Paying Off $59,000 Student Loan Debt in Fort Worth, Texas

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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 $1.6 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 bigger monthly payments on your student debt. Which brings us to Fort Worth, Texas.

About half of Texas’ recent college graduates have education debt, averaging nearly $27,000 apiece, according to The Institute of College Access & Success. And then there’s California transplant and recent Texas homebuyer Jesse Crimes, 33.

Crimes was let go from his longtime job just before the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns began earlier this year. Without a full-time position, he’s elected to defer payments on his $59,000-plus debt until his income becomes more consistent.

But his repayment remains on course, thanks to a variety of strategies, including student loan refinancing. Below is Crimes’ story in his own words…

Jesse Crimes at a glance:

2011

  • Earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in photography from California College of the Arts in Oakland, Calif.

2012

  • Hired full-time as photographer for children’s clothing line

2015

  • Moved from California to Texas

2018

  • Refinanced $64,378 student loans

2020

  • Laid off from full-time photographer position
  • Bought first house in Fort Worth

Jesse Crimes (at right)

After being laid off, how has your income been impacted?

Take-home pay is super inconsistent for me being freelance. I’m on unemployment [benefits] given that I don’t work consistently, and sometimes I don’t get paid for a month or two after I work. Some months, I make $3,000, some I bring in none.

I have several clients that are consistent so I should be OK with paying my loans on time.

Has unemployment been enough to help you get by?

I get the maximum weekly amount for Texas at $521. It’s certainly helpful for the weeks that I apply for it, and when there was a federal bonus to it, that was essential, as I was making near what I was making with my full-time job.

Without the stimulus, I’m making half, so proper budgeting is essential, and nudging clients to pay me in a reasonable manner is important, so that the weeks I’m not filing for unemployment don’t end up running my finances super thin.

My wife has an excellent-paying job, so we’ve been pretty fine overall, but having my finances take a huge slash certainly hasn’t been ideal.

Despite the circumstances, is repaying your student loan debt a family priority?

My wife has no loans, and I’m solely responsible for paying them. I’ve never asked her to pitch in on those. But our finances are shared, based on our difference in income and the fact of my student loans.

We’ve since moved to Fort Worth and just bought our first house. We’ll be here for the foreseeable future, and our plans to move out West [have been] pushed back several years.

[S]he pays more towards our mortgage than I do. We used up all our savings on buying our house, so now we really have nothing to fall back onto. [The] coronavirus certainly has us budgeting tightly anyways, so I’m doing a lot more home cooking and baking these days.

How has your student loan repayment evolved since those early days in California?

Certainly, the greatest challenge was coming right after college, when I had to start paying them back. It was a heavy burden to bear, my budgeting skills were far less honed and I was a freelance photographer at the time, so my pay wasn’t regular.

It was truly depressing having that weight on me, every time I earned or spent a single dollar.

How did you end up in Texas?

We moved here a little over four years ago, as my wife got a job promotion and I was able to keep my [then-San-Francisco]-based job.

Moving from the Bay Area and living in [Texas] definitely helps pay my student loans. The cost of living is significantly more affordable than the Bay Area, allowing me to not get too bogged down by my loans.

Not everything is bigger in Texas…

Student Loan Hero

The lack of state income tax certainly was a great surprise when moving to Texas. I’ve been able to have more money in my pocket and [I’ve] not been skirting by as I had when living in California. The general cost of goods and services is lower as well, so it’s easy to save.

Also, I work from home, so that keeps costs down, and our combined income allows us to save.

How did you come to refinance your student loans?

[Originally, my debt] was divided up between five or six lenders at the time and sold around constantly.

I refinanced and consolidated so that I can pay less per month. I was previously paying just above $800 and now pay [$562.33].

While I understand that I’ll be paying it longer, I can budget much better and it isn’t as much of a burden on my monthly expenses.

Crimes’s loan repayment strategies
Prioritizing a lower monthly payment over a lower interest rate: Crimes did the math and decided it was better for his family’s budget to keep his monthly amount due in check. Try our student loan refinancing calculator to see what could make sense for your repayment.
Employing Gift of College gift cards: “I currently buy [the] cards and apply those to my balance every month. I can buy them when I’m out grocery shopping and do so on a regular basis every month, which helps me keep my payments on schedule.”
Optimizing payments before being laid off: “Every paycheck, I work out my budget for the next two weeks and integrate my student loan payment and other costs into it and [then] work with what I have left.”
Opting for a forbearance once he lost his income: “I’ve had to defer payment several months as I’m a freelance photographer and work has significantly slowed.” Fortunately, Crimes’s lender, SoFi, offers unemployment protection.
Also consider:

What’s your advice for borrowers in Texas and beyond?

Budget, budget, budget. It’s a heavy burden that only gets heavier when you get behind.

Prioritize your debt once you get paid, and work with what you’ve got afterward. Also, refinance if you can; it’s a huge emotional and financial relief if you can get a good rate. Your future self will thank you.

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.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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