A recent discussion about school loans and the ability to pay them back triggered my desire to write this week’s blog post about debt. This subject is near and dear to my heart considering I’ve sacrificed almost a year of my life to ensure I would never have to deal with it again.
It was 2006 and I was heading off to school. Life was about to “change for the better” and change for the worse. For the first time in my 18 years I would be signing my name and my soul away on a school loan application to fund my initial year at university.
My family had no where near the amount of money to pay for my schooling and I was not nearly academically established to earn any scholarships (just like most high school kids in America). As it was programmed into me to “go to college” after high school I thought, at the time, I had no other choice.
I was unsure of my future, what I wanted to do and I was taking a big risk. What if things didn’t pan out? What if I hated it? What if I was homesick? At the time and to this day i’m still asking what I want to be when I grow up. I just can’t quite make up my mind.
My school loans loomed in the background as I assaulted my classwork. I had good quarters and I definitely had my bad. The craziest moments at school, for me, were when I held two jobs, volunteered at multiple ambulance corps and dealt with a full time school load. There was very little money coming from home. Everything was from out of my pocket. Of course, my loving parents offered money frequently, but, I felt like I needed to make it somehow without them. (I’m still grateful for their loving support and guidance every day!)
When it was needed, I interviewed with major companies when it came to fulfilling my co-op requirements. As it turns out, which I didn’t quite grasp when I first started at RIT, it was required to do co-ops to graduate. That meant work, learn, make money and earn credit toward my degree. I still don’t know how I managed it but I toiled my way into co-op positions with big influential companies like Cisco and Apple.
Here’s the part that could have gone wrong: I spent about 1.5 years of my life earning the most money I have ever earned. Ever. I could have blown it all on frivolous things. New car? Sounds great. Xbox? Sweet! New computers? Why not?! But I didn’t.
I made a realization, after reading and listening allot about personal finance, that I ultimately was not helping myself if I were to blow all of that money. I also discovered one of the most basic net worth calculations
Assets - Liabilities = Net worth.
and I cringed at the thought that my net worth was not getting bigger but more negative. It doesn’t matter how much stuff you have, how much bling you own or what kind of car you drive, if you have a negative net worth it means nothing. Think about it next time when you’re playing tug of war with the Jones’s.
Anyway, from then on out I would be whistling a different tune.
The worst part was yet to come. I had already accumulated about $35,000 in debt after graduating. (from only my first two years of school!) It was time to sacrifice and sacrifice hard.
I landed my first job at Sifteo as a contractor and then was hired on full time after my contract had expired. Not many people knew it at the time but, I was feverishly paying off my school debt instead of hitting the town and eating out every day for lunch. I have to say that Gregg & Sarah got me though those crappy days. If it weren’t for them I would have definitely had a hard time committing to my goal.
Note: The trend line above is almost accurate. Imagine the trend line going further down October, September and August of 2011
As you can see from the graph above I finished paying off about $35k worth of school debt in about 11 months plus purchasing a completely paid for used BMW650 in July of 2012. I was free and luckily the decision to become that way put me in a good place when I was laid off almost exactly a year later. Take that Murphy.
Why did I get lucky?
I look back and think about how I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. (like I said before, I still really don’t have a clue) When it came down to it though I make an incredibly lucky decision. The co-op positions I had worked for had provided some serious cash that I wouldn’t of otherwise had the opportunity to earn.
There are some majors at my school that don’t require co-ops and charge just as much money for tuition. How does anyone expect these graduates to pay their loans if their majors don’t shuttle them into industry? If I were in one of these programs and paid no cash for school I could have been upwards of $80,000 in debt and most likely jobless. (And that’s with a bachelors degree!)
Return on Investment
Do your research, do some math and don’t discount any of the possibilities.
For instance, do you really need to go to a traditional 4 year university? Maybe. Most high school graduates have no idea what they want to do. Why forcibly shuttle them into a money trap if they (and who ever is co-signing) have no way of paying for it down the road?
When considering a traditional university think about the cost/benefit: If a degree costs you $120k, your earning potential should be higher coming out than what it was going in. Not only that, you should consider how long it will take to fully pay off those loans. A couple years? Ten years? Twenty years?
Also, don’t be afraid to shop around. Is a degree from one university worth $60k more than other universities? Do certain universities provide advantages over other ones (i.e. co-op requirements)? These can be very important things to think about before you commit to a certain program at a certain school.
Why you should be debt free?
Unfortunately, i’m hesitant to tell anyone to go into debt to do anything.
Universities are increasing tuition every year. They may be “non-profit” organizations but they’re running them with capitalistic ideals. “Oh lets charge the students more money so they can have a better experience.” Really guys? How do you think charging students $40k a year is going to help them or help the next batch of students down the road? Whether that is right or wrong is a topic for another discussion.
Becoming and continuing to be debt free is one of the things that you can control about your life. Often, those who are in debt find ways to blame other people for problems they create for themselves. However you look at it, the person that is ultimately responsible is the the person you stare at in the mirror every morning. Don’t betray that person just because someone else said to do something that could very well screw up your life.
How do I get there?
Here are a couple things I would encourage doing immediately:
- Shred your credit cards: Yup. Shred em. Start spending the money you have using a debit card. It’s interesting how fast your spending habits will change when you’re watching your checking balance go down.
Make a plan: If you’re in debt and you want to get out you’re going to have to sacrifice. That means putting off the things you want now so you can enjoy them later without worrying about paying back the credit card company.
“But, but, I’m an American and I do what I want!” – To this person I say good luck. Anyone with this mentality who has no capacity to sacrifice to win will ultimately lead a life full of bad choices and undoubtedly some debt as well.
Find your support system: Doing this is not an easy task. Find your support system and ask for help. When you’re feeling uninspired and desperate have them remind you that you’re future self will thank you for your dedication. Don’t go it alone!
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with formal schooling and nothing wrong with student loans to a degree. It just depends how much risk you and ultimately the co-signer on your school loans is willing to take. It would be hypocritical for me to say that getting a student loan to go to college is ill advised as I did so myself. Just consider how much debt you will be taking on and think about how you will pay it off after you’re out of school.
Hopefully this story has provided some inspiration and insight on what it takes to sacrifice and become debt free. Best of luck to those who have chosen the hard path. You will be rewarded in the end!