Paying off student loans is as exciting as getting student loans

I was helping teach an orchestra class, pacing back and forth along the back row of high school students to listen closely to their performance and give correction, when my high school counselor, Mrs. Lindsey, came into the room and excitedly beckoned me over. She had the results of my college placement exam, the ACT, and had come up to the Annex to tell me that I had gotten a 30.

My legs gave out and I fell to my knees. Tears filled my eyes and I cried out in excitement. I didn’t have money for college, and that score meant that I had just earned a full-ride scholarship to the university where I had already been accepted. I don’t think I knew how stressed I really was about that, and like a dam breaking, the stress flooded away from me.

Then I went to college, with no idea what I was doing, and lost my scholarship after the first year. To maintain it, you need a GPA above 3.0 (or was it 3.25? I don’t recall), and you had to take 15 hours per semester. Also, it turned out that my scholarship didn’t include room and board, and the university required that I live in the residence hall my freshman year. So I was working 30 hours a week, and spending 21 hours a week in classes (including the symphony), plus homework and practice. That combined with a few bad professors and a couple of disastrous relationships contributed to me ending the year with around a 2.3 GPA.

But I was relieved. I dropped my hours down to 12 a semester, and having a job meant I could move out of the dorms and into an apartment where my expenses were cut in half. I dropped out of the symphony too, so my schedule became much more reasonable all the way around. But it meant that I needed student loans, and a lot of them.

I didn’t have to get as much as some, but over the 3.5 years I needed loans, it came to around $20,000. That burden wasn’t as heavy for me as others I know because I had an income, lived within my means, and had a plan to pay them back. Others aren’t so lucky, and I know people with loans in the six-figures such that their monthly payments are $800+ per month. That’s back-breaking. Most of my interest rates were locked in at 1.6% originally (oh the early 2000s!), so it wasn’t too bad.

But it was a debt, and having grown up with my parents filing bankruptcy and having to deal with the threat of losing our house, and not having enough food to eat, and all the problems that come with poverty, I was keen to discharge it.

You don’t have to pay on most student loan debts while you’re in school, and it took me 8.5 years to get my bachelor’s degree. I took a year and a half off school after graduation to decide what I wanted to do next, during which I made a couple of small payments, then I enrolled in a master’s program. 2.5 years later, I graduated and started making payments for real.

And 6 years later:

studentloans.png

One of the benefits of student loans is that I learned you don’t need a scholarship to go to college. It’s more expensive than it was a generation or two ago, and already it is more expensive than when I started; while tuition hasn’t gone up tremendously in the last 15 years, interest rates have gone way up. But once I got into my freshman year, I learned that I needn’t have been so stressed. If I hadn’t won the scholarship, the total impact would have been around another $6-7,000 in loans. Not the end of the world.

At any rate, they’re paid off now. Like on a birthday, which is supposed to mark a milestone in our lives, I feel no different than I did yesterday. My next goal is to pay off credit cards again (they should be back to $0 by the middle of next month), max out our Roth IRA for the year, and start building up our savings again. The last couple of years of new house + repairs have drained it. But we’re on-track, and reducing debt is nice.

If I feel anything emotionally, it’s a mix of bitterness and pride. I wasn’t worried about paying them off, or stressed about it, so there’s no real relief. There’s just residual frustration that I needed them to begin with, and pride that I did all this on my own.

My first loan was disbursed on August 13th, 2003. The last on September 27th, 2006. Then I started working full-time at the university in January 2007 and my benefits paid for my classes (though I had to drop further down to 6 hours per semester to make that work).

I continue to look up regularly, up and to the right from the sofa in my office, to gaze at the two diplomas hanging on the wall there. I am happy every day that I am not in college. Every day when I can think, “I never have to do that again,” fills me with joy. With the loans paid, that book is truly closed.

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