Did you hear the news this week? A report from Complete College America, a nonprofit group based in Indianapolis, Indiana, suggests that most students at American public colleges (tuition at public universities is typically lower than at private colleges because they are often state-funded) don’t graduate in four years. According to the study, nationwide, only 50 of more than 580 public four-year institutions graduate a majority of their full-time students on time. More time in college means more money put toward yearly tuition bills — and for some, even larger student loans that they must pay off when they leave campus for the real world.
This type of report makes Zina Kumok stand up and take notice. Kumok, 26, is a graduate of Indiana University, a public college that also happens to be in Indiana, from where this report was generated. But the coincidences end there. The mere thought of having to extend her four-year college stay would have sent Kumok into a financial tailspin. When she graduated in 2011 with a journalism degree, she was saddled with $28,000 worth of student-loan debt that she had to pay off on her own, and on the starting salary of a journalist — about $28,000 a year.
Kumok took out the loans as an 18-year-old in order to supplement the $15,000 a year that her parents agreed to pay for her higher education tuition. She now readily admits that she didn’t know what she was getting into. “I told myself I wouldn’t take out more than $30,000 in loans because I didn’t want to take out any more than my starting salary would be after college,” notes Kumok. “But nobody told me that when you make $30,000 starting out, this is how much your monthly salary will be and this is how much your student loan payment will be. I ended up paying $350 a month for my minimum payment, and when you’re making $28,000 that’s a really big chunk. I wish prospective college students understood a bit better what their life will look like after college.”
In December 2012, Kumok decided to do something about that – and about her own debt. She launched an online blog, “Debt Free After Three,” in which she regularly posts personal-finance reflections and anecdotes about her journey to pay off her sizable student-loan debt in only three years. Typically, it would take nine years or longer, and cost thousands of more dollars in accrued interest.
On November 18, 2014, Kumok was victorious. Her last loan payment cleared, and she was debt-free in even less than three. How did she do it? Says Kumok: “There are only two ways to pay off any kind of debt. Spend less or make more. Do one or the other — or if you’re really desperate, do both.”
While Kumok’s blog kept her accountable for her financial goals (she attracted a following of other debt-laden readers), it also introduced her to the supportive personal-finance blogosphere and other college grads buckling under the weight of their student loans, people like Melanie Lockert. Lockert, who writes “Dear Debt,” a blog about breaking up with debt, accumulated a total of $81,000 in student-loan debt as a theater arts undergraduate student at California State University, Long Branch and a graduate student at New York University in New York City. To date, Lockert, 30, has paid off $33,000 in about three-and-a-half years, and is working hard toward reducing that balance as quickly as possible. A key strategy? Moving from NYC to Portland, Oregon a few years back to live with her partner and escape the high-priced New York lifestyle.
Both Kumok and Lockert have gathered some valuable insights during their debt-reduction journeys – all intel that they wish their 17-year-old selves had known when they were signing on the student-loan dotted lines. Here are their top five highlights:
- Change happens. It’s important to understand that what you’re getting into debt for now might not be something you use later. Both Kumok and Lockert racked up their student-loan bills getting degrees in professions that they are no longer pursuing. Kumok tried out journalism for a year before deciding that it “wasn’t the right fit.” She now works in public relations for a nonprofit. Lockert had some success applying her theater arts degree, but ran into trouble finding good employment in the field after she completed her prestigious NYU graduate degree. She is now working as a full-time freelance blogger and editor. They both agree that many of the skills they learned in college have carried over into their new careers. Even so, Lockert says: “I would be realistic that things could change and try to mitigate the amount of student loans you are taking out [for any one career track].”
- You have to pay money to get money. Both women stress the importance of understanding your student-loan package and plan from the start. Lesson No. 1: Get to know your interest rate. “One of the big shocks I had with my student loans was when I went to make my first payment and I saw the balance on my loan,” recalls Kumok. “I saw that half of that first payment went to interest. I just threw $150 down the toilet! That is really discouraging. If I kept that up for the life of the loan, it would have been $9,000 in interest. That’s a lot of money to throw away.” Kumok was paying a high 6.8% interest rate on her student loan, which means that she was getting charged money every day to carry a principal balance on her loan. For instance, a student loan with a balance of $10,000 and an interest rate of 6% would cost $49.28 in interest in a typical 30-day month. “I knew I had to pay my loan back eventually, but at 17 you’re not thinking about what ‘eventually’ looks like,” says Lockert, who points out that students typically don’t have to begin paying off a loan until after they graduate. All the while, the interest on the loan is adding up. “When I graduated from Cal State in 2006, my student loan balance had ballooned from $19,000 to $23,000. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, that’s what interest is.’
- Get a job. While paying off student-loan debt often requires you to spend less, Lockert rallies behind the idea of increasing income, especially when you’re still in school. “I’m a huge advocate for working part-time or full-time while in college,” says Lockert, who today on her $30,000-a-year salary is no stranger to “side hustling” in waitressing, newspaper delivery and other small jobs that can bring in extra money to help pay off her debt. “I worked all throughout college. Unfortunately, when I was an undergrad I didn’t put any of that toward my debt. I could have really made a dent. Working is a great supplement to your college education. Post-graduation, employers are more likely to look at you if you have an education, as well as work experience.” Plus, she adds, earning more as a strategy to pay off debt is a lot more “validating, inspiring, challenging and fun.”
- Make hard choices. OK, this is what it’s all about, says Kumok. You may think that you are entitled to a certain lifestyle, but remember, if you are on a limited budget and you are trying to pay off your debt, you just can’t have it all. “You have to come to terms with the lifestyle you can afford,” Kumok notes, adding that it may mean a less-pricey social life when you are trying to get rid of your debt burden. Lockert doesn’t have a car and, even though she would love one, she doesn’t have a dog. “I really want a pet, but I feel like I can’t afford it [until my debt is paid off]. I’ve made all these choices. I’m very mindful, and I live a minimalist lifestyle.”
- Face your financial reality. Don’t compare, especially when you see those friend photos of fancy cars, expensive dinners and luxurious vacations on Facebook and Instagram. “Comparing how you spend money to how your friends spend money is a really bad thing to do. It’s impossible to know what other people are doing and what kinds of choices they are making. Are their parents helping them out? Do they have a second job? Are they financing everything through loans?” We are all on our own financial journey.
What were some of the mistakes that Zina Kumok and Melanie Lockert made when taking out and dealing with their student loans?
Why were these two women so motivated to pay off their debt? Brainstorm some ways that it helps them to pay off their debt early.
Spend some time exploring “Debt Free After Three” and “Dear Debt” further. How has social media played a role in the lives of these two women and their struggles to become debt-free? What does that tell you about the power of social media?