For the second installment of Student Loan Stories, we spoke to Lauren, who candidly shared her story of tackling high student loans. She hopes it can be a forewarning to others.
Graduation Year: 2010
Current Debt: $107K in private loans; $40K in federal loans
CASSIUS: Can you give me a little background on how your loans got to this amount?
L: I graduated from Columbia College in Chicago in 2010, and I majored in Art Entertainment and Media Management. I initially wanted to become a lawyer, although I wasn’t interested in litigation. I just wanted to work with contracts. Right out of college, I moved back to Atlanta and started working for a small law firm. After the six-month grace period, Sallie Mae started calling. I didn’t have the money to pay them, so I didn’t, and I didn’t think about paying. My parents were great parents, but the topic of finances wasn’t one we really talked about. I do remember my mom saying, “You will have to take out a loan for college. Are you okay taking on this debt?” But I didn’t really understand what debt was, so I was like “sure.” I just wanted to go to school away from Atlanta. I took out enough loans for tuition, room and board, and a little extra just to live.
Sallie Mae called me everyday and I just didn’t respond. I was working as a paralegal and couldn’t afford to pay. I was making just enough to pay my car note and have a little extra. So from 2010 to 2012, I didn’t pay. Then, in 2012, my sister tried to buy a house. My sister and aunt were my co-signers. My mom didn’t have the credit to co-sign or the money just to pay for college, so my aunt and sister co-signed for me. My sister was so excited to buy her house, but when she tried, she found out her credit was terrible because of me not paying. Up until then, we never had a conversation about me paying back my loans. Again, it just never crossed my mind to say anything and it sounds so crazy now to say in hindsight. I was absolutely ignorant to the repercussions. By this time, I switched jobs and left the law firm.
December 2012, I get laid off from this new job that I loved. I’ll never forget. I was on my way to a party a few days before Christmas when I got the call. From the end of 2012 to 2014, I wasn’t working. I was on food stamps, government assistance, and still living at home. Sallie Mae gave me an extension during this time, but then they were like you have exhausted every avenue, you must start repaying. This whole time interest had been accruing and I still didn’t know the number I owed. I also kind of didn’t want to know because I was afraid. But Sallie Mae wouldn’t let up and they said they were going to garnish my wages. I’m like, “What wages? What you going to take? I’m not working!”
The job market in Atlanta was not for me so I was applying everywhere—L.A, New York, anywhere. I kept getting interviews in New York, but it was too expensive for me to keep going back and forth, so my mom said I’ll give you X amount of dollars and we’ll see what happens in a month. A friend of the family’s let me stay with her rent free.
C: When did you find out the staggering amount?
L: Beginning of 2015, once I started working in New York. The amount was actually $118K by then with all the interest. I went through the loan details and realized I only took out about 70K in loans but the high interest rates drove it up. I didn’t know any of this and what it meant when I signed up for this in college. It’s predatory lending! I still couldn’t pay the full minimum, but it was something. Then I realized the money I’m paying is only going to interest. It was no where touching the principal balance. In 2018 alone, I’ve paid $14K in just interest.
C: What is your current monthly payment?
L: My current monthly payment is $1,150 which is more than my rent. My rent is $950! And that’s just in the private loans. I can’t even begin to think about the federal loans which are in deferment and with interest are now at about $40K.
C: How has having this huge debt impacted your life?
L: I’m 30. I want my own place and don’t want to have a roommate anymore. And it’s definitely impacted my career. I make a decent salary—$87K, but it goes to my loans and I’m limited by the positions I take. I don’t want to be an Executive Assistant forever, but I know as an EA you can make upwards of six figures with bonuses. I worked for a politician for two years—never met him—but as his EA, I was able to able to make almost six figures after bonuses, which got me current on my loans. I hated it because I felt like somebody’s adult babysitter, but I needed the money. I was paying my loans on time.
I was also in a deep depression for a long time. My credit score was in the low 500’s. Thankfully it’s gone up, but that came with a lot of hard work.
C: Do you have a projected pay off date?
2030. I have 10 more years of this! I know people who take any extra money they have and put it towards their student loans. I’m strained. I have just enough to pay my student loans, rent, and have some sort of enjoyment ,even if it’s just with $100 left.
I cannot count the amount of hours I have spent on the phone crying asking, “Can you lower my monthly payment?” Sallie Mae has since sold my student loans to two other companies, and for one of them, I can’t even get through to a human!