Goodbye, Sallie Mae! Today, my husband and I reached our goal of paying off my $79,000 in student loans in less than 1.5 years after my master’s graduation.
My husband and I both graduated last May, me with my master’s degree and my husband with his second bachelor’s degree. After both of our graduations as we each began our new careers last summer, we came up with a plan to repay my student loans quickly that worked really well for us. A few close friends have asked us about our story and for any tips we have for them as they pay off their student loans. Below is our advice (compiled by both of us together) for those in each phase of the college funding/loan repayment process based on our personal experience. We’ll begin with those who are currently repaying loans and move backward to our advice for those who are still in college and then all the way back to our advice for high school students who are making college plans.
To the recent college grads who are now re-paying debt:
MAKE A PLAN, AND STICK TO IT.
We know it’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon and graduate college feeling like you ‘deserve’ a new car or some other expensive pat on the back as a reward for finishing college. Don’t do this! Make the decision to be one of the few people who decides to get out of debt after graduating instead of getting into more. Besides, getting that new car will be so much sweeter when you buy it with cash instead of adding to the mound of debt. Take it from us, it is possible to pay off your student loans shortly after graduating if you have a good plan in place, and you don’t need to have the income of a rocket scientist or brain surgeon to do it.
PRETEND PART OF YOUR INCOME DOESN’T EVEN EXIST.
Couples: If you’re married, live on only one of your incomes. Literally pretend only one of you is working, and use the other person’s income solely to repay loans. After graduation last year, we set up a separate account for each of our direct deposit paychecks from each of our jobs. One of our accounts has our two debit cards set up with it (i.e., the joint account we both use to pay bills and buy things). The other entire account got immediately emptied to the Department of Education every time a direct deposit from the employer was made. Don’t even let your designated loan repayment money enter your debit account so you’re not tempted to make poor decisions. Don’t even give yourself the option to spend your designated loan money on other things. You’ve been living without a full-time career salary during college, so there’s no reason you can’t continue to live on less money after graduating, at least for long enough to make your student loans disappear. THEN, you can reward yourself, AFTER you’ve earned it. Then, once your student loans are gone, think of what all you can do with that second person’s income that you’ve gotten used to not using. You can save all of those checks now to buy a car outright, make a large down payment on a house, etc.
Singles: If you’re single, you obviously can’t put your entire paycheck toward loans, but you CAN choose to live cheaply. Get a roommate, eat at home, skip the shopping sprees, and make it your sole mission to get rid of your student loans/debt. Pretending you make less than what you actually make and budgeting bills with only a portion of your paychecks are still key factors for this plan to work. It’s basically the same concept as our advice for couples (living on only a fraction of what you actually earn), just on a smaller scale.
To the current college students:
LIVE LIKE THE POOR COLLEGE STUDENT THAT YOU ARE.
You’re not rich just because you have a heap of student loan money available at your fingertips. For those of you who are current college students, learn from our mistakes and take out the least amount of loans possible to survive. It is possible to live without eating out every meal and buying iPads and Christmas gifts on student loans or credit. Take time to educate yourself about money instead of naively signing on the dotted line every year and living on student loans without ever thinking twice about it. Make good decisions now, and you will benefit from them later.
How do we know this?
I graduated high school as valedictorian, had a perfect GPA, made a 31 on my ACT, and basically received a 4-year full tuition waiver scholarship from OSU along with several other individual scholarships. But here’s the kicker- despite all of this, I still took out almost the maximum student loans each semester for books (okay, this part was legit), room and board (also legit), and shopping, eating out every day, etc. (not so smart). And the scariest part is, if you would have asked me at any given time how many loans I currently had or what the grand total was, I couldn’t have even told you an approximate number. I was completely clueless. I mean it’s all fake, free money anyway, right? Or at least it seems that way until you graduate and have to actually start paying it back. After finishing my bachelor’s in four years, I entered the speech pathology graduate program, bringing my grand total to six years of living on student loans. Okay, time for the happy ending… Now, at age 25 and only 1.5 years after graduating, I have ALL $79,000 of my loans paid off, a master’s degree that’s completely PAID FOR, and a rewarding career that I love. I may have taken out an excess of loans, but at least I chose a career with a good job outlook, so I was *able* to pay off my loans in a timely manner, which brings us to our next piece of advice…
CHOOSE A PRACTICAL DEGREE.
Probably the single best piece of advice we have for current college students is to choose a degree program that will make you a living. Unless you are independently wealthy and money is no object, a fashion, music, art, history, or similar degree is probably not practical. Gone are the days of going to college for the “experience” and the concept that just having any college degree will help you get a job. Don’t get us wrong, you should still pursue these interests as HOBBIES. But, if you are taking out loans/debt to pay for a college degree, at least make sure it’s a good investment. Look up job outlooks for the career you choose, look up salary information, etc. Don’t graduate with thousands of dollars of debt and work at a restaurant because you can’t get a job in the field you chose. This is an expensive mistake. Life is not all about money, but you don’t want to spend your life struggling with money either. Do your research, and choose a career you like that also has a good job outlook. Then do hobbies that you also enjoy on the side.
How do we know this?
I’m a violinist and majored in music my first two years of college. I didn’t have much guidance in choosing a major and, like so many other freshmen, just majored in what I liked to do for fun- music. Unless you’re that rare child prodigy, music really isn’t a viable career option, especially in this geographic area. A couple years into my college career after wasting a few semesters and a few thousand of my parents’ dollars (sorry guys), I had this epiphany and then entered a period of indecisiveness and ended up switching majors a few times. I eventually decided on a business management degree. This was a much more practical choice; however, even a general business degree in today’s world is too broad often times. There are very few employers seeking new college grads with a general business degree. Employers are looking for candidates with specific skills or certifications who are qualified to fulfill a specific need or role. I worked for two years at random jobs that barely paid anything with my business management degree while Tiff was still in school before deciding to return to school and get a second bachelor’s degree in MIS (management information systems). This was a more specific degree program that actually taught me marketable skills and prepared me to enter the workforce in my area right after graduation. Before even graduating with this second degree, I accepted an awesome job offer at my top-choice employer, which I began right after graduation. Now, I’ve worked at Phillips 66 for a year and a half as a Citrix Analyst, I love my job and company, and I still play violin in the local symphony as a HOBBY.
To the current high school students planning for college:
FOCUS MORE ON STANDARDIZED TESTS THAN GRADES.
Don’t believe what they tell you about grades/GPA. They will not get you a free ride in college. What will get you the most scholarship money are your PSAT and ACT scores. And if you happen to be a minority, even better! (Eric is proud of the fact that he *almost* got $40,000 in scholarship money just based on the fact that he is 1/4 pacific islander.) But seriously, we suggest caring less about grades and putting more time into these tests. A student with straight Cs and a high PSAT score is sitting pretty compared to a straight-A student with average standardized test scores. Focus more on these tests than grades, which will not help you as much in the long run. Note: This statement is about HS grades and is not to be confused with grades in college, which actually do matter-especially if you’re preparing to apply to a competitive graduate program after college or apply for positions at preferred employers who are choosing from several qualified candidates. In college, it’s important to set yourself apart with your grades. In high school, make it your priority to study for the PSAT and ACT. Once you’re in college, your high school grades no longer matter.
APPLY FOR EVERY TYPE OF FINANCIAL AID AVAILABLE.
Sign up for every scholarship, tuition waiver, and grant you can find. It never hurts to try, and free money is free money. A single semester $500 scholarship may seem like a drop in the bucket when looking at the grand total, but every little bit helps!
Ultimately, money is just like anything else in life. Be smart, do your research, and make good decisions, and you CAN succeed. And it’s never too late to start making better choices with your money. If you have an impractical degree with no decent chance at getting a good job in the near future, go back to school and make it count this time. If you’re only paying the minimum payments toward your loans and you’re basically just paying interest each month and nothing toward the actual principal, make a better plan today for moving forward. Whatever phase of this process you’re in, it’s never too late to turn it around and come out on top.