complete our questionnaire here. We’re seeking individuals who are willing to let us into their repayment, detailing any challenges and their plans to overcome them.
Here are previous installments in our series:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.