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One of my favorite quotes comes from Mary Oliver, the poet who wrote The Summer Day, which reads: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Due to my annoying student loan debt, this quote haunts me more and more every time I have to say “no” to something I’d really love to do – like visiting my far-flung family and friends in other states.
The bottom line is: I pay a lot of money to service my student loan debt every month, and it does hurt. Every time I pay, I always wonder if I did the right thing. But something happened to me recently to make me reflect, be grateful for the opportunities I had – and want to share my advice so maybe you do it a little better than I did!
If you are considering higher education, let me share some of my advice for reducing your overall student loan debt burden. Whether you currently have student loan debt already, and are considering taking on more for higher education, or you’re starting your journey into college/university, these tips will help you make educated and aspirational decisions.
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I really stepped in it recently with a beloved family member. Jaded by my own “useless” degree (something I know I’ve said aloud if not written down), the trajectory of my career (happily being my own businesswoman but not working in the field I got my degree in), and how much I “throw away” to my pay off my debt, I carelessly shot down my niece’s dreams of going to graduate school.
Later she told me she felt hurt by my comments, because she said a graduate degree is necessary in her field. Without getting too into it, her field is more science-based than mine was. It could be entirely possible that her field really does need a Master’s and I just didn’t know it.
As I thought about it, the more I realized what a selfish jerk I was being, trying to tell people that just because my field isn’t working out right now that no one should pursue higher education. There are a ton of good reasons to pursue higher education, just as there are a lot of good reasons not to. If I could go back and re-phrase it to her, this is the advice I would give to a younger person pursuing higher education who wants to avoid student loan debt.
Pursue Your Degree Carefully
When I applied to my master’s degree program at age 23, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” I thought I did – you try telling a 23 year old that they don’t know what their life is going to be like in 10 years. Most will probably shrug you off. While I was right about the degree, I was wrong about other aspects of that field.
If you want a master’s degree (or a college degree) in X field, do it! I don’t think anyone should be held back from pursuing higher ed because they can’t afford it – education should not be for the rich only.
In many cases, though, you will have to take on student loan debt. It’s just the nature of how out of control costs have gotten. It’s no longer the 1970s or even 1980s, when our parents told us they could “work a summer job and pay for a semester of college.” It’s more like, work 24/7 and pay for maybe a semester of college.
Pursue your degree carefully. Look for more scholarships, Teaching Assistant (TA) positions, or even side hustling to earn more on the side. Not sure where to start? Over at our podcast, Accio Debt Freedom, Liz and I interviewed Femme Frugality and she shared a ton of information about how to successfully pursue scholarships and how to find the right ones for you. You can listen to the episode and her recommendations here. Even if you go into debt, you may be able to reduce the overall amount.
Work While You’re In School
I fully understand that not everyone can take a full course load and work. I did it – but I worked in a library, aka the best job to get homework done and get paid for it. My husband, on the other hand, worked his tail off with two retail/service jobs in the summer, because he knew he couldn’t work and go to school full-time.
Know yourself, but push yourself. Our smart niece is currently in college and is working two jobs. It’s not super fun to leave for work while all of your friends are lounging about, but it’s so worth it.
Where can you find jobs? My favorite was work-study jobs on campus, because employers were basically employees of the college/university (like my library job). Some of my friends worked as front desk staff, in the gym, and as tutors. One of the best gigs? Being a Resident Assistant (RA – free housing!). You can also visit your school’s Career Center to see what businesses in your city are offering jobs to college students – that’s also an awesome way to get a foot in the door at a future full time job!
In addition to getting paid (keeping your overall student loan debt burden low), you’ll also learn valuable skills and get references for when you are applying for jobs outside of school. It’s a win-win-win.
Look for Your Interest + Talent + Skill
One thing I didn’t realize when I talked to my niece is – she knows what she’s interested in. She loves working with people, she’s good at it, and she’s found a way to combine her interests with her talents and the skills she’s learned in school. Why couldn’t I see that and encourage her instead of just saying “oh, student loan debt sucks you should just not get a Master’s degree”?
Almost every degree I can think of will be useful, whether it’s in making you a better writer, speaker, or someone who can quickly analyze and summarize information. Or that art degree – maybe you design your office’s marketing materials!
Interest shines through. When I applied for jobs after graduating with my Master’s degree, it was clear I was deeply interested and curious about that degree. The hiring board could tell that my degree and that job were a perfect match – and interest/curiosity + talent + skill is exactly what hiring managers want to see, regardless of what your major actually was.
Always Pursue Your Passion
I always thought the saying “pursue your passion” was BS for middle- or lower-income people. That’s great, I thought sarcastically, except my passion doesn’t pay the bills. Hilariously enough, my passion is paying my bills right now – I just was too stubborn to see it at the time.
You see, I got degrees in extremely practical, useful things. I will (hopefully) always be employable with my Master’s degree. But when I was working in that field, I always wanted to be a writer. So in my free time after work, I began freelance writing – and I started getting paid for it.
Now, I own my own business, and I’m basically paid to write all day, every day. It’s literally what I dreamed of when I was a 10 year old, and those skills I developed because I was passionate about them have gotten me where I am today. Could you imagine how different (and less wonderful) my life would be if I never kept up my interests, even though they never brought me any money at the beginning?
That said, if you have student loan debt like I do, unless you suddenly win the lottery or inherit a bunch of money from a weird uncle, you do have to be practical. But don’t let practicality snuff out your passion. Make time for it – even if it doesn’t pay any bills. You’ll never regret making time for the things you really love (art, music, writing, tinkering – anything that brings you joy).
Balance Practicality with Your Passion
My student loan debt sucks. There were a lot of things I should have done to reduce my overall student loan debt burden – but not pursuing my degree was not one of them. I don’t ever want to dissuade anyone from pursing higher education if they want to, regardless of income.
There are ways to get it for cheaper but, even if you go into debt, you shouldn’t regret the experience you had. Higher education is not something everyone can pursue, so be grateful for what you learned and your opportunity to be there.
Above all, be you. I found this quote from Soman Chainani in Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors book and it really stood out to me:
A little part of me dies every time someone tells me they’ve taken a job as a “steppingstone” to something else, when they clearly aren’t interested in it. You have one life to live. Time is valuable. If you’re using steppingstones, you’re also likely relying on someone else’s path or definition of success. Make your own.
Even if you get into debt, even if it takes you longer to pursue your passion because you have to pay the bills, always pursue your passion. Always make time for it. You never know what kind of rewards it will pay out for you in the future. Don’t let student loan debt hold you back from living your own wild and precious life.
This post was written for #FinHealthMatters as part of Center for Financial Services Innovation: #FinHealthMatters (Financial Health Matters) as part of an effort to raise students’ financial awareness.