Debt, Diapers and You

Sep 16, 2004 |Heather Koerner

Getting school loans is the easy part. What's harder is figuring out how to pay them back without sacrificing your family's future.

Amy Desai's life reads just like a career counselor's "how to" manual. She worked hard in school, got a bachelor's degree, was accepted to law school and completed her law degree. At 30, she's now a successful litigator in Denver, Colo. and reaping the rewards of her scholastic career. But she's also reaping something else: Debt.

And not just debt, loads of it.

After consolidating her school loans, Desai's law degree will cost $500 a month for the next 30 years. And it might cost her more — the opportunity to stay at home with her future kids.

"I'd like to stay home with my kids or at least work part-time," Desai says. "I hope that's possible."

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Desai's not alone. That year, the number of women following their hearts and staying at home with their infant children grew for the first time since 1976 — with the increase concentrated mostly among professional women over 30.

But there's something that may stop Desai and it's stopping a lot of other women too — student loan debt.

"Student loan debt is a major problem," says Gordon Wadsworth, author of Cost Effective College. "You get to college where the financial aid director says, 'No problem, just sign here and all this money will be transferred into your account.' So you're sitting there saying 'Hey, this is easy!' But, students are borrowing themselves into oblivion," Wadsworth said in an interview with Boundless.

Think "oblivion" is too strong a word?

According to Nellie Mae, a national provider of education loans, the average undergrad student loan debt in 2002 was $18,900 — up 66 percent from 1997. Add on a master's degree and that jumps to $24,500. A professional degree (law or medical) ups the ante to $48,500.

So let's do the math. If Joe and Jane get master's degrees with the average amount of debt, they'll each owe (depending on the interest rate) around $250 a month for the next 10 years. They get married, and together owe about $500 a month.

After a few years, they're expecting a child and Jane wants to stay home, at least temporarily, to take care of the baby.

According to most experts, for student loan debt to stay "manageable", the monthly payment can't exceed 8 percent of monthly income. So to cover that $500, Joe would need to earn at least $6,250 a month or $75,000 a year.

And remember, that's just manageable. That's just keeping your head above water.

So how do you keep school from dominating your financial health? According to Wadsworth, you've got to take your future in your hands now.

First, assess your situation.

If you're still an undergrad, Wadsworth says, "Make student loans a last resort."

Desai, despite her debt, did a lot of things really right. She finished her bachelor's degree in three years, worked part-time and even lived at home during law school. But, she admits, she didn't face reality.

"It was all theoretical," Desai says. "You're signing these papers every year — but you have no idea how it's going to impact your life when you graduate."

Wadsworth recommends avoiding loans at all costs — by taking CLEP tests, enrolling in work study programs, scouring the country for scholarships or even choosing a less expensive community college education.

If it's too late — and you've already got undergrad debt — you need to get serious about your finances before moving on to graduate school.

Know what your monthly payments will be. Are you going to be above that 8 percent marker? If you marry someone with similar debt, will one income cover both payments?

Try working out a makeshift budget, estimating what your income and expenses will be once you're out of school.

It may take time. But as Wadsworth points out, if you don't run the numbers, the numbers will someday run you.

Count the Cost

Once you know where you stand, consider whether grad school will really be worth it.

Americans believe "education is an investment." But it's an investment that doesn't always pay off.

"Most students don't get anything but loans going to grad school," says Wadsworth. "So you really have to weigh the debt you'll take on with what the benefits will be."

Many students assume that graduate degrees will equal higher salaries, making their debt less stressful.

Not true.

According to Nellie Mae, graduate students report the highest stress levels. "The levels are high enough to make even their relatively high starting salaries appear inadequate," the study states. In fact, 40 percent of students who did grad work in medicine, law or business have student loans exceeding their current salaries.

Wadsworth hears this kind of story all the time: "My chiropractor told me that he is going to be in his 70's by the time he pays off his student loan."

Will your higher salary make up for the higher debt?

For Keri Houts, an Oklahoma State University business administration graduate, the answer was no.

Houts knew she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom some day and determined that debt — even for a graduate degree — wasn't worth it. "I knew it would be hard to pay it back without two incomes," Houts says. "Even though it's a low-interest rate, it's still a monthly payment."

Houts, who now stays at home with 2-year-old Payne, still plans to get her graduate degree. "When all of my kids are in full-day school, I'll go back and get my MBA," she says. And she thinks the timing will be perfect. "It will give me a great segue back into the workforce."

There are other options as well. Many schools are designing "meet once a week" or online programs to serve graduate students working full-time. Even choosing a less expensive graduate school can make a world of difference.

Battle Back

Finally, once you're out of school, it's time to go to war on your debt.

"There's no other way to say it than pay it back as fast as you can," Wadsworth says.

He points to a couple he recently met as an example of what not to do. "I just rented a house to a couple that have $45,000 of student loans they have yet to start paying. And they're making pretty good money right now, but guess what they are doing with that money? They just went out and bought a brand new Camry."

Instead, Wadsworth advises that you resist the urge to get the nice apartment, car and grown-up toys. Pay as much as you can possibly squeeze out of your paycheck to get your debt eliminated as fast as you can.

That way, when the stork comes calling, it'll be you — and not your debt — determining who takes care of your kids.

Copyright 2004 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.  

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