NEW YORK (MainStreet) —When I enrolled in graduate school at NYU in 2004, it was on a whim. I didn't take the time to look for grants or scholarships, but went all in like a gambler, assuming a master's degree from a top university would net enough cachet on the other side to boost my earning potential.
In my humble estimation, borrowing money to further your education—whether it’s earning a degree for the first time or pursuing knowledge for the sake of a new career track—is worth it. So while I don't regret my educational pursuit (or even borrowing the $50,000 it took to get there) in hindsight I wish I'd taken the time to do a bit more thoughtful planning and research before diving into the world of student loans.
If I had, I might have known the following:
I could have borrowed less. You don’t have to accept all that you’re offered. Make a budget of your school expenses and your fixed living expenses if you won’t be working while you take classes. Use an online calculator to determine exactly how much you’ll need to borrow. If you are able to work, do. It can help offset loans tremendously.
I'd still have to work an entry-level job to prove myself in a new field. With a bachelor’s degree and years of work experience, I figured that adding a graduate degree in my newly chosen field of publishing would launch me to the top of the hiring heap. Wrong. I still had to pay my dues and earn more responsibility the old-fashioned way—with an unpaid internship and low-paying freelance work. This may not be the case in your field of study, but it helps to prepare yourself to earn less than you might imagine. Which leads to point # 3…
You can't predict, but should prepare for, a recession. Having paid all those dues, I was finally riding high and earning a decent living by 2008. And then many industries, including my own, felt the pinch of the economic crisis. I found myself out of work for 10 months. Getting by on unemployment and cash gigs was rough, and of course, there was no way I could pay my loans, which went into forbearance. All that is to say, if you are working, start saving immediately for the proverbial rainy day.
Deferment is a dirty word. Lenders make it seem easy to wait (or defer) paying back your loans, but be careful…it’s a choice that has a cost. Deferring your loans (or having them put into forbearance) puts you more deeply in debt, extending the time it will take you to repay your loan. Part of the reason I was unemployed so long is that I was insistent on working in my field, at any level. It would have been wiser to take a part or full-time job to pay the bills and keep paying those loans. If you find yourself in a similar position, look into income-based repayment, which calculates payment as a percentage of your monthly income.
Just how long loan repayment takes. So, it’s nine years after the fact, and I’ve honestly barely made a dent in my loans. I accepted the “gift” of deferment right after graduation from benevolent lenders when I was fortunate to be working and earning an amount equal to the total of my loan—which means I definitely should have been making payments and living more frugally. I made no payments while unemployed and very minimal payments the past three years when I was earning very little working at a non-profit. I’m back on track career-wise, but it will still take me another 10 years to pay off my full debt, meaning I’ll be well into my 40s by the time I’m debt-free.
Borrowing money for higher education isn’t the end of the world, but as it can limit your options in the ensuing years, prepare yourself before you take the plunge! Do your research, pay what you can out of pocket and explore as many grants and scholarships as you can. A little planning goes a long way in making the experience less daunting.