Student loan debt regret
12 do-over wishes from college grads
By Erica Sandberg | Published: February 12, 2015
"Regrets, I've had a few ..." sang Sinatra in "My Way." There's a reason it's one of the most requested karaoke songs -- everyone has some. And if you borrowed heavily for college, student loans are likely among them.
The statistics are staggering. More than 40 million people are currently indebted for their higher education. According to the Institute for College Access & Success' Project on Student Debt, the average balance in 2014 was nearly $30,000. And that's just for undergraduate programs -- for those who pursued advanced degrees, their hole is dramatically deeper. A quarter of graduate students owe nearly $100,000.
Now out of school, many regret how they financed their education. When asked if they could rewind the clock, what would they have done differently, impassioned answers poured in
Here are the 12 top student loan do-over wishes -- plus tips on how future students can avoid the same big-ticket mistakes.
Stay employed during school
"If I could go back, I'd borrow way less and put my foot down with instructors and work a job during my training," says Matt Archambault, a reputation specialist for an Internet branding company in New York City.
Borrowing the maximum over three years while not earning any money took a severe financial toll. "I have major student loan debt regret," Archambault says. The final bill for his bachelor's and master's in fine arts was $60,000, which would have been considerably less with at least a part-time job.
Tip: Any amount of cash you can bring in while taking classes will be that much less you'll need to repay later. It can be done. Over 40 percent of full-time students and 80 percent of part-time students make working work. Follow their lead.
Borrow less than is offered
"I definitely wish I would have taken out a smaller amount of student loans while I was in college," says Chenell Tull, who lives in Philadelphia. In fact, today she blogs about her borrowing experiences at BrightCents.com.
"I took out extra for spending money and basically maxed out in student loans each year," says Tull. "By the time I graduated, I had accumulated $72,000 in student loan debt." Did she have to? Nope, she says. Proof that just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Tip: "Take out enough to cover what you absolutely cannot," urges Tull. You're not forced to borrow the maximum, so if you can get by on less, borrow the bare minimum.
Live more frugally
"I absolutely wish I had budgeted more and been a complete miser," says Matthew Books, marketing director for American Car Craft. Books lives in the Orlando, Florida, area and still owes around $100,000. "I'm in repayment mode and it stinks," he says.
In retrospect, Books believes he could have reduced such expenses as eating out. His younger self, however, might have resisted accepting that fact. "If I was able to jump back in time and try to convince myself to live in misery then so I'd be slightly more comfortable now it would be a tough sell."
Tip: College is the time for ramen noodles and cheap beer, not fine dining and high-end vacations. Use these years to hone spendthrift skills.
Set a career goal earlier
"I wish I spent more time really considering what I loved to do," says Jason Fisher, owner of the life insurance comparison company BestLifeRates.org, from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "Perhaps I should have even waited before going to school. While I am doing what I love now, it took me a few years to get there. In that time, I went to school, accumulated nearly $30,000 in debt, and spent a few years doing something I didn't enjoy."
While Fisher contends the degree was useful, he doesn't directly use it anymore. "The further I look into the future, the less of a use it will become."
Tip: Think hard and long about what you really want to study, and whether a college degree will be relevant.
Double down on degrees
Austin, Texas, resident John Branham, an executive at the nonprofit organization Any Baby Can, wishes he hadn't financed an advanced degree in the same field as his undergrad. "I believe in education, but I got my master's in public relations and advertising after getting my B.A. in marketing," says Branham. "The information was basically the same, and I'm $40,000 in debt because of it."
What would have been more practical and economical, Branham contends, was a certificate in nonprofit management or communications.
Tip: "Make sure the education you are getting is different from what you already got and will help you advance," says Branham. "Otherwise you're paying extra for the training you already have." Consider alternatives, such as short certificate programs and professional workshops.
6. Eschew the entitled attitude
"I had an attitude of, 'This is owed to me because I'm a student,'" says San Diego resident Hillary Santiago. "I didn't think about paying it back. It was just never in my mind. I signed papers thinking 'this not my money, it's the governments, and they owe me.' So I got everything and anything I could. Now I'm in trouble."
Santiago, today a nursing student, owes more than $30,000 in what she calls a useless master's degree in school psychology. A "crazy" perspective was prevalent in her first college, she says: "All around me were students saying, 'My money, my money' about their loans. But it's not yours! You have to pay it back!"
Tip: Remember that while you may be "entitled" to a certain amount in student loans, the lenders are entitled to full repayment, including finance fees.
Don't add credit card debt to the mix
"The biggest mistake I made was getting into credit card debt on top of student loan debt," says Philippa Burgess, who works in marketing outside of Denver. Her school loans were around $80,000, which she supplemented with plastic.
Burgess charged a low limit card to the hilt while in school, and her mother bailed her out with a total payoff. Once deleted, the credit card company raised the limit to $20,000. "Not realizing I had an issue, I quickly maxed that out," says Burgess. "When I graduated, I was a mess with credit card debt and a lot of school loans."
Tip: Only charge when you can pay on time and in full. Heed Burgess's warning: "Student loans and credit cards can be a toxic combo."
Use the loan for things other than school
"When I was in college I didn't really need to take out a student loan," says Casandra Henriquez, CEO of the life coaching company InspireMany.com. "But when the opportunity came, I thought to myself, 'Oh, I will take out this loan because it has such a low interest rate and use it for a down payment on my first home.'"
A fine plan in theory, but "that money was long gone before it came time to purchase a home," says Henriquez. The $20,000 balance remained.
Tip: Don't experiment with your student loans distributions. They aren't meant for anything but necessary school costs. If you don't need them for that, forget about it.
Decide on a major, fast
"Sticking with my first major would have saved me several years and likely over $20,000," says Josh Aaron, a self-reliance expert residing in the Provo, Utah, area. "I deeply regret taking out over $60,000 in student loans. I graduated in 2013. Had I stuck with business management, I would have graduated around 2010."
Like countless students, Aaron vacillated between majors, lengthening his enrollment time. Yet each semester in school equals nearly four months of not being in the job market. The price of, "Hmmm, maybe I'll like archaeology," then trying it before giving philosophy, economics or some other major a whirl is high.
Tip: College is for intellectual exploration, but to avoid the additional costs of pivoting, identify what you want to pursue as quickly as possible.
Avoid the no-job degree
"My biggest mistake was getting a degree where there was no gainful employment in the field," says Vivian Berg, who is today an adjunct professor in New York City. Her student loan tab is approximately $80,000. Repayment is a constant, stressful struggle.
"I have a master's in social psychology and planned a career in teaching research. It didn't take long after graduation to find that there were fewer open positions than I thought," says Berg. "If I had it to do all over again, I would have done self study for the knowledge, and then took another route to work my way up."
Tip: First study the job market, then study for the job. "Take it from me," says Berg. "Make sure you get into a program that will provide you with sustainable employment."
11. Follow your own path
"I studied law simply because I was pretty much pressured to do so from my Nigerian mother," says Blessing Platinum, who lives in the United Kingdom. "I owe £40,000 [about $60,000], and I regret it 100 percent. I have no plans to become a lawyer."
Soon after graduation, Platinum informed her mom that she'd be taking an entirely different direction. She founded TYD, an iPad-based fashion magazine. "I get to interview great people, attend luxury events and holiday quarterly," says Platinum. "I'm extremely grateful that I stood up to my mother, but I'm still screwed because of my student loans."
Tip: This is your life, and if you take out student loans for someone else's dreams, you'll not only waste precious time but a horrific amount of money. Don't do it.
Attend a less expensive college
"I went to a highly rated private university for a master's in teaching, when a state university would have done just as well," says Pamela Mattson McDonald, a freelance writer focusing on maritime, environmental and culinary issues in Portland, Oregon. "The private university took $50,000 to get my degree, whereas the state university only would have required $24,000."
Not only could McDonald could have been educated at half the price at a less expensive college, but she believes beginning at a two-year college (for almost nothing) would also have been wise.
Tip: Before borrowing for "the best," explore cost-effective options. "In a nutshell, use the community colleges and public universities for your education," says McDonald. They may suffice and at a far better price.
The ultimate take-away from the student loan debt regretters is not to avoid college altogether, but to make prudent choices. Follow their lead and you can prevent the same unnecessary financial problems from happening when the bill for your degree comes due.
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