my debt story

(header image: me sharing my debt story at a U.S Senate press conference on a bill advocating for refinancing student loans)

april is financial literacy month and here’s why this is important to me: I owe $85,000 in student loans and i’m not really sure how i got here.

the news of the US student loan debt industry topping $1 trillion came coincidentally at a time when i was puzzling over mine (which, admittedly, feels as though it might as well be $1 trillion.) the slow unraveling of my student loan debt history reveals to me multiple layers of poorly-informed decisions, combined with inadequate information and resources, paving the way for what feels like a lifetime of loan payments.

So, i’m coming out with my student debt story.

mydebtstory

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15 thoughts on “my debt story

  1. Fiona … i can totally relate. I am the first person in my immediate family to attend college. I didn’t go until later in life (30’s for BA and 40’s for MBA). I’m 54 now and still have approx 50k in college debt. Yikes!
    Rex

  2. Rex – thanks so much for sharing. the more i hear about people’s stories, the more i wonder why i never heard them before! i think there is a stigma around talking about this stuff but when people are prompted, they are so open to share with me. let’s keep it going!

  3. ok, first of all, awesome infographics, sis! and what a fantastic idea to share your story and message visually, it’s so much easier to follow along for those of us visual people. talk about smart decisions about school loans though, that, well, i didn’t make when i was younger. in retrospect, there might have lacked resources for me to find out the harsh truth about the real entry-level income that i would be earning after college or the huge monthly payments that i would have to make, or i might have made different decisions. for me, the harder part about student loans is not how long i’ll be repaying them, but the huge chunk of money from each of my paychecks that the payments consume, decreasing much of my cash flow each month! which could only be alleviated by a higher income, but how easy is THAT to do?! mom has always been worrisome about the amount of money i was taking out for school and that worry sure was warranted and there sure is something to learn from it! (ok, maybe not the worrying part, but definitely the reasons behind it!) and now, to reveal my truth—i owe $120+! ah, hurts just to say it, but thanks for providing this safe space for it!

  4. now, i do have to say though, that while my student loan debt is high, i’m grateful that i was actually able to be assisted financially in this way, because it allowed and is still allowing me to get the education that i want. but why college education is so expensive is another story…

    1. sis – i totally hear ya about the monthly commitments of payments that only really become real when they start. i think we can do a better job equipping our youth with the tools to understand what the impact of borrowing is like, to also better understand what kind of ROI payback they’ll need in salary for the investment to even be affordable.

  5. Because this issue really hits home for me I’ll comment further. Initially it did seem to me that the return on my investment was questionable (I often wondered if the debt were worth the return I was experiencing), I have realized over time, however, that there’s a trickle effect with regards to the ROI and that it’s not just salary that should be measured. Coming from a somewhat disadvantaged background and not having the benefit of exposure to family members with college educations and professional careers, receiving an education helped to raise my confidence and self-esteem such that I was able to enter the business world and really begin to realize my true potential (I don’t think I would have ever become a successful business owner without having put myself through college). I guess my point is that while $83k or $120k seems like a lot of money, especially if entry level salaries are low, the benefits will continue to accrue over an entire lifetime and that 10 or 20 years from now you will probably be surprised at the level of success you’ve achieved (especially if you’ve invested in post-grad education). That doesn’t mean one should throw caution to the wind and take out unlimited expensive college loans … but there’s a long-term perspective to consider as well.

    1. yup – i think about this is a lot. somewhere down the line, i am going to find that my degrees have rewarded me in ways i won’t even know. in intangible ways, which is why i guess i’m not coming at this from a regretful place, you know? it’s a place of shock that i never even once considered what the consequences would be like before deciding to move forward. it’s a shock of “how could i have been so naive?” certainly thankful to have had the borrowing opportunities to fund my degrees, but definitely calling out the process and wanting to empower our kids to understand this and other financial literacy issues earlier.

    2. Rex, thanks so much for sharing your outlook and experience that the benefits from success could eventually surpass the burden from the money owed to student loans. It encourages me to think and focus more positively on the long-term outcome. Thanks!

    3. Rex, thanks again for sharing your story. I’m beginning to develop my website – ourdebtstory.is – to collect stories like yours and help empower future generations of borrowers. Would you want to stay connected via email so I can add you to my listserv and have you get involved? I’m at fteng8@gmail.com.

      Thanks!
      Fiona

  6. Fiona, I share your concern about the student debt problem. I am came out of college nearly $68,000 in debt. My current job does not pay me enough to make my student loan payment. While I am on forbearance to postpone my student loan payments, interest continues to accrue. With the interest I have accrued, I am now about $73,500 in debt.

    Kudos to you, Fiona, for having the courage to speak about this issue. I hope that the powers that be listen and do something about the student debt crisis. I have heard of a deal proposed where student loan payments would be 10% of your income for a maximum of 10 years. I hope something like this deal or better becomes a reality.

    1. Rose, thanks so much for sharing your story. You and many others inspire me to continue this work! I’m hoping to build out my website – ourdebtstory.is – this year and collect important stories like your and make them searchable to new borrowers. The hope is that we allow new borrowers to assess the long-term lifecycle of student loans and make more informed decisions.

      Can I add you to my listserv to get involved when the site is up and running? Feel free to email me at fteng8@gmail.com so we can stay connected. I really appreciate your openness to speak up! Future borrowers need folks like you.

  7. I was pushed into going into college by my parents. Those same parents now shame me for living with them even though I pay them rent. It took me longer to finish school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and kept changing my major. After 5 years at a state university, I was burned out, deep in debt, with no degree, having to try to make $550 monthly payments on a $250 monthly salary.

    Going back to school at least halftime lets you defer the debt. I went to a city university for my classes this time. I was able to pay off this new debt throughout my schooling with a cunning combination of loans, credit cards and payment plans. When I got my degree in 2011, I had no new debt; it was all paid off. I also had no immediate job future in my chosen field of teaching; teachers were being laid off that year. My previous college debt totaled $63,000.

    I wound up taking a job with sanitation, a job that requires a high school diploma and passing two simple tests. That was in November 2011, and I’ve done nothing but pay off student loans since then. I have not dated: no time, no money, and since I live with my parents I have a curfew. Me, a 32 year old adult, has a curfew. The only vehicle I own is a bicycle. My entire life is on hold and I have a job I hate, that did not require any college, just to pay these college loans off.

    If I didn’t have all this ridiculous debt, I could have taken a free internship for a job I really love and a cause I really care about. I could have a house and kids right now. Instead, I’m living with my parents, trying to cram my life into one small room and not succeeding, shamed and belittled and heckled every day, with a curfew, and no romantic prospects, waiting for my life to begin, and hoping I’ll still be of child bearing age when it does because the only way families can make it in today’s economy is with a two income household.

    My advice is unless you have a big scholarship (preferably a full one), don’t bother with private, or even state universities. There’s probably a quality local, city university that will do a better job for less debt. Use that part time job that all college students (should) get to make loan payments while you’re still in school. Talk to Bursar about doing a payment plan. Spend freshman and sophomore year fulfilling your core requirements (those classes that every college makes their students take) and pad out the rest of your schedule with interesting electives; one of these may just become your driving passion. Don’t choose a major until junior year. If it turns out your college doesn’t offer the degree you want, transfer! Don’t wait to stick it out, because you’re not going to get the return on your money you need if you can’t get the degree you want.

    Current debt: $15,000 and counting. I’m hoping my life begins this year.

    1. Hi there, thank you so much for sharing your story. I completely understand the stress and shame experienced in student debt borrowing. I feel similarly. Many people I’ve talked to have had to settle for a less ideal life because they could not have anticipated what life would be like with such hefty student debt. You coming out to share your story is important for existing and new borrowers.

      As I work to build out my website – ourdebtstory.is – i’ll need borrowers like you to get involved! Could we connect via email so that I can add you to my listserv? Feel free to email me at fteng8@gmail.com so we can stay connected. Thank you for your openness to share and I hope you’ll join me in bringing greater transparency in the borrowing process!

      Fiona

  8. I was pushed into going into college by my parents. Those same parents now shame me for living with them even though I pay them rent. It took me longer to finish school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and kept changing my major. After 5 years at a state university, I was burned out, deep in debt, with no degree, having to try to make $550 monthly payments on a $250 monthly salary.

    Going back to school at least halftime lets you defer the debt. I went to a city university for my classes this time. I was able to pay off this new debt throughout my schooling with a cunning combination of loans, credit cards and payment plans. When I got my degree in 2011, I had no new debt; it was all paid off. I also had no immediate job future in my chosen field of teaching; teachers were being laid off that year. My previous college debt totaled $63,000.

    I wound up taking a job with sanitation, a job that requires a high school diploma and passing two simple tests. That was in November 2011, and I’ve done nothing but pay off student loans since then. I have not dated: no time, no money, and since I live with my parents I have a curfew. Me, a 32 year old adult, has a curfew. The only vehicle I own is a bicycle. My entire life is on hold and I have a job I hate, that did not require any college, just to pay these college loans off.

    If I didn’t have all this ridiculous debt, I could have taken a free internship for a job I really love and a cause I really care about. I could have a house and kids right now. Instead, I’m living with my parents, trying to cram my life into one small room and not succeeding, shamed and belittled and heckled every day, with a curfew, and no romantic prospects, waiting for my life to begin, and hoping I’ll still be of child bearing age when it does because the only way families can make it in today’s economy is with a two income household.

    My advice is unless you have a big scholarship (preferably a full one), don’t bother with private, or even state universities. There’s probably a quality local, city university that will do a better job for less debt. Use that part time job that all college students (should) get to make loan payments while you’re still in school. Talk to Bursar about doing a payment plan. Spend freshman and sophomore year fulfilling your core requirements (those classes that every college makes their students take) and pad out the rest of your schedule with interesting electives; one of these may just become your driving passion. Don’t choose a major until junior year. If it turns out your college doesn’t offer the degree you want, transfer! Don’t wait to stick it out, because you’re not going to get the return on your money you need if you can’t get the degree you want.

    Current debt: $15,000 and counting. I’m hoping my life begins this year.

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