Jun 16, 2015
I’ve heard a lot of things when it comes to student loan repayment. I’ve read some opinions about people (like me) who’ve borrowed student loans and are struggling to repay them that practically make my eyes water like they’re simmering in a hot skillet. I’ve eavesdropped on some conversations about student loan debt that make me want to jump in, yelling “Nooooooooooo….!!!” And I’ve spent countless hours thinking, and then re-thinking, about what I could have done differently.
But for me, nothing comes close to the horror of this particular strain of advice I received when I was young(er), and much more impressionable than I am today.
“Don’t worry about it, you’ll pay it back before you know it.”
Now. For some people, this is actually the case.
I, however, am not one of those people. Along with many others, I seem to be taking the long, hard climb towards student loan repayment. Not out of personal preference, but because life realities dictate that in order to eat, maintain a decent roof over our heads, drive a vehicle, and wear clothing that doesn’t get us arrested for indecent exposure, we have to pace ourselves.
For a long time, I though that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t get rid of my loans within a ridiculously short period of time after graduating from grad school and law school. I was convinced that if I tweaked my thinking in just the right way, and could land a second full-time job (in addition to the clerkship I was currently holding down) I’d be able to “pay my loans back before I knew it.”
Suffice it to say that when I found myself unemployed after completing my clerkship, applying for jobs left and right, landing fantastic interviews but getting beat out by people who had a closer personal connection or more years of experience (I won’t even tell you how frustrated the experience card made me. How was I supposed to rack up more experience if I’m not able to secure a job because the job market is flooded with people with more experience than I do because of an economic downturn?), I realized that I had been quite naive to buy into the assumption that paying off my student loans would automatically (magically?) be a straightforward process that would “just happen” as part of the natural progression of securing a fantastic education.
This was blindsiding to say the least.
I felt like I was standing on the top deck of a ship hit by a massive wave trying to cling to the side rail. (Sigh.)
Recognizing that the imaginary reality I held in my mind; paying off my student loans quickly and getting on with the business of living life the way I wanted, was very different from actual reality; having to make my own way professionally and learn how to live life the way I want while repaying my student loan debt, was (and is) extremely challenging.
Some days it’s more difficult than others to maintain my newly found perspective, and choose to be content with taking one small step at a time towards my goal of repayment. There are definitely moments when I think about how much easier life would be if I’d managed to offload all of my student loans already.
One of the ways that I’ve learnt to decrease the frustration (rage?) I feel about awful student loan advice is by focusing on some of the things I’m learning because I am still navigating student loan debt. Here are some of the things I have learnt (and wish I’d known) before taking bad advice:
Good advice doesn’t always make you feel better. It’s fact-based, experience-based, or a great combination of the two.
That means that unlike the earlier, more naive (and more insecure) version of myself, I’m not spending as much time looking to other people to make me feel better about the choices I’ve made. And when it comes to student loan advice in particular, here are some factors to consider when sorting the helpful from the not-so-helpful perspectives:
Always consider the source of your advice, and identify what in their life experiences equips them to understand the position you’re in.
It’s really difficult to give someone realistic advice if you cannot understand or relate to their lived experience. As applied to student loans, this basically means always using this filter: Consider the source. Good advice can come from some surprising places, but consider whether the person you’re talking with can relate in terms of income, attitudes about the value of education, life choices (children, marriage etc.), and overall money values (massive credit card debt, importance of savings etc.). Generally, people speak from their experiences, so it’s not realistic to expect potent, highly-applicable advice to come from someone who can’t even begin to understand your perspective.
Is your source of advice open to conversation, or do they believe that there’s only one right way to do student loan borrowing and repayment? If you’re seeking student loan advice and the person you’re talking with is extremely dogmatic, inflexible, and convinced that their way is the only right way, then you may want to consider taking a (rather large) grain of salt along with their advice.
Always verify. Just because you’re talking with someone you respect, it doesn’t mean that the Internet is now broken and off-limits. Thank God for Google. Pull up statistics on the average length of time it takes to repay student loan debt. Visit The New York Times Student Loans page and get caught up on current events. Visit your financial aid/admissions office and ask for statistics on employment post graduation. Make an appointment with career services to get the inside scoop on hiring trends for graduates in recent years (and months if available). Visit the Department of Education student loan borrowing or repayment websites and get as much information directly from the source as you can. If you have private loans, bookmark the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and gather as much information as you can about government regulation of private student loans. If you’re an alumnus, contact your graduating institution(s) to inquire about post-graduate employment/repayment programs.
My point is this: don’t just rely on the advice that people give you, put those research and communication skills you developed getting your education to work for you and make sure you have the details you need to make the most informed choice you possibly can.
This next tidbit is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve gained through listening to the most horrendous advice I ever got about student loan repayment. Pay attention to your gut. I’ll say it again. Pay attention to your gut. If something about your student loan borrowing or repayment approach is nagging at you, DO NOT IGNORE IT. Do not put off dealing with it. Today, this day, you need to stop and identify exactly what’s nagging at you, and begin taking concrete steps towards addressing the issue.
For example, it might be driving you crazy that you don’t know the precise amount you’ve borrowed or currently owe in student loan debt. Find your student loan servicer(s), sign up for their online service (or call if that’s not available), and figure out exactly how much you owe. Maybe you are still enrolled and feel like you may be borrowing more than you need to. Take a look at your budget, identify whether you can direct some of that refund check towards repaying your student loans today (there’s no rule that says you have to wait until graduation before beginning repayment) or if it’s early enough in the semester send some of the funds back (there’s no rule that says you have to wait until graduation before beginning repayment), and explore whether there are paid internships in your field that can help reduce the amount you borrow in the future.
It doesn’t matter who your source of information is; if you sense that you need to shift your approach towards borrowing or repaying your student loans, then it’s your responsibility (and your responsibility alone) to ensure that you take the steps you need to take to make your student loan experience work for your life.
To this day, it burns me that I allowed myself to be so passive in my student loan borrowing experience. I knew in my gut while I was enrolled that there were aspects of my approach that just weren’t working for me. But I felt trapped. I felt like there wasn’t any other realistic way to continue funding my education so that I could finish, and I needed to finish in order to get a job that would pay me enough to live and repay my student loans.
What I know now though, is that I was never trapped. I was afraid. I was afraid to take full responsibility for the decisions I was making with my life, especially decisions about how to fund my education. I’m sharing this because I want you to know that you don’t have to make this mistake too. You don’t need to allow fear about not knowing what you do, to lead you to rely on horrendous advice or stay stuck in inaction. I still have a choice. You still have a choice.
There are still a lot of opinions out there about student loan borrowing and repayment. The difference now is that I value my own opinion too.
What about you? Have you ever received horrendous student loan repayment advice? You’re not alone. Share your experience with our community in the comments below!