Paying off $93,000 Student Loan Debt in Concord, N.H.

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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 $1.64 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 Concord, N.H.

Kelsey Buchanan is tired of being asked why she studied art in college, and why she borrowed student loans to do it. She always knew she wanted to be an art teacher, and at 17, taking out private loans felt like a decision that was made for her.

Still, Buchanan’s $93,000-plus student loan debt is an alarming figure. It more than doubles the average New Hampshire graduate’s debt ($39,410 in 2018-2019, according to the Institute for College Access & Success).

Buchanan isn’t backing down, however. She attempted to refinance her student loans three times before eventually getting approved and halving her interest rates. Her more affordable repayment — and ever-fulfilling career — have lifted her spirits despite other challenges along the way.

Buchanan at a glance:
Age: 24
Salary: $42,000
Student loan debt: $93,117
Monthly payment: $852
● First-generation college student
● Graduated from a small Vermont college in 2018
● Works as a middle school art teacher
● Recently bought a home in New Hampshire
● Dropped her debt’s interest rates from about 10.00% to 5.00%, thanks to refinancing

What’s your living situation like in Concord?

My partner and I just recently bought a townhouse. We were very fortunate to be able to utilize New Hampshire’s first-time homebuyer programs. [We] split the costs exactly in half. My half is approximately $600, between the mortgage payment and the HOA fee. My half of utilities, which includes electric, gas, internet, water and sewer, is a little under $90.

I have budgeted for my living expenses and feel comfortable with that. I do not put much, if anything, towards savings each month. I am unable to do a lot of activities that cost money. I feel that this is not necessarily a factor of living in Concord, but my [unique] loan situation.

How did you end up in your field?

I basically always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I decided that I wanted to be an art teacher after assisting a younger high school student with Down syndrome in his art class. He went from not wanting to come to art class to loving it. Watching how being creative, exploring and getting messy lightens up kids brings me so much joy.

Right after high school, I went to Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., where I studied Art Education and Art. I received my bachelor’s degree in May 2018. I was extremely fortunate that … I landed a full-time elementary art teaching job at a district in northern Vermont. It was really a dream come true for someone right out of college. I taught there for two years, and the district wasn’t a great fit for me. It was early into my second year that my partner and I started looking for new opportunities in different states, and that’s how I landed in Concord.

Does the salary at your Concord-area middle school make your student loans affordable to repay?

No, not really. To be fair, my monthly payment is extremely high. As a teacher, the salary is notoriously on the lower end. My salary is comparable with surrounding districts.

I actually just finished a master’s degree through Capella University’s FlexPath as a way to jump up in pay. Since I completed this degree before November [2020], I am able to make a track change in my salary scale in my district and will be making a bit more starting in February.

When did you start borrowing student loans and why?

I started college in August of 2014 and therefore started borrowing then. I never actually applied for any of my loans. My parents took care of them during that time. Everything was in my name, and they were cosigners. I think it’s important to note that I am a first-generation student. To be completely fair to my parents, I really don’t think they knew any better.

By the end of college, I had eight private loans through, what I now believe to be, a predatory student loan company. … When I actually acquired my loan information, I found my rates to be around 10%, and that my debt balance was over $100,000.

When did you start repayment, and how equipped were you at that point to repay them?

My entire college career, I was told not to worry about it and focus on my studies. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have known what to do with my loans had I been in the process since the beginning. However, I was 18 when the loan process began and had zero frame of reference as to what it all meant. I had no idea what a good rate was, or how much I would be making versus my income.

I started repayment in November after graduating. I was wholly unequipped at that point. As I’ve mentioned, I was under the impression that my parents were going to help me with repayment. Whether this was a miscommunication or something else, I was devastated at the time of repayment.

What other challenges have you experienced in repayment?

My biggest challenge and what makes me the most angry is having to face the stigma behind my debt. What I mean by stigma comes in the form of questions such as “Why did you go to an expensive school?’ ‘Why did you take out loans with such a high interest rate?” or “Why did you go to school for art? You should have been a STEM major.”

To answer the first two questions… I had no idea at 17, 18 what any of this would mean for my future. Furthermore… I was not in charge of obtaining my loans. Until repayment came, I had no idea. I knew what a round-about amount it was for a semester, but I had also received a scholarship, so I never knew the exact amount.

To the latter question, I hold back tears, because if you are asking me this question, you must have had a terrible art… experience [in school]. To that, I am sorry for you. I went to college to become a teacher to not only teach kids how to draw and paint, but how to creatively problem-solve; how to work hard at something to get better at it; and how to speak kindly and respectfully towards others. Most of my students look forward to my class, and it’s what gets them through the day. You [might be] right in that I would be making more money in the STEM field, but hear me out: maybe teachers should be making more money.

How is your repayment going more recently?

Currently, repayment is going OK. I was able to refinance some of my loans in August 2019, which was extremely helpful. I am looking into the idea of refinancing again in [2021] to combine all of my loans under one rate and payment.

Since my refinance in 2019, the payment has been a lot more manageable, and I feel like I am making more headway on the principle.

How did you learn about refinancing, and what was your experience like with your lender?

I definitely heard about refinancing throughout my college career. It seemed like the natural course of events. You finish college, consolidate and refinance your loans and then repayment. Unfortunately, it was not that easy.

At the start of repayment, my monthly payment was over $1,100 a month. This was over half my monthly income at the time. I was living with roommates and paying everything by myself with no help. I knew that refinancing would help me, but it was a matter of getting approved.

It took me three attempts to refinance my loans. I did my loan refinancing with Citizens Bank, and throughout my whole journey, the wonderful people at Citizens were my cheerleaders. I could not have refinanced without their guidance, support and encouragement.

Third time’s a charm for Buchanan and student loan refinancing
  • 1st attempt: “I tried to refinance all eight of my loans about three months after repayment began. At the time, I had no credit score, since I never had a credit card or anything to help build momentum in that area. After being denied the first time, I applied for a credit card with the plan to use and pay off every month in order to build credit. I also knew that continuing my payment on time would help build credit. At this point, I also got a second job hoping to help my debt-to-income ratio.”
  • 2nd attempt: “About one month after the first, I tried to refinance six of my eight loans. I was honestly a little desperate to lower my monthly payment, and my [team] at Citizens suggested that reducing the refinance amount would make me more successful. I was again denied.”
  • 3rd attempt: It was “around early August 2019 with a new teaching contract in hand. The new contract promised a higher salary from the previous year. It was after nearly six months of payment, building credit with a credit card, a higher salary and starting a second job, where I was finally able to refinance six of my eight loans.”

How much were you able to lower your interest rate and/or monthly payment through refinancing?

My refinance lowered my monthly payment [by] about $250 a month. Previous to the refinance, these loans were [at] nearly 10% interest, and my new interest rate is 5%. The monthly payment was not decreased tremendously by any means, but any amount was extremely helpful.

However, the best part about my refinance was the reduction in interest rates. It’s been over a year since my refinance, and I truly feel that I am making strides towards paying off my loans, whereas before, hardly any of my monthly payment was going towards my principal.

How much is your monthly payment now, and is it affordable?

My monthly payment now is around $850. Living in Concord, N.H. has made it more affordable. In fact, I moved to Concord because of this reason.

While I loved Burlington and Vermont, it was very expensive, and there were not a lot of opportunities to get a better paying job. In comparison to my apartment in Burlington, in Concord I am paying less a month on my mortgage with much more space. Additionally, the job opportunities are plentiful. With that said, I love where I landed job-wise and am planning on staying at my current school.

Buchanan’s primary loan repayment strategies
  • Student loan refinancing to lower interest rates: “I would say to indebted borrowers to keep trying to refinance. It’s such a game changer. If you don’t get the refinance the first time, try again.”
  • Building credit to access refinancing: “I only put things on my credit card that I was planning on buying anyway: gas, for example. I pay off my credit card every month, and I have that set up automatically. I am therefore building credit without even thinking about it.”
  • Making extra payments beyond the minimum due: “Two to three times a year… [I] will have an “extra pay day.” Basically when getting paid biweekly, instead of getting two pay checks, the way the days fall in the month, you receive three. Whenever I have an “extra” paycheck like this, I put the whole thing towards my loans.”
  • Choosing the debt avalanche method with multiple outstanding loans: “I would also suggest prioritizing your loans. Which loan has the highest interest? This is the loan that you should work on paying down first. Once you have that loan paid off… put (more) towards your next loan with the highest interest rate.”

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your loan repayment?

COVID-19 has been bittersweet when it comes to my loan repayment. I had a second job up until the pandemic that was an extra source of income [but] that I had to leave as the result of COVID-19.

On the sweet side, I was able to save a lot of money on gas for my car, as I was no longer driving to work. I was otherwise driving up to an hour one way. My landlord at the time was so kind and lowered my monthly payment [by] about $100.

Additionally, since all federal loans have a 0% interest rate [due to the repayment moratorium], I took the opportunity to get my master’s degree. … While I hesitated to take out a loan, I knew that having a master’s degree would boost my salary, which would ultimately help in repayment.

What other sacrifices have you made to advance in your career and loan repayment?

Sometimes I feel like I am thinking about my budget more than the average 24-year-old. I have often turned down [invitations from] friends doing activities that cost money.

I had a second job before the pandemic to help with my finances. I have considered obtaining a second job again, however I am having a hard time balancing safety and my mental health with this idea.

From a COVID-19 [safety] standpoint, having a second job will expose my students to even more germs. Mental health-wise, teaching in a pandemic is extremely hard. My teacher’s brain is largely never off. As a result, taking care of my mental health is vital, and there’s not enough hours in the day to be a teacher, work a second job and take care of myself and my home.

What’s your advice to future students looking to avoid the common fate of education debt?

I think, more than anything, we are not talking about money enough. Frankly, we are not talking about it at all. Families need to talk to their kids about it, and we need to talk more about it in our high schools.

If I had been exposed to more conversations about money, I would not be in the mess of debt I am currently in.

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.

Published in Success Stories