Dealing With Student Loans

Can you see the fog through the trees? Can you see the trees through the fog?

For those of you who know me well, I get stressed out about money easily, and I get even more stressed out about the exact number of dollars I owe the government for that piece of paper buried in a box that says I spent three an a half years running on Advil, coffee and cranberry vodkas. AKA: a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a double major in news-editorial and history and a concentration in English. [Deep breath.]

Don’t get me wrong: I am so happy I decided to go to college, and I have no regrets for attending an out-of-state school. I had a decent scholarship that narrowed the financial gap and justified my reasons for crossing the Missouri River. I don’t regret a single decision I made during that time.

But it makes me sad that working 10-20 hours every week, more over holidays and full time every summer still put me so far behind when I’m just starting my adult life.

Since I graduated 10 months ago, I’ve done a lot of research about student loans. Specifically, I find myself drawn to stories about people who made the commitment to get rid of that debt sooner rather than later.

No More Harvard Debt is a good read, as is the blog Everyday Minimalist. Reading about these people (who had larger loans and larger yearly incomes) makes me feel like maybe I won’t spend the next 10 years paying for something I already received.

Today I paid off my smallest loan, a Perkins loan that, honestly, I probably shouldn’t have taken out in the first place. But I never could know what could have happened, so I won’t regret it.

Getting that balance to zero makes me feel lighter and calmer. Last night, knowing I would make that payment today, I felt actually giddy, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I can do this. It’s not going to happen overnight, but instead of spending a couple years slowly paying off this one small loan, I made it a priority to get rid of it quickly and efficiently. It’s a small battle won, but I definitely won.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that student loans suck. They cause stress and annoyance, and they are keeping me from doing things I want to do. Every day I think about what I would do if I didn’t need to allocate about 15 percent of every single paycheck I get to my student loans. I try not to dwell, but it’s great motivation for me to make every payment with a little extra when I can. No need to add late fees or any extra interest than necessary.

And I don’t mean to whine. Honestly, I feel very happy with many aspects of my life right now. I’m blessed in so many ways (I would list them all, but that just seems snotty… but I am very lucky).

But why, exactly, didn’t I try to come up with a different way to pay for college? Should I have taken a gap year after high school to save some money? Should I have foregone the internships that made me move all over the Midwest and pay (for one summer) way more rent than I probably should have? Should I have avoided the equestrian team, which was such a good experience, but cut into my available work hours as well as my paychecks? Should I have spent less hours on homework and projects to work more hours?

And also, did I discuss my concerns about taking out loans fully and thoroughly opposed to just complaining about it? If I had talked to more knowledgeable people about these concerns, could I have found someone with different ideas than just the people in my immediate family? Is our society’s distaste for discussions about financial responsibility encouraging teenagers (who have little concept about the cost of living, interest and loans) to take out more loans than they need? Is this system “working” because students can get a college degree for an average of a bit more than $20,000 in student loans?

I strongly believe that I made the best decisions at the time with the information I had. I have to believe that to my very core, or regret will eat me alive.

But was there a better way? Is there a better way now?

Note: I’m actually asking. If anyone is going through this now or has gone through this, I would love to hear about how you found peace of mind and efficiency in the process.

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