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“Oh, my student loans are never going to be paid back,” a friend told me recently. She got her MFA in writing a few years ago, and the monthly minimums on her income-based repayment plan barely keep up with her loan’s interest rate. “I’ll probably die in debt,” she said. “It’s something I’ve made peace with.”
She’s in good company. At this very moment, women carry almost two-thirds of outstanding student debt in this country — about $890 billion in total, according to a recent study. Not only are female students more likely to take on debt (41 percent of female undergraduates took on debt in 2015–16, compared to 35 percent of male undergraduates), but they also take on more (by about 14 percent, or $2,700 on average). Then, of course, there’s the gender wage gap, so women tend to pay off their loans more slowly than men, accruing interest all the while.
It’s a depressing picture. The average student debt for college graduates is around $29,000; for those with higher degrees, it’s about $57,000. The sheer numbers can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. Here’s how five women did it in under ten years.
Sarah, 33, nurse practitioner
Amount owed: $115,000.
Degree: Master’s in nursing from Columbia.
How long it took to pay off: Three years.
How she did it: “At first, the total was so big that I didn’t feel like I could even make a dent. I contributed $2,000 every month — about half of my take-home pay. My annual salary was about $95,000, and I just lived like I was making much less. I thought of those payments like rent — a nonnegotiable amount. After three years, I managed to cut it by about half. Then my husband, who works in finance, got a bigger-than-expected year-end bonus, and we used it to wipe out the rest. I was a little surprised when he offered; I had always paid for my loans out of my own salary. But when we got married, we decided that all of our finances would be shared, and he felt like getting me out of debt was a top priority. It also allowed me to put an extra $2,000 into our pooled income afterwards, and pay less overall in interest. To me, the debt was worth it, because it enabled me to go to a top-tier graduate program, and Columbia does look great on my résumé. However, it is hard to quantify how much that’s worth. In health care, it doesn’t always matter where you went to school. If I’d gone someplace cheaper, I probably still could have still gotten my same job, but it’s hard to say.”
Anika, 29, biomedical engineer
Amount owed: $21,000.
Degree: Master’s in biomedical engineering.
How long it took to pay off: Four years.
How she did it: “I was pretty naïve going into it, but luckily, my loan was relatively low because I did my master’s in one year — I took a bunch of graduate-level classes when I was in college, and those credits were transferrable. I also bartended while I was in school to help cover my living expenses. My first job after graduation paid me $53,000 a year, which allowed me to cover my minimum loan payments of $250 per month without much trouble. Broken into smaller chunks, it always felt doable. Then I got a higher-paying job and upped the payments to $350 per month. I’ve been promoted a few times and started getting quarterly bonuses, so I put those towards my loans as well. Now I make $95,000 per year, and I got out of debt last spring. It’s nice to be able to start putting my money towards the future instead of the past. Looking back, I don’t think I would have done anything differently, but I do wish my school had offered a class or something about how student loans worked, and what the repayment process would look like — I had no idea until the bills started coming in the mail.”
Fatimah, 28, therapist
Amount owed: $42,000.
Degree: Master’s in psychology.
How long it took to pay off: Five years.
How she did it: “I’ve always been careful with money. I’ve had paying jobs ever since I was 15, and I got a full ride to college. For grad school, I got a Perkins loan on top of a couple of private loans, and I had some financial aid. To pay everything off in ten years, I needed to pay $445 per month, so I figured I’d just do that. It didn’t occur to me to try to pay them off any faster — you know, the Obamas said they didn’t finish paying off their student debt until a couple of years ago, and it seemed normal to take forever. But then my older sister got rid of her debt early, and she got me all fired up about it. I was like, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’ I realized that if I kept paying at the same rate, I’d wind up paying closer to $60,000 for my $42,000 education because of interest, and I didn’t want to do that. I’m also very aware of the financial status of people of color, and I want to be part of changing that narrative. I upped my payments to $645 per month, and started throwing in more money whenever I could. It was a big portion of my income, which is about $50,000 at this point. My husband also helped a lot by covering our rent. As the number got smaller and smaller, I doubled down — I wasn’t buying lunches, clothes, anything. I haven’t been shopping in almost two years. But once I finished, I was so proud. I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops. I think it’s an important message to spread — that it’s possible, and we can help each other by talking about it. People have more agency than they think.”
Jenny, 32, art director
Amount owed: $88,000.
Degree: Bachelor’s in photography from a small liberal arts college.
How long it took to pay off: Eight-and-a-half years.
How she did it: “When I was 18, my dad gave me a bunch of forms to sign, and I had no idea that they were for student loans. I had assumed my parents were covering my tuition, because they’d always said they would, which in retrospect was a pretty entitled attitude. I didn’t find out about the debt until halfway through my senior year of college, and I was livid. I think my parents meant well — they didn’t want money to be a factor in my choice of school, and they probably thought they’d be able to pay for more than they actually could when the time came. Still, if I’d known sooner, I definitely would have gone someplace less expensive. I immediately went part-time at my school and took my remaining classes at a nearby state college, which saved me about $8,000. After I graduated, the monthly minimums were $817.23 — I remember them down to the cent, because they were so much more than I could possibly afford. My parents did feel bad, so they helped. I added what I could — anywhere from $200 to $5,000 per month, depending on my cash flow. It definitely put me in a strapped mentality, though, and I worked myself to the bone. I had four jobs for a while. One was at a gelato shop, and I basically lived off gelato to save money. I was working more than seven full days a week, and it took a toll on my health and my relationships. But nothing made me happier than seeing the number on my loans go down. I finished last year, and was so happy. Even now that I’m making about $90,000, I think I’ll always have that hustler mind-set. Now I’m trying to beef up my emergency fund, and get my 401(k) in better shape — I’ll never be a big spender.”
Anna, 33, product strategist in financial services
Amount owed: $31,000.
Degree: Master’s in business.
How long it took to pay off: Seven years.
How she did it: “I tried to keep my loans to a minimum by doing a relatively affordable, part-time graduate program, which allowed me to keep working full-time. My employer actually wanted me to go to a different, more highly ranked school, but it would have cost significantly more. I had a ten-year ‘graduated’ loan plan, which meant the minimum payments increased every two years. My thinking was that my paychecks would be growing, too. It was a government loan with an interest rate of 6.8 percent, which is higher than my car loan, so I was eager to get it over with. At the same time, I was careful to build up a sizable emergency fund. I have a young son, so it was important that we have a cushion, just in case. We budgeted pretty tightly — it was always down to the wire every month, even when I got a new job with a much higher salary, about $100,000. I was paying $300 per month, and they were about to increase to $500 per month when I finished paying them off. I realized my savings could wipe out the rest, so I just pulled the trigger, even though it means we won’t have much of a cushion for a little while. Now I’m working on building that back up. But there’s definitely a sense of freedom from the dollar-for-dollar budget that I was strapped into before. I’m really glad I did it early, before my son was older. I know some people just finishing school and taking on loans now, in their early 30s, and that looks so daunting to me.”