Crushed By Student Loans

I had this idea to move to Hawai’i and become a doctor.  A noble dream, I suppose.  Most people kind of laughed at the idea that a 23-year-old college dropout rock star wanna-be would actually follow through on a goal like that.  8 months later, I was boarding a plane to Hawai’i on a journey that was going to suck in ways I could never imagine.

I entered college completely debt free.  I didn’t owe a penny to anyone.  I knew going into it that I’d need to take out loans.  That didn’t matter though.  No one paid any attention to that.  You just take out the loans and pay them back when you graduate.  I’ve heard the laughing joke multiple times, “yeah, you’ll be paying those back for the rest of your life!”  Haha. Ohhh, that’s just college.

But that’s not really how it goes.  After you get to college, you sit in a little cubicle and a financial aid officer tells you how much you need to borrow and gives you a few companies that you can call.  You call a loan company, they happily tell you you’ve been approved for a loan and they send a check to the school.  The school takes what they need for tuition and sends you the rest.  This is to be used for your expenses.  You are a student after all.  You need to spend your time studying.  The job will come later.

I lived comfortably through school.  Once a year, I would go through this loan process.  It didn’t even really occur to me the amount of money I was burning.  Once you earn a bachelor’s degree, in your lifetime you will earn over a million dollars more than someone who doesn’t hold that degree.  I’ve heard this statistic many times.  I figured that paying a bill every month for the rest of my life wouldn’t really be a huge problem.

It is.  And not only that, I do not get to spend the rest of my life paying them.  I have 15 years.

The total of my loans is comparable to a modest mortgage.  In my first meeting, if my financial aid officer had asked me if I’d like to take out a mortgage with a 15 year repayment plan, I’d tell her that would be insane and completely irresponsible.  But that’s exactly what I did.  It was insane and completely irresponsible.  Going to college was the most foolish decision I’ve ever made.  And that is a heartbreaking realization.

I ripped through the biology program at my university.  After 3 years of full schedules, going to school through the summers and completing a massage therapy licensing program, I had only 8 credits left before I’d have earned my degree.  To be considered a full-time student, you need at least 12 credits per semester.  Because of this classification, my final semester, which I thought would be fun and easy, was a complete nightmare.  No one wants to give a loan to a part-time student.

I’d been working as a massage therapist a few hours a week prior to this, but not enough to have much of a savings.  And now suddenly I needed to come up with another $5000 in 2 weeks or I’d be dropped from my classes.  I was desperate.

I talked to everyone I could, heard hundreds of “no, sorry” until someone finally helped me.  “Apply for this grant.  And apply for this federal program.”  I applied for these things without even looking into them.  They went through, and I only had to come up with about $500 for my last semester.  I was broke and working nonstop, but I got through it.  I graduated.  I was thrilled.

I finally started filing through the type of debt I was actually in.  This is when I learned what a horrific mistake I’d made.  That final semester was funded by grants and federal programs that were always available to me but I was unaware of.  The grant is money that was given to me with no repayment necessary.  It was a little late, but I finally saw that there were countless scholarships, grants and all types of programs that would’ve helped me pay for school.

At first this was nothing more than frustrating.  Oh well, lesson learned.  Hopefully I can make sure my kids don’t do the same thing.  But it became clear that this was a gigantic and idiotic oversight that not one financial aid officer ever pointed out to me.

After I finished school, I started working much more as a massage therapist.  I applied for every biotech job I heard about but no one called.  Even so, I was pulling in a decent paycheck.  I threw away my old flip phone and got a smart phone.  I had no trouble paying bills.  I was looking to move out of my rat and cockroach infested rented room into a nice cozy place of my own.  I applied to medical school.  I took a trip to see my family.  My life was becoming very comfortable.

On that trip to see my family, a few really significant things happened.  First, my med school application had earned me an interview invitation.  I was asked to come visit Portland, check out the school and meet with the admissions committee.  The other thing that happened: I received my first student loan bill.  It was astronomical.  I think I actually laughed.

When I returned home, I had more statements from different student loan companies.  Apparently, the golden date is 6 months after graduation.  When added up, the loan payments were almost equal to my average monthly income.  A few of them were for something like $50 a month, so I paid them.  The others, I simply couldn’t afford.  On the back of the statement, it said, “Can’t afford this payment?  Call this number.”

I called and told the kind lady that I couldn’t afford it.  She said, “Oh, well this is a private loan which means there is nothing we can do for you.  Call the parent company, maybe they can help.  Good luck!”  Her name was like, Connie, or something.  She was very sweet, had an encouraging, friendly tone and was nothing but helpful.  And I wanted to punch her in the face.

I called the parent company and I talked to Seth.  “Well, we can’t adjust your monthly payment at all and it has to be completely paid off in 15 years, so…” and he trailed off a bit.

I said, “Well, ok, but I can’t afford to give you this money right now, so what can we do?”

“Perhaps we could defer your payments due to economic hardship.  How much do you make?”  I told him how much I made and even though the payment for this particular loan (not my only monthly payment, mind you) was nearly half of my income he said, “Oh, sorry, it doesn’t look like you qualify for economic hardship.”

He kept asking me about my academic life; did I graduate, am I going to continue on.  Every time I answered, he said, “oh, congratulations for that, sir.”  And every time he said “congratulations” I wanted to aggressively push him.  Ya know, with firm hands, so it kinda hurts your chest whilst also pushing you off balance.

He put me on the phone with his supervisor: a chipper, enthusiastic female, probably also named Connie.  She told me that my loan payments could be deferred for 3 months because I owe so much freaking money to so many people.  Fantastic.

I had to go through this process with a few different companies.  I’ve talked to a lot of Connies in the past week.  My current crisis is averted.

But in 3 months, I will not have the option of deferring again unless I lose my job or something like that.  But even in that case, I can only defer for a total of 12 months during the life of the loan.

I have 3 months to double my income and pad my savings account enough to pay back this mortgage while also being able to pay for my rat infested rented room and maybe have enough left over to eat a little bit too.

Oh right, and I have to call the medical school and tell them I can’t come for an interview and hope that they will allow a phone interview.  And then, if they decide to accept me, I will have to tell them that unless they offer me a full scholarship, I will not attend because I will never again borrow money for my education.

This is all because I was naïve and uninformed.  I have a hard time blaming anyone but myself for getting into this mess, but there were so many university-appointed, influential people along my journey that could’ve helped me make better decisions.

I decided to go the healing route because I want to help people to feel better and make a difference.  I started doing massage for the same reason.  Now I’m not going to be a doctor because I don’t want to pay for the schooling and I give massages because I need the money.  I don’t care about being rich, but now I am forced to have the ambition of a money-hungry jerk just to survive and I hate it.

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7 thoughts on “Crushed By Student Loans

  1. Hey, James. If you go back to school for your medical degree, won’t your undergrad loans go into deferral automatically because you’re in school?

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    1. They would. That is a huge perk of going back to school. The interest keeps accruing, though. And I’d have to take out almost double the amount of loans to get through med school. Ugh.

      And thanks so much for reading this!

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  2. James, because we were so naive and underinformed about this, I have the same problem, but I bet I owe WAY more than you because I studied abroad. No problem to pay back the loans because I’ll get a great job with my master’s degree right? Well, I couldn’t even afford to finish my masters and once i added up my student loans there was no way in hell i would take out another one….ever. so luckily, i am living out of the country and they have no way of knowing I work so I am lucky that I can defer/forebear 3 out of 4 of my loans, The last loan,however, the most expensive loan, was a private loan that dad cosigned for. I have no choice but to pay this. I used up my deferment. They cannot help at all. The unfortunate thing is that the monthly payment of just this one loan is what most people make here in Albania a month. Luckily, I am an American English teacher and will be making about 3 times what the average person makes and I will be able to pay that and get out of my in-laws house. Get to med school. You have the ambition. You have the intelligence, apply for more grants. I never knew about them either. As for the other loans I have, I keep defering and defering for economic hardship and once time runs out, they can come find me somewhere around the world because I will not be in America! I can care less. All “they” say is how important higher education is, yet everyone that goes to college is dead broke for the next 30 years because of that stupid education. it makes me sick that i know so many high school drop outs and just high school graduates that were making more money than me or having extra income because they didn’t have student loans. they were smart. my psychology degree did me nothing. but at least i have a bachelor’s degree! and i love to read your blogs. BTW, there is a petition floating around about student loans and getting the government to help with them. i will find it and send it to you so you can sign it and pass it along. it’s somewhere on my page, i will get it for you. love you!

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  3. Jim, I read these too! And I feel your pain. My financial aid experience was very similar to yours. Except for my first loan, they flat-out lied about the terms. We were told that the payments wouldn’t start until six months after graduation, instead I got my first bill six months after starting school. I had to defer the payments, which means that the loan practically doubled by the time I did graduate. And that was just the first loan! Now I’m living with my dad and working six days a week at a job that has nothing to do with what I went to school for; and that still just barely covers my loan payments each month. If I didn’t have such an amazing family that has been very supportive, I would probably be living in my truck right now.

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    1. Oh, and I signed that petition that Amy was talking about. I can’t find the link. But I am pretty sure they were called the Young Invincibles or something similar to that.

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  4. I feel your pain……back in the day I did not qualify for a grant because I made too much working (they didn’t look at my mortgage and car payment), so I had to take out private loans too. Payments started immediately even though I went to school full time. I worked 3 part time jobs to accommodate my school schedule and to make enough to pay all my bills. Life sucked at times because I never had any money to do anything but survive. Fast forward……it took me a long time to pay everything back (10 years), but I did. It was all worth it in the end. You will get through this. So sorry Jimmy.

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