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 $1.71 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 Carlisle, Penn.
Some federal student loan borrowers who are eligible to pause their repayment via coronavirus relief have been making payments on their debt anyway, hoping to trim the balance while it’s not subject to interest. But it’s likely very few have spent the pandemic paying down their debt as fast as Lauren Cekovich has.
Since the federal loan interest freeze arrived in March 2020, Cekovich has been forking over least $2,000 per month on her loans, despite losing her office-cleaning job and other side hustles due to the pandemic. And when she received a stimulus check, it went straight back to the government, as she submitted a payment of $3,700.
Thanks to a no-excuses budget, these extra large payments have shrunk her outstanding loan balance from nearly $75,000 when she earned her master’s degree in May 2019 to under $8,000 currently.
It has come at a steep price, however.
“The hardest part has been losing myself along the way,” Cekovich told Student Loan Hero. “Student loans have stolen the last 17 months of my life and the happy person I was before I graduated. Hopefully, they will be paid off in April.”
|Cekovich at a glance:|
|● Age: 26
● Salary: $42,000
● Student loan debt: $7,434.59
● Monthly payment: $2,669
|● First-generation college student
● Graduated from Kutztown University with bachelor’s, master’s degrees in 2019
● Credits her fast payoff to moving back home, doing side hustles and keeping to a strict budget
What do you do for work?
I work at a local university as a student success coordinator. Basically, I serve as the main point of contact for undergraduate students. I answer any questions the students and their guardians may have, assist them with academic advising and registering for class, develop the curriculum and teach a first-year seminar course [among other duties].
How often do you talk about education loans with your students?
It comes up in pretty much every single conversation I have… [concerning] understanding your financial aid and how to read your [financial aid] package. … For that lesson, I actually use screenshots of what my loans used to look like two years ago.
I’m very transparent about my journey with my students, probably more than I should be. … But I don’t think that keeping this a secret would benefit anybody in the long run.
|Pennsylvania student debt overview|
|Total outstanding debt||$71.5 billion|
|Number of borrowers||2.1 million|
|Average total monthly payment||$283|
|Note: Averages include federal and private student loan debt.|
Do your wages make your own loans affordable to repay?
No. If it wasn’t for my mom’s help — living with her — and my determination to learn everything about personal finance I could, I would be screwed right now.
When I [left graduate school], I was determined to not move back in with my mom. … After much debate, I [did anyway]. Now I pay $100 a month to help offset the increase in bills with another person living here.
How do you think about your loan payments in regard to your budget?
Anything above the minimum payment is technically excess income that I choose to pay down my loans with.
I have never gone over budget since figuring out the numbers that work for me in each category. If something comes up that I need to cash flow, then I cash flow it out of my spending money if I can. If I do not have enough saved in my spending money to cover it, then I pull from the student loan money.
Back when you were in school, why did you borrow student loans?
My parents were not prepared for their kids to attend college. They knew it was something we needed to do but didn’t understand anything about the process or how to pay for it. I was on my own with figuring it out.
I submitted my FAFSA application in February 2013 and got my acceptance letter to Kutztown [University] in April. I waited until the very last day to commit to attending the university. I spent the summer working with the financial aid office, who explained to me that student loans were how everyone pays for college.
At this time I didn’t know that there were other ways to fund school, [like] cash flowing and scholarships. I knew [my family] didn’t have the money, and the financial aid office was telling me student loans were the way to do it.
After earning your undergraduate and master’s degrees, what was the start of repayment like?
I finished my master’s degree in May 2019 with $74,560 in student loans. Staring at a $600 monthly payment and a “career” that would never allow me to be able to make the payment and live, I knew I had to do something radical. I ended up moving back in and taking on three to five jobs at a time to get rid of these loans as fast as possible.
My grace period wasn’t supposed to end until November 2019. I was extremely lucky to land a job right out of my graduate program and started working in July. As soon as I started working, I threw all of my savings — everything but $1,000 — at my loans and everything extra I could each paycheck.
I felt decently prepared going into repayment. My dad introduced me to this crazy guy named Dave Rasmey, [a personal finance expert]. It took me a few months to really grasp what he was teaching, but after months of listening to his show, taking [courses] and researching student loans, I finally got it. Everything I learned about personal finance laid the foundation for my success in repayment.
|Check out our favorite ways to learn personal finance:|
|● Free personal finance courses
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● Top personal finance accounts on Instagram
Did you run into any challenges early in repayment?
Learning how to budget was really hard for me. I didn’t understand what things cost or how much money was eaten away by taxes. It took me months to figure it out and get into the groove. Once I did, I had an extremely tight budget. I didn’t leave any breathing room for myself, [like] a miscellaneous category or fun money.
By October 2019, I had fallen into a deep depression. I hated what my life had become. I hated that I was put into this situation. I was angry at the world and the status quo it had set for me. I was even more angry with myself for believing it and becoming a victim of the system. I was my own worst critic and punished myself every day for the mistakes I had made.
Dealing with my [loan servicer] was a nightmare. Anytime I would call, I would end up on hold for hours and had to be transferred to several people before I got someone who was well-versed at their job. Figuring out if I could consolidate my loans or not was another challenge. … I had 13 different [federal] loans and felt really overwhelmed by trying to manage making the minimum payments on all but the smallest.
If you could go back in time, how would you handle your repayment differently?
If I could get a do-over, I would give myself some grace during the learning process of taking control of my personal finances and adjusting to my new life.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that moving home after being away at college for six years is a huge culture shock. Not only was I struggling financially, [but also] everything I had known and built for six years [while in college and graduate school] was ripped away from me. I was mourning the loss of what was my life, while also having to confront and deal with the demons I thought I left behind.
You also come back a completely different person from who you were when you left. Having to redefine my roles in each relationship I had was hard. Knowing what I know now, I would have been much kinder to myself and invested in mental health counseling.
How is your student loan repayment going these days?
Things have calmed down a lot for me as I wrap up my repayment. I currently have $7,434.59 left. My projected pay off is April, [but it] could be March.
Now that I’m in the home stretch of this journey, I was able to quit my third job on the weekends working at a grocery store. It’s been nice to slow down the last few weeks and enjoy some downtime on the weekends.
|Cekovich’s side hustles|
|● Cleaning office buildings five nights a week
● Deep-cleaning student houses for six weekends
● Odd jobs for family and friends, such as drywall and house painting
● Retail at Bath & Body Works
● Part-time at Aldi’s grocery store on weekends
Has COVID-19 impacted your student loan repayment in any way?
Thankfully, I was able to keep my day job throughout the entire pandemic, so I was able to keep making payments and take advantage of the forbearance.
There was a period of four months right at the height of the pandemic where I lost my second job. Since no one was going into their offices anymore, there wasn’t a need for office cleaning. That lasted from April to July. This brought my monthly payments down to $2,000 a month … [even though] $2,500 dollars a month was the goal I set for myself back when I first started this journey.
What do you make of the national conversation around potential loan forgiveness?
I love that [President Biden] is talking about the student loan debt crisis and is willing to reform our current system. I’m honestly not sold on widespread student loan forgiveness. People like me, who have been fortunate enough to keep their main job throughout the entire pandemic — and the people who are making good money from their investment in their education — do not need student loan forgiveness. I truly hope he can pass targeted forgiveness for the borrowers who are in distress.
I’m continuing on with my plan and paying off my debt so that it no longer weighs me down and prevents me from obtaining the life I want for myself. Even if [the government] did pass widespread forgiveness, it will take them months to implement, probably even longer with how disorganized these [loan servicers] are. By the time they get it together, my loans will be paid off anyway. I am not postponing my life any longer than I have too.
Having come so far in repayment, what’s your advice to fellow borrowers?
The moment you tally up your total debt can be absolutely terrifying. I remember staring at my mountain of debt and feeling so defeated with how big of a hole I needed to dig myself out of. Every payment you make, even if it seems small, adds up quickly.
Get on a budget, find ways to increase your income and pay down debt so you can increase your monthly cash flow. Cash flow equals power and options.
Be your own hero. If you wait around for someone else to clean up the student loan mess, you may be waiting your life away.
|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 (or check out our interactive map):
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.