Many of us have been raised with the idea that it’s taboo to talk about money. But sharing our struggles, especially when it comes to student loans, can help us feel less alone.
I spoke with five student loan borrowers about the challenges they’ve faced as a result of their debt. Plus, they shared the steps they’ve taken to reclaim their financial lives.
Although the student loan struggle is real, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Learn about the obstacles these borrowers faced and what they’re doing to overcome them.
1. My student loan interest just kept ballooning
Monique Prince is a social worker who took out $60,000 in federal loans for her master’s degree. After graduating, she couldn’t afford her monthly payments, so she got on an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan.“[This] was helpful because it allowed me to make much lower monthly payments,” says Monique.
“[This] was helpful because it allowed me to make much lower monthly payments,” says Monique.
But she didn’t realize how much interest was adding up each day until her balance got out of hand. “The payment does not cover even the interest accruing,” Monique explains. “My balance is now over $80,000.”
Unfortunately, Prince’s payments are too low for her to make a significant dent in her debt — but she has a plan to make the loans more manageable. “When I am able, I am going to refinance it into a private student loan offered through my local bank,” she says.
Through refinancing, Monique might be able to snag a lower interest rate, as well as ease the burden of monthly payments. Now, she shares the lessons she learned with her friends and clients.
Monique encourages students and families to use tax-advantaged savings accounts so they can take out the least amount of student debt possible.
“[If] your child intends to go to college, open a 529 account to pay for it,” she says. “Let your money grow and compound.”
2. It took me a long time to make big purchases
When you’re paying student loans every month, you might not have much money left over for other expenses. Nicole Firebaugh learned this lesson after graduating from Southern Illinois University in 2015.
“I had a little over $12,000 in student loan debt,” says Nicole. “While that isn’t a lot in comparison to most people, it still has made a huge impact on me financially.”
Nicole was eager to buy a car following graduation, but she had to be patient. “The biggest impact the loans have had on me is my ability to make major purchases,” she explains. “It took me … years after starting to pay loans to feel comfortable enough to buy a new (used) car.
“Even with that,” she continued, “my budget for a car was super tight, as I had to consider my student loan payments along with car and insurance payments when looking.”
Now, Nicole carefully tracks her budget and makes extra student loan payments when she can. “I map out my finances each week and break down payments I have to make each month into four so I can essentially make smaller payments each week,” she explains.
She advises other students to minimize the amount they take out in student loans and to avoid spending student loan money on non-school expenses.
“That one extra night of going out and partying is instantly gratifying … but cutting back a night here and there or finding ways to be thrifty can really pay off.”
By tracking her spending and making extra payments on her student debt, Nicole is moving toward financial freedom.
3. I have to prepare for a huge tax bill
J.R. Duren, a personal finance reporter at HighYa, racked up more than $120,000 in student loans. To ease his monthly payments, J.R. got on an IBR plan. After 25 years of on-time repayment, any remaining balance on his student loans will be forgiven.
But J.R. won’t be totally free of his debt. “Right now, my biggest struggle is figuring out how to pay for the taxes I’ll be responsible for when my IBR comes to an end,” says J.R.
When the government forgives your loans, it often treats the balance as taxable income. IBR offers loan forgiveness, but you could still get hit with a huge tax bill.
If he could go back in time, J.R. would have worked during college and grad school.
“If I could give advice to my younger self and to college students and grad students, it would be this: If you can work, work,” advises J.R. “I know it seems impossible to work full-time, take a full load of courses, and keep your sanity, but that short-term craziness is well worth long-term financial freedom.”
Even by finding part-time work during college, you can reduce the amount you take out in student loans.
4. Student loans made me delay major life milestones
Chris Henjum is the co-founder of Esqyr, a public benefit corporation that provides affordable test prep. Like many other borrowers, Chris had to put off certain milestones due to student debt.
“My student debt delayed significant things in my life: marriage, children, and feeling even close to financially stable,” Chris says.
According to a 2015 Student Loan Hero survey, one in seven Americans with student loans have delayed marriage because of their debt. One in four have put off moving out of their parents’ house, and nearly half of student loan borrowers have yet to buy a car because of their loans.
“The enormous drag student loans place on young people — including the delays in starting a life — is huge,” says Chris. “There is an enormous economic and social price that we’re all paying.”
For now, Chris chips away at his student loans slowly but steadily. And he encourages future students to consider their return on investment when choosing a college.
By prioritizing the ROI of a school — and your college major — you could make back the money you borrow to pay for it.
5. I feel a ton of stress about my student loans
Dave Barr is no stranger to the financial challenges of student loan debt, but he says one of his biggest struggles is the emotional toll.
“The emotional side of student debt is something that really isn’t talked about,” says Dave. “We are more comfortable talking about horrific things we see or watch on TV, but not about these giant obstacles that are causing stress in our lives? And if we are struggling and falling behind, we feel even worse about it.”
Dave wants to break that taboo. He recently started the personal finance blog CommonCents Millennial in an effort to do so. “The best way I have dealt with the emotional toll of student loans is to talk about it,” says Dave. “Raise awareness about how it is okay to be stressed about it.”
Dave shares these challenges with his friends and on his blog. Plus, he advises others about steps they can take to deal with their debt.
“Once I opened up that conversation with a lot of my friends, they said it felt great to talk about it as well,” says Dave. “We were able to help each other out in different ways, whether that be a savings account to use or a loan provider to check out.”
By sharing their experiences, Dave and his friends are able to help each other deal with the stress of student loans.
You’re not alone in the student loan struggle
Over 44 million Americans are dealing with $1.4 trillion in student debt. This financial burden leads people to put off big purchases and delay life milestones. But if we can share our struggles with one another, it might make everyone’s burdens a little lighter.
Ready to get serious about your student debt? Check out this student loan advice from 12 finance experts.
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