With nearly 70% of last year’s college graduates taking out student loans — totaling a per-student average of $29,800 — it’s safe to say there’s hardly a shortage of student-debt stories out there. Still, no matter how relatable student debt may be, each person’s experience is wholly unique to them — whether it’s triumphant, arduous, or somewhere in between. And, frankly, it’s still a tricky conversation for most people to have.
That’s why we partnered with CommonBond and asked graduates to open up about their own experiences with student debt, along with the real, practical strategies they’ve used to tackle it along the way (like enrolling in income-based repayment plans and refinancing or consolidating their loans). Because who better to advise on how to handle everything from stress to sacrifices to the triumphs of dealing with debt better than those who are actually doing it? Whether you’re in the thick of it or ready to send in your last payment, read ahead for six honest, often highly personal accounts that embrace the realities of dealing with student debt — all of which should empower you to start talking about your own.
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When Lynsea Schurbon applied to the music school of her dreams — Berklee College of Music — she was only 17 years old, full of ambition, and understood loans as “just something [she] would have to deal with.” She worked all throughout her three years in Boston, first as a restaurant hostess and later as a waitress, and graduated a year early in 2014 with $25,000 of student debt. The subsequent financial strain wasn't necessarily intimidating, though; it was just another bill to pay.
“I went to a private school knowing that that’s what I was signing up for,” she says. “It was just something I had to do — a responsibility and a choice that I made.”
Schurbon immediately began paying off her loans in the hopes of getting rid of her debt as fast as possible. Her debt really started shrinking when she both gained a better understanding of how to invest in the stock market (which subsequently became another source of income) and grew seriously committed to organizing her finances.
“Just like anything, you start out really hopeful and super invested: You want to get out of debt, you’re gonna get this over with. And then I think I became more practical. Like, people live with this. I wanted to have a life, too. My interest rate is really low. It became less of a scary thing and more a [matter of], How do I manage my money in a smart way?”
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Damaris Guillen was raised by Honduran immigrants in East New York and Brownsville. She’s a Brooklyn native, and as such, her character is one that’s equal parts ambitious, hard-working, and candid. Graduating with a degree from Swedish Institute in 2016 was key to her pursuing a career as a licensed massage therapist — and it also landed her with $30,000 of subsequent debt. In true New York fashion, she didn’t let fear hold her back, and started right away on an income-based repayment plan that didn't overwhelm her.
“I was like, Okay, I’m going to do something that’s scary and take on this debt, but I knew at the end [my education] would be rewarding,” she says. “I wasn’t afraid because I knew this was the career that I wanted to pursue.”
But make no mistake: There’ll be no small party when Guillen makes her last loan payment.
“I just can’t wait to say I’m completely debt-free. This is my only debt. I want to be able to say that I don’t owe anyone anything. That’s one of my goals, to be free from that. It kind of feels like you owe the Big Man, you know? I don’t want to owe anyone. I can’t wait.”
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When Bianca Kea applied — and was accepted — to a private liberal arts college in Michigan, she was so unfamiliar with student loans that she had never even heard the words uttered in her household. After a year of paying sky-high tuition, and realizing what it really meant to take on debt in the process, she transferred to University of Michigan at Dearborn to cut costs.
“Truly no one educated me on the process, what it took to go to school,” she says. “I’m the first one in my immediate family to go to college. I had a lot of ignorance at the time; I knew I was gonna have to pay for the loans, but no one was guiding me through this process. I was reckless.”
Without a job immediately after school, Kea wasn’t able to start paying her loans, and lenders started calling. It felt like an ambush: “You graduate and they want your money. I felt hopeless. I felt poor as fuck. I also just felt like it was unfair. A lot of my friends didn’t have to pay for college. I didn’t have that opportunity. It was shitty.”
Kea is $82,000 in debt. Her monthly payment is about $500, and if she continues to make the minimum payment, she'll be debt-free at some point in her 50s. But making larger payments and refinancing for a lower interest rate are both options she's exploring; and regardless, she’s more optimistic than she was when she first graduated in 2014. For the first time, she feels like she can pay her loans and still have a life.
“Part of me feels like damn, this sucks, but another part of me is really determined to find a way to pay it off. I know it’s possible. I try to stay hopeful and positive. And I don’t mind talking about it because I think it needs to be discussed. There’s a lot of people like me who are first-generation college graduates. I want to make sure it’s known that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I hope people know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it is a long tunnel.”
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Crystal Green didn’t expect to think about her debt every single day as a 31-year-old, but she does, almost down to the dollar: “It keeps me from making frivolous purchases. Every time I want to order or eat out, I think to myself, That could be $30 towards your loans.”
It’s an approach reminiscent of the every-penny-counts philosophy we were taught as kids at the candy store but applied to a much more adult financial woe: the $40,000 worth of student loans she incurred upon transferring from a school to which she had a full ride to Manhattan College after her sophomore year. Had she been more financially responsible, Green believes she could have paid off her loans years ago; now, she's much more committed to tackling her debt than she was in her 20s.
“What I didn’t expect was how anxious I am now at 31 to be debt-free,” she says. “I wish I cared this much in my 20s because my loans could have easily been eliminated. But I was dumb, in horrible situations, making 75% less than I do now. My reality now is that I want these gone ASAP.”
Green plans to have her loans paid off before she turns 33, in May 2021. Until then, she’s reflecting on her experience with — and handling of — her debt, but not too much. She's excited to save money going forward, and is committed to investing in her future financially.
“Debt sucks. I always tether on whether I would have done things differently. I’d like to think that I would have, but probably not. What’s done is done, and I can either choose to sulk in it or deal with it like an adult. Now, I love looking at my money, moving money, saving money. It’s exciting to me to have the opportunity to do so."
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When Kristen Guevara enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin, she wasn’t intimidated by tuition costs — at $6,000 a semester, it felt “really doable.” But living expenses quickly added up, and she found herself graduating in 2014 with $37,000 of debt.
“I felt like I’d never pay it off, ever,” she says. “I was overwhelmed with starting a new job and wanting to get my own life together. [Debt] weighs on you. It’s like, I know that ‘X’ amount of money from my check is going to go toward that every single month. Budgeting loans and having to pay them back is just tough.”
Committing to a monthly $500 loan payment while adjusting to life as a new nurse in Fort Worth, Texas was a challenge that Guevara willingly took on, though, knowing that she wanted to eventually go back to school sans debt. On July 25 of this year, she paid off her final $1,700 loan. She starts grad school classes next month.
“I felt so good. I had $1,700 left to pay off. I told myself that I didn’t want to start grad school in any debt. I was sitting with my mom in Tulum on a mother-daughter trip, and she was like, ‘Just pay it off!’ So I did, we celebrated, it was great.”
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Ama Y Adi-Dako
When it came to grasping the reality of her loans post-graduation from Wellesley College, Ama Y Adi-Dako felt completely in the dark. She didn’t have a clear understanding of interest rates, private versus federal loans, or why some loan companies behaved in a manner that felt predatory. Her total debt of $15,000 would take around 50 years to pay off at the interest rates she left school with, and for Adi-Dako, that wasn’t going to cut it.
“I went through a lot of difficult times, figuring out who I was after school,” she says. “I had a history of watching all the women in my family go through some sort of financial abuse with their partners. When I was learning to fend for myself, I knew I would have to achieve financial independence to truly have peace of mind.”
Adi-Dako approached her loans methodically, learning how to invest her money and improving her credit score significantly before she considered refinancing. Once she browsed NerdWallet and became interested in CommonBond, specifically, she did her homework — reading reviews and calculating her payoff dates based on whether or not she refinanced. In the end, it was clear that working with CommonBond was the best option. And beyond that, after confronting her own debt, she became much more passionate about education in general and the associated costs.
“It’s really important to me to have a company with a vision for what education should look like in this country moving forward. That principle has also led me in my own financial journey.”
Now, a debt-free future is top of mind for Adi-Dako, who plans on making her last loan payment in about a year and a half.
“I’m very excited to be debt-free. I’m going to feel liberated, I know for sure. I have so many ambitions and goals for my life. Getting rid of debt is my biggest long-term goal to secure my financial well-being.”
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