How To Follow Your Passion (Even With Student Loan Debt)


There are tons of opinions about why “follow your passion” is or isn’t good advice. Having student loan debt can complicate this even further. But the feeling of many college grads is clear—they don’t want to work a meaningless job and feel like they’re just a cog in the system.

While salary and benefits are still important, grads want meaning in their work, too. An Accenture survey revealed that 29% of college-grad respondents considered “interesting and challenging work” a major factor in choosing a job.

No matter where you stand, one thing should be clear: following your passion shouldn’t be an excuse for making bad choices. Unfortunately, money often stands in the way of doing this. For college grads, repaying student loans could be the biggest financial barrier.

But student loans shouldn’t force you to take a job you hate while forgoing more interesting opportunities. Following your passion doesn’t necessarily mean your choices are unwise.

Here’s some advice on how you can follow your passion without letting student loan debt bring you down.

Prepare before taking on debt

This one might not apply to everyone, especially if you already have student loan debt. However, even if you’ve accumulated debt already, you might think twice about adding more to either finish a degree or add an advanced degree.

While earning a college degree can help you earn more money (around a million more in your lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma), it can be limiting.

For example, perhaps making a boatload of money isn’t your top priority coming out of college (mine sure wasn’t). Maybe you want to try out different career fields like nonprofits where the pay isn’t so high.

Having obligations to pay back student loans can be a burden on making this choice. I think it’s a tragedy when you have to make career choices based on student loan payments.

Instead of having a reactive approach to student loans, take a proactive one. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Will earning this degree and taking out these loans help me make follow my passion?
  • If the answer is yes, will holding this much debt hinder following my passion?
  • Do I need to take out these loans to attend this university?
  • Could I find a cheaper way to earn the degree (or forgo a degree altogether)?

Having answers to these questions at this stage can be tough. I sure as heck didn’t have all the answers myself. But it’s a good idea to keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re on the right path before you stray too far off it.

Be realistic about job opportunities

This is the number-one issue with students choosing majors based on their passions, so don’t leave it up to guesswork. Research what jobs might be available, the salary range they command, and whether the debt load is realistic for the salary and available jobs you’d be looking at.

To get an idea, check out this list to compare average starting salaries by major. It will give you an idea of the level of debt you’ll realistically be able to afford with the average starting salary in your field. That way, there’s (hopefully) less shock when it’s time to repay.

When it comes to dollar figures, I know that $30,000 or $40,000 a year sounds like a lot. But this money might not go as far as you think. According to this calculator, you need a salary of about $38,000 a year to afford $30,000 in loans right out of college to keep payments at a recommended level of 10% of your income. This assumes the standard repayment plan, which results in lower interest charges compared to choosing income-based repayment.

While you may be able to afford more in loans if you use other student loan repayment options, this serves as a good guideline to keep these amounts relatively in check.

Choose career options that help repay student loans

Even if you’re out of college and you already have debt, you still have options that can cover a variety of different passions you might have. While these programs don’t cover everything, they do cover a pretty wide range of options.

Do you want to work with nonprofits or in community service? AmeriCorps may be a good bet. While serving, you can ask to have your federal loans placed in deferment. When you’re done serving, you’ll be eligible for a Segal Education Award of up to $5,730 to apply toward federal student loan debt.

Would you rather serve aboard? The Peace Corps is another option. While serving, you can also request to have your loans deferred. Upon completion of service, you’ll get an $8,000 lump sum, which can be applied to student loans of your choosing.

Even if you don’t want to volunteer, there are options that pay a salary and potentially come with extra student loan benefits.

If you’re a teacher working at a qualified school, you may be eligible for teacher student loan forgiveness. For example, you could receive up to $17,500 through the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program.

Or if you work at a nonprofit or government job, there’s public service student loan forgiveness. Make 120 qualifying student loan payments over ten years, and the remainder of your federal student loan debt could be forgiven.

Evaluate all your repayment options

Even if you aren’t eligible for specific repayment programs that can help get student loans forgiven, you could at least reduce payments.

Because these options might actually increase how much you owe, it might be best to rely on them only as a short-term strategy. For example, maybe you spent a year or two after college trying out your passion, but now you’re ready to move onto something new (and potentially higher paying).

Income-Based Repayment could lower your payments over this term but allow you to increase payments once your income increases.

You may be able to qualify for student loan consolidation and refinancing too.

Try your passion on the side

There’s not always a need to devote your life to your passion, at least not right away. If you can’t or don’t want to give up your income but still have a nagging urge to follow a passion, why not devote a few hours a week to it on the side?

Maybe you want to volunteer to help feed the homeless. A friend of mine devotes every Thursday night after she leaves her day job to doing just that. She’s highly involved with this nonprofit work, even though she isn’t doing it full time.

If you’re looking to try out other career fields or jobs, start with a side hustle. You can both earn some extra money and also get valuable insight on how you’ll actually like this as a job before you commit to it full-time.

These are low-risk strategies in terms of your time, your career, and your money. And keep in mind—just because you believe something is your passion doesn’t mean it is. You might find out it’s not something you want to devote yourself to full time.

Have no regrets

Okay, okay, I couldn’t help but get a little “woo woo” to finish up this post—we are talking about pursuing your dreams here.

At the end of the day, think about what decisions will leave you with no regrets. Will you feel worse if you never gave your passion a chance because of student loan debt? Or will you regret giving up income in exchange for a potential increase in student loan payments? Only you can answer these questions.

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