Updated on 07.19.16

What I Wish I Knew Before Taking Out Student Loans

More than $1.3 trillion dollars, with $2,726 added every second.

That’s how much student loan debt Americans have accumulated, and how much debt gets added with every second that ticks by.

To many people, this amount is nothing more than an outrageous number to balk at – an anomaly shared on the nightly news.

But for others, their share represents so much more. Fear. Shame. Frustration. A lifetime sentence of debt.

And for most, it represents regret – and a whole lot of it.

For the graduating class of 2016, the average debt load of indebted students surged over $37,000 for the first time. And nationwide, the delinquency rate on student loans is well over 11%.

Few students understand the ramifications of borrowing too much money for school, and even fewer grasp what their loans will mean to their lives five, 10, or even 20 years from now. But once they sign on that dotted line, we all know it’s usually far too late.

What I Wish I Knew Before I Borrowed Money for College

Curious what college graduates wish they’d known before they borrowed money for school? So were we, which is why we reached out to various bloggers with student loan debt to find out. Here’s what they said:

I wish I’d known about the different ways to finance school other than student loans.

Financial coach Whitney Hansen says she wishes she’d been made aware of the myriad other ways to finance school when she attended college. Throughout high school, she says, she was taught that student loans were always “good debt,” and that repayment wouldn’t be a problem once she got a job.

“I didn’t realize there are scholarships, companies that provide tuition reimbursement, self-financing, joining the military, and even working directly for a university,” notes Whitney.

When Hansen went back to earn her master’s degree in business, she got a job at the university where she studied and received a heavily discounted tuition package as a result. “My entire MBA cost me $472,” she says.

“You have options outside of student loans,” notes Whitney, adding that “you just have to get creative.”

Student loans are often seen as the path of least resistance when you’re trying to finance education, but don’t forget about everything else. Apply for scholarships and grants and look for ways to earn cash for tuition while you study. While you may not be able to cover the entire costs of your tuition, any funds you can find will leave you better off in the end.

I wish I knew what my monthly payment would be after I graduated.

Borrowing money for college is the easy part. Read through a few pamphlets of paperwork, sign your name a few times, and voila – you’re the proud owner of a student loan.

The problem is, few borrowers actually have any idea what their monthly payment might be in the future – at least, they don’t know until they get the bill in the mail.

Robert Farrington of The College Investor explains how his student loan story played out: “I still remember getting my student loans – I received an email from the financial aid office saying I was approved, and then I clicked the link. I chose “I Accept” about three times, and boom – $20,500 in student loans instantly,” says Farrington.

“I had no idea what my monthly payment would be or what it would take to pay these off. I just went about my day,” he says.

It wasn’t until years later that he found out how much he would actually owe each month, and what that really meant.

When you think about it, that’s downright scary. Would you lease an apartment without knowing what the monthly rent is? Would you buy a car without knowing the price and the monthly payment? Before you accept any student loan, use a calculator like this one to estimate what your monthly payments will be after graduation.

I wish I understood the opportunity cost of borrowing so much money.

Aaron Hatch, founder of Woven Capital was only 19 years old when he took out his first round of student loans to attend a private liberal arts college 2,000 miles away.

Like Farrington, Hatch says his biggest regret was that he had no idea what his monthly payments would be once he graduated. But more than that, he wished he understood the opportunity cost of having a monthly student loan payment in relation to his other “future bills” and monthly obligations.

Now that Hatch is a Certified Financial Planner, he is keenly aware of the dangers young adults face when borrowing money with little understanding of what it really means.

“In my experience, most college students have little to no awareness of what their budget will be upon graduation,” says Hatch. In that respect, it’s very hard for them to make well-informed decisions without some context.

Only when the other bills start rolling in – the rent, utilities, car payments, and grocery bills – do graduates realize what they have done — and the opportunities they may have to pass up because of their huge student debt obligation. But by then, it’s far too late.

I wish I knew that student loans weren’t ‘free money.’

We’ve all heard stories of students who borrowed money for school only to waste it in the worst of ways – the spring break trip to Mexico, new clothes, and fun nights at their favorite watering hole. This story plays out all across the country, leaving graduates owing more money than they can reasonably pay back, and with little to show for it.

Tom Drake of Canadian Finance Blog says he fell into the trap of believing that student loans were simply “free money,” and with disastrous results.

“It was very overwhelming, and after paying for the basics like tuition and textbooks, I started spending the rest in frivolous ways,” he says. “While all my friends loved my new car stereo, the money eventually ran out and I was left with bills to pay and the latter part of my college days were very tough financially.”

I wish I had known how long I’d be paying my loans back.

Catherine Alford and her husband owe more than $400,000 in student loan debt. While this is partly due to her husband’s medical school education, at least some of the debt was unnecessary and “her fault,” she says.

“Student loans were so tempting, especially when I was in graduate school making less than $15,000 a year.”

Because she never took the time to figure out how long she would need to repay her loans, Alford took out and additional $8,000 to hold herself over until she found another job. In hindsight, she realizes she would be so much better off if she had found another way to get by.

“Every student should know how long it will take them to pay back their student loans, and what they’ll have to do or sacrifice to pay them back faster than that,” says Alford.

Understanding how your loans work is a great motivator. “They should also know how much daily interest their student loans accrue to light the fire under them to pay them back,” she adds.

I wish I’d known that a college degree might only matter for your first job.

Kirk Chisholm of Innovative Wealth says he wishes he knew just how little some employers and industries care about hiring college-educated workers.

“Once you get that first job, the employer of your second job really only cares about what you did in your first job,” says Chisholm. “My second employer never even asked me about my college experience. All they wanted to know was how I did in my last job.”

While it’s been proven that a college degree is a good investment for the vast majority of people, increasing lifetime earnings by up to $1 million, it’s certainly not for everyone. According to Chisholm, you should think long and hard about which category you might fall into before you commit four years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars for an education.

I wish I’d understood what my payment options actually meant.

When you graduate with student loan debt, you’ll find several different repayment options to choose from. You can either stick with the standard, 10-year repayment plan, choose an income-driven repayment option if you qualify, or even extend your repayment plan in almost any fashion that works.

Some of those options, however, will leave you paying mostly interest and almost nothing – or even nothing at all – toward the principal of your loan. And if you find yourself in that kind of repayment plan, paying off your loans is practically impossible.

Kenneth Feyers of Retirement Seeds found himself in that predicament when he graduated with student loan debt. “My monthly payment did nothing for the principal of the loan,” he says. And once he realized that, he knew he had to make a drastic change if he ever hoped to become debt-free.

“We only look at our needs at the moment, never in the future,” says Feyers.

I wish I had known about free college courses, community college, and other inexpensive options.

Ryan Hops of Wall Street Survivor wishes today’s young adults knew about the many inexpensive educational opportunities and the free ways to take courses on the internet. Today’s kids take it as a given that they should attend college, but rarely stop to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis, he says.

“I would say that unless you have a career path that is dependent upon a college diploma – like medicine or law – or are accepted to a premier institution where the odds of your future success are disproportionately higher, spending $100,000 to $300,000 of money you don’t have is ludicrously irresponsible,” says Hops. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, you will likely be better off exploring alternative options.

“I suggest you look at community colleges, state schools or alternatives altogether like coding boot camps, MOOC or other online learning programs.”

I wish I’d known my future ‘high-paying job’ wasn’t guaranteed.

When some kids are in college, all they can think about is their future high-paying career. It doesn’t help that college counselors and parents consistently urge them on with that future cash-cow job in mind.

Who cares if you borrow a lot for college if you’ll be earning six figures in a few years, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, those high-paying jobs don’t always pan out like you think they will. But if there’s one thing you can count on once you graduate, it’s that your student loan bills will roll in regardless of how much you earn.

This scenario describes what happened to Andy Josuweit of Student Loan Hero. Because he expected to earn around $80,000 per year after school, he borrowed money without a care in the world. But once he graduated with $74,000 in debt and no high-paying job, he quickly realized that reality wasn’t going to meet expectations.

“Quickly, my student debt hole grew deeper,” he says, adding that, because he defaulted on some of his loans, his total debt loan surged up over $100,000 in a hurry.

“Looking back, I wish I had considered two things: How interest rates work and the ROI of my education.”

I wish I had known that expensive colleges aren’t always ‘better.’

While a top-tier college education can lead to better job prospects and lifetime earnings overall, some expensive colleges aren’t worth their weight. In that respect, choosing an expensive school on a whim is rarely a good idea – unless you’re going to Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., or the like, you may not get any extra “bang for your buck.”

Jim Wang from Wallethacks graduated from a top-tier school with more than $30,000 in student loan debt, but realized afterward that his education could have come much cheaper.

“When it comes to college, you don’t have to go to the expensive university and take on massive student loan debt in the process. There are options; make an active decision,” he says.

The Bottom Line

Borrowing money for college requires little more than a completed application and a formal signature, but the implications of that debt can last a lifetime. Before you take out student loans, ask yourself what you hope to gain, whether you’re borrowing more than you need to, or whether there are other options you haven’t considered yet.

A college degree can pay off in spades, but your student loan debt can easily become an albatross around your neck after graduation – limiting your personal options and career choices. By researching all of your options head of time, you can position yourself for the best outcome possible.

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