How Student Loans ALMOST Ruined Our Lives

The American Dream –

Go to school, get good grades, go to college, (Here lately throw in go to grad school), finish school, get a good job, buy a home and live happily ever after.

That all sounds great, and sure it was the right way for many years especially for our parent's generation… but is going to college at ANY cost the best path for the upcoming generations?

As of 2016 72% of all college graduates had student loans.  The average amount for those graduates?  $37,000.  What is worse, interest rates range anywhere from 4-13% and fixed to variable.

Most do not understand student loans. Like the fact that 50% of PSLF candidates were denied in 2017. Or the 1 in 3 college students who do not even know the difference between unsubsidized and subsidized loans (Collecting interest while you're in school -unsubsidized).

It is easy to see why so many are beginning to question the value of a college diploma receipt… Or are they?

(Side Note: If you are looking for a Student Loan Workbook use this link here)

A Quick Disclaimer:

This is our story about our student loans.

We only aim to offer perspective for those who are considering pursuing higher levels of education – expensive Master's degrees, Doctorate's or Law Degrees. Secondly, my aim is to provide some hope and inspiration that in the end, student loans do not have to dictate every part of your life.

I also understand that most people did not start with six figures of student loans. However, for every person that has $300,000 worth of student loans, there are 100 people with $30,000. The go to school and take out debt at age 18 to be successful is not the only path for success. You can sign off on $50,000 worth of student loans at age 18… but you can't buy alcohol. 

If our story isn't helpful for you, realize there are tons of people who are currently sitting in piles of student loan debt who do not have much hope or transparency from the industry. They got bad information and even followed false promises in some cases and now many are trying to figure out what to do next. 

This is not a how-to article. 

If you are reading and want to know exactly HOW we paid off over a 1/2 of our student loans, then this is not the article for you. This is about WHY.  If you want to read how, here is where you can start: How We Paid off $57,000 in Student Loans in 2017.

Our Massive ($300,000) Student Loan Problem.

In December 2014, at age 26 when my wife finished her graduate degree, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, she would soon be entering the workforce upon completion of her board exams bringing in a nice $65,000 salary. Not bad for a recent graduate, but much less then the income “Averages” tossed around by the different college administrative staff.

After taxes, savings plans, retirement, social security, our bank account had a different number – around 30% less, or in my wife’s case, about 43,000 a year. Meanwhile, her first student loan payment (which some had been gathering interest for the last 7 years) was due June 1st, 2015.

one of many student loans

My wife spent 8 years in college, 1 at Cincinnati before deciding to change majors and transfer out of state to West Virginia where she spent four years. Of course West Virginia “lost” most of her credits, for some reason English 101 is different from college to college.

On another level, how dare a 19-year-old have a change in mind about the path they want to pursue and decide to change colleges – an entirely different subject.

After graduating from West Virginia and applying to grad schools, Lauren would enroll at Elon University in the winter of 2012 to pursue a Doctorate for the next 3 years.

All said and done she came out with over 290K in student loans (more if you count the Parent Plus loans in her dad’s name).

When we met, I had about $19,000 in college debt leftover from my initial $40,000. Had I not bought a townhouse when the market was low in 2010 we would probably be living in someone's basement because once Lauren’s student loans kicked in we realized we had a serious, serious problem.

We were on the line every month with our income and we were one car alternator or hot water heater failure away from going into consumer debt as well.

We decided we needed to DO something.

I am a teacher, we were not necessarily banking it. We began to realize that if we did not ACT now, we would be crippled by college debt for the rest of our lives.

Our kids would be applying for college and we would still have loan payments.  At age 18 we essentially filled out a FASFA like everyone else – and the price discriminating monopolies that College has become – decide how much we would pay for our education.

Read more about tuition: Where does your college tuition really go?

Government-Backed Student Loans

Advised by what would eventually be our financial planner/debt counselor, we visited a website called broke, busted and disgusted.   It was alarming to see the student loan problem sweeping across the United States. We would often ask why would our own government let it's citizens rack up so much debt at such a young age.

The answer is simple, the Federal Government backs student loans. Private companies take care of lending and managing, the Government collects. It makes sense why they only let you write off $2,500 of student loan interest on your taxes. Not to mention it is the same reason why you have seen the number of for-profit colleges grow and essentially practice predatory lending.

Back to our story.

Luckily both professions we pursued are typically secure and simple enough to land a job. The same can not be said for the people with liberal arts degrees, or business management and communication degrees.

In fact, it is estimated that 42% of college grads are working in a field other than their degree. Criminal justice majors are now selling software, while journalism majors are serving frappes. This tells me one thing – maybe 42 % do not need a degree?

student loans got you down

I am not down on college, but I am up for more discussion about making sure our future generations are not saddled with debt at age 22. If you are reading this and you have a child about to enter college or know someone who is, I have three recommendations:

  1. Do some research!!!! Here is a great link to see if your major will even land you a job!
  2. Have a game plan and map out your expenses! College can be affordable, hence how I walked away with $40,000 for two degrees and my wife $300,000.
  3. Graduate in 4 years and focus on skill-sets not grades! The average bachelor's degree now takes 5.1 years.

Even with the figures that still indicate the average college student out earns a person without a degree over their lifetime, I still question the value of high price degrees.

I realize only 5% of people have student loan debt over $100,000, but these are your dentists, doctors, lawyers, and just about anyone with a “D” after their last name. Heck, a doctorate in education – is over $55,000 on average.

However, to be a doctor, physician's assistant, dentist, or lawyer these days it is almost assumed that it entails six figures of debt. Maybe I am the only one that thinks like this, but saddling the medical field with debt is only going to cause long term problems. At some point, the straw will have to break the camel's back.

Common sense economics says if college costs rise, so will the prices of services… in fact student loans might be the next economic bubble.


Where we are now with our student loans.

I will be the first to admit I ask myself this question, “did we really do the right thing?”  I am not here to say don't pursue your passion or go to school, but I think it is important to point out at what cost do you make sure it is worth going to college. 

Is putting yourself close to half a million in the hole at age 26 after you factor out interest really worth pursuing your “passion?” To be quite honest, my passions have changed since I was 18.

We also know that we signed up for college and therefore we are responsible. Quite honestly, we are grateful for things like PSLF and DTI loan perks, but we are not relying on them. In fact, over 50% were denied PSLF the first year it was available in 2017.

As of January 2019, we have $82,000 left in student loans. Our goal is to have that gone by the end of 2019.

There is hope if you have 6 figures in student loans.

For us, we aim to provide hope – not just be the bearer of bad news.

Half-jokingly, I like to say Lauren and I are working on an eventual book detailing how we paid off 300,000 in debt in 4 years (it’s a work in progress because that is our goal, we are still well on our way) I think it is important to point out a few things that have helped us on our journey.

We have put a lot on hold. We didn't take a honeymoon, we had a small wedding, and we are delaying on kids. Additionally, we also take roughly 60% a month and pay off our student loans.

From February 2016 to today we have paid off the following:

  1. $7,000 Car loan
  2. $5,000 Car loan
  3. $170,000 in student loans

Steps we have taken to pay off student loan debt:

1. We both decided that attacking our debt was our top priority before having kids – we had a vision and a goal. Our budget is our checks and balances.

2. We read up and studied – David Ramsey is a great place to start. We became fanatical about really learning how it all works. To beat the banks you need to beat them at their own game.

3. We sought other ways to make money outside of our work. This just worked for us, but in order to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, you have to think outside the box. Working your standard job is not going to cut it and besides, there are 168 hours in a week and most people work 40, 50 max. **You have to be OPEN to other ways of making money** If you not willing to try something new then you can not expect to get different results

4. We sought mentorship from people with financial success. This was huge. Because of this, we were linked up with a successful couple who referred us to what would eventually be our lifesaver – our planner/debt counselor. He really educated us on how to attack our loans with strategy not just spraying our money all over the place. This was also a one time fee for a lifetime of service and we were able to write it off on our taxes.

5. The most important thing, the magic, we delayed our gratification. Without delaying gratification it is honestly a pipe dream. It is all 100% behavior. We realized that we can not keep up with all of our friends, go to every birthday, sporting event, party, and vacation AND also pay off our debt. It is what it is, but we decided to put a few things on hold for 2-5 years was well worth it in the long run. At our current rate, I will be 33 and Lauren 31, debt-free and owe less than 100,000 on our house.

6. If you are considering refinancing your student loans I recommend you read this first: Refi or No? Sometimes refinancing is actually not always the best option, we actually are waiting to refinance.  If you decide to refinance then go to LendKey who promote student loan transparency.

Q: Do you disagree with the conventional wisdom that says go to school to be successful?