Paying Off $23,000 Student Loan Debt in Portland, Ore.

 December 31, 2020
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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 Portland, Ore.

The average Oregon borrower leaves college with $27,542 in student loan debt, according to The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). For her own part, Camila Contreras Merlo Flores left with about $28,629 — but she also entered repayment just months before a pandemic struck.

Flores, 23, was fortunate to find a well-paying job after graduation. And despite the federal loan repayment freeze to account for the COVID-19 crisis, she continued to make voluntary student loan payments through September 2020. Upon moving out of her family home and paying rent for the first time, however, her frustration bubbled over.

“Student loan payments have completely stopped my ability to be able to truly save money,” she told Student Loan Hero.

Now more than a year into repayment, Flores said the prospect of further, more sweeping student loan relief gives her hope that additional help for borrowers is on the way. Here’s her story.

Flores at a glance:

Camila Contreras Merlo Flores

Age: 23
Salary: $47,000
Student loan balance: $23,373
Monthly payment: $400
● Graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2019
● Began repaying her federal loans after her six-month grace period
● Works as an account executive for an independent communications agency
● Says that federal student loan forgiveness would inspire her to pay off her remaining debt faster

What’s it like living in Portland?

Portland is great! I just moved to Southeast Portland from the suburbs, and I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s a pretty… outspoken and very proud town. Also, I would die for the Portland Trail Blazers, so, yeah, you can say I like living here.

What are your living costs like?

I rent a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with two other roommates. I pay $780 in rent, plus $16 in WiFi, plus $9 for heat per month. We pay for water each quarter.

I find myself very lucky that I’m paying this [amount], but our landlord did just try to raise our prices … [but] thankfully, due to COVID, he was like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t raise prices in the middle of a pandemic.”

What if you wanted a place of your own in Portland?

Comparatively speaking to the rest of the big [cities], Portland is obviously a lot cheaper. The price range for a studio in one of the normal areas where I would [want to] live, for example, is minimum $1,100 to $1,400.

It’s way cheaper than most places. [I’m] really only staying here because I could not afford to move or live anywhere else if I also had to pay student loans. I would live a miserably unhappy life.

What do you do for work?

I’m a public relations professional supporting Microsoft’s cybersecurity communications efforts. Specifically, I support the compliance, privacy and IT business within our security team.

I always knew I was going to end up in “comms,” but I thought I was going to be the next Christiane Amanpour — I watched a lot of “Gilmore Girls” with my mom, and [the young protagonist] Rory was my girl.

I realized that I liked the idea of being in the business of not just ensuring the public perceived a company positively, but keeping them authentic and customer-centric.

What’s your salary, and does it make your student loan repayment affordable?

My new gross salary is $47,000, up from the $39,250 I was making before [my recent promotion]. After my health, vision, dental plans and taxes are taken out, I get a bimonthly pay of [about] $1,300.

It does make it a bit easier to afford repayment, however… I got my [raise] and then I moved out of my mom’s place.

Have you benefited from the federal student loan repayment suspension?

I continued paying during the no-interest period until September.

To be honest, I decided to hit pause on repayment until the end of the year so I could sit down with someone and reevaluate my financial plans.

Image: Student Loan Hero

When did you begin borrowing student loans in the first place?

I started borrowing because while my scholarship covered all my tuition fees, it didn’t cover things like my housing and extracurriculars. To be totally honest, my loans helped keep me afloat in college with food and sorority costs.

I definitely think [the free college concept is] a little bit out of touch with reality. … If you know that [you] can’t afford to pay for college, you should at least consider if [you] can afford to even attend college, to live there, especially when you have universities that make living in your dorm a requirement [for] the first year. I think some people forget that.

What student loan repayment strategies are you considering?

I’m lucky to only have federal loans. I used my company’s loan service help, and they recommended that I don’t refinance, as I would no longer be privy to any of the governmental assistance if it came.

What are your thoughts on President-elect Joseph Biden’s support for student loan forgiveness?

[Forgiveness would] be life-changing. I’m trying to, of course, be realistic. … I’m hoping people put a lot of pressure on him to forgive [debt].

If that were to happen, where I had even $10,000 reduced from my student loans … then I would put a lot more effort and time into prioritizing to pay [the remaining $13,000 worth of loans] off to get rid of them sooner.

If you’re an Oregon-based borrower, also consider…
● Existing student loan forgiveness programs, including:

What mistakes, if any, have you made during repayment?

Not knowing how to navigate the student loan website, understanding who the hell I have to pay and where.

[It’s so frustrating] to navigate the repayment pages, the multiple places you have to go to pay, the lack of clarity or understanding on repayment, the lack of support from the federal government and the distrust you feel from contacting student loan providers.

That’s my biggest pet peeve with them: Their websites are so terrible that even if you wanted to pay, it’s [difficult].

What do you recommend to other recent graduates just starting out with student loan repayment?

Set up a chat with a financial officer at your school. There are so many nuances to student loan repayment that are extremely difficult to understand.

To be able to talk through these things, especially when you’re assuming such a huge and usually lifelong responsibility, I think that would be really important.

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.