Sometimes getting school loans can be easy — too easy. It's not until after graduation that the painful reality of what you've done sinks in.
"I have to pay how much each month? But ... I could buy a Ferrari for that! I could buy two Ferraris for that!!" That was my reaction when I found out, after law school graduation, how much my student loans would cost. I was 24. I was married. I was soon to be broke!
When we were growing up, my parents had to pry my brother's fingers from the steering wheel of the sports car he was restoring to ship him off to college. Me? I think my first words were, "Can I go to college yet?" I couldn't wait. Some kids have the time of their lives in high school, and weep uncontrollably at graduation. Not me. Graduation from high school was the most exciting time of my life — it meant I would be going to college in a few short months! I was never so happy to leave a place as I was that day.
Then came fall quarter at my beloved Christian college in the Midwest. After just a month or two, in my box at the campus post office, came the letter from the cashier's office. It said, "If you don't pay the thousands of dollars you owe, we'll slash your tires and steal your children."
OK, it wasn't quite that bad, but it felt worse. I would have to go home if I couldn't pay my bill. So, frantic, I went to the financial aid office, where I found the man who was to become my dragon-slaying hero for the rest of my college days.
For whatever reason, Steve took up my cause. He said my grades were good and I was responsible, so he looked high and low for every little scholarship and loan he could find. From that day on, every time I got one of those nasty letters from the cashier (which was about once a quarter), I took it over to Steve and he found a way to keep me in school. All I had to do was sign a few papers.
So, when I graduated from college with a history/political science degree and decided to go to law school, my fingers and wrist were already warmed up. I filled out the loan applications with no problem. Now, I was pretty responsible. I didn't take out the maximum amount, I didn't use the money to buy a sports car, and I worked a part-time job through school. The financial aid officer at the law school told me my student loans were much lower than what he normally saw. I thought I was doing well. Then I graduated, and the bills came.
I don't regret going to college and then on to law school. But after my final graduation, I discovered that there were a few things my dragon-slaying hero didn't prepare me for, and that my law school loan officer certainly didn't mention! (Or was I just not paying attention?)
First, the wonderful world of higher education does not last forever, at least not for most of us. Once it's over, we have to move on into the world of work, rent, car payments, grocery bills, and so on. And, with the end of college comes the end of the loan payment deferral. Six months out, your graduation gift comes from the loan company, and it's not very pleasant. I remember thinking, especially in law school, "Well, I'm already in debt by many thousands of dollars, what's a few more thousand at this point?" Now that I'll be making payments of several hundred dollars a month for the next 30 years, I realize what those few extra thousands mean! My point? Payday comes sooner than you think.
Second, your desires and circumstances will change. The decisions you make now will affect your ability to do things you really want to do later. When I was in college, I used to talk to my roommates who were seriously dating or engaged, and they spoke of how they couldn't wait to finish school, get married, and have kids. I wanted to get married someday, but I wasn't even dating anyone. And, I wanted to have a successful career that I would really enjoy. What I didn't know was that my choice of going straight into graduate school, adding debt to debt, would result in financial stress in my marriage (which came after college). Now that I'm nearing the big 3-0, I'm also thinking more about having children. Will I be able to stay home full-time with our children? My decisions made many years ago in college may mean the answer is "no."
Leave your future open to God's will for your life. You may think now that you will never get married, or never have children. What if you do? Or, what if your career ideas change? I have known friends who, after college, felt that God wanted them to go to the mission field, but they couldn't because their debts were too great. For some, this was not only student loan debt, but also credit card debt, car payments, and other financial commitments. Perhaps there is an idea in the back of your head that you would really like to be an artist, or a Christian school teacher, or work for a charity. One reason many people end up in a job they don't like is because they can't afford to take the job they'd really love.
Third, being irresponsible with money and debt can be easy to rationalize. Take the obvious: Some of my fellow law students took out the maximum loan they qualified for and used the money left over after paying tuition to buy a new car or new wardrobe or to live in an upscale apartment.
Then there are the not so obvious "needs." "I'm in college, so I need a computer." "I live off-campus so I need a new car." I actually lived an hour and 10 minutes' drive, each way, from law school for the first two years. I really did need a car. After much prayer, I found an inexpensive but well taken care of used car that lasted for many years. And, living so far from campus, I found I really did need a computer. But I decided to buy one only after spending the first semester doing all of my papers in the computer labs on campus. Before you rush right out and buy something you think you'll need, try getting along without it first. If you find you really do need it, see if there is a less expensive way to meet the need.
Finally, your mind tends to become numb to the dollar amount when you're dealing with that much debt. Break it down, before you take out the loan. To an 18-year-old college freshman, $15,000 or $20,000 a year seems like a lot — the first time you sign the loan application. By the time you are a senior, you're so used to the big numbers that they don't really mean much. The important thing to do is talk to your financial aid department and find out what your monthly payment will be.
Next, find out from your career services department what the average starting salary is for your school's alumni in your major. Take that annual salary, which may sound pretty good, and divide it into monthly income. Wait! Remember to take out a large percentage for taxes! Now think about the other monthly bills you will have: tithe, rent, food, car payment, gas money, fun money, clothing costs, pet food, vet bills, etc. This is a good way to see if you're getting in over your head, and brings the total, mind-numbing amount back to reality.
The bottom line is this: make informed decisions. I'm not suggesting that you forgo education simply because you may have to take out a few loans. What I do suggest is that you fully examine the issues. What are your goals in life? Is marriage and family something you want? Are you open to missions? Keep these thoughts in mind as you make your choices. Who knows, by preparing now, you just might slay a few dragons of your own!
Copyright © 2000 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.