Student Loans: How I Ended Up In Debt With A Full Ride

Student loans are a hot topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion on them, whether they believe students earned the crippling debt and should pay ’til the day they die or that students should have their debt forgiven and frolic in a mountain stream. This is my story. I’m not looking for forgiveness or criticism. This is just how it happened for me. I had a full scholarship for 100% of my tuition all four years of college, a part-time job, and I graduated from my undergraduate program with just over $12,000 in debt. How?

I lived in the dorms my first year, which kept living expenses stable. I had a small amount of money saved from high school part time jobs that got me through most of my freshman year. I didn’t spend a lot of money – I didn’t drink yet, didn’t party, and spent most of my time listening to illegally downloaded music, eating pizza, and watching movies on VHS. Then, at the end of the year, while most of my classmates went home to whichever southern town they came from, I had to move out of the dorms and out on my own.

While I’d started college, my parents had begun the long process of their divorce. They’d each moved out of the house we’d lived in and into their own one-bedroom apartments. There was no ‘home’ for me to return to that summer. Both barely scraping by, my best friend and I moved into one bedroom of a two bedroom, un-airconditioned apartment that we shared with an acquaintance. I slept in the bed and he on a mattress on the floor.

When fall came around, I moved into the house I’d signed a lease on with friends the previous spring. My expenses suddenly took a huge leap. My rent was cheap (around $350 per month), but air-conditioning, heat, and utilities for an old house were expensive and making it all work on $5.25 per hour (part-time) wasn’t working. I started paying for expenses out of my student loans. This is what student loans are for, right?

So let’s do some math, shall we?


$350 in rent each month, plus around $150 in utilities.  I lived in that house for 2 years, so that’s $12,000. My senior year I lived in a less expensive situation, so add another $3,500 to that.  $15,500 just in basic living and breathing. Let’s say I give myself an allowance for 3 years worth of groceries, gas, shopping, clothing, restaurants, bars, and blah blah blah of $40 per week. That’s another $6,240.

Now, let’s add in the irresponsibility of being in your late teens and early 20s. In my sophomore year, I started traveling to Chicago to visit friends and eventually started a long-distance relationship. I never paid for a hotel, but plane tickets, shopping, expenses for eating and drinking while there – it all added up. Though I wasn’t jet-setting around the world, it still wasn’t the best idea.  If I did this 3 times per year for 3 years with an estimated cost of $350 per trip, that’s $3,150.  Sigh.

Total: $24,890. Approximately.


Remember that part-time job? I kept that for nearly two years and maxed out at $5.40 per hour. I worked 3-4 days per week and brought home about $140 every two weeks depending on my schedule, plus maybe $30 in jar tips. That’s $340 per month. I’ll give myself 4 weeks every year that I likely didn’t work at all (holidays, vacations, just not feelin’ it). That’s $7,480 in my whole career.

In my last year of college, I got a huge raise at a new job: $6.25. I was living! Now I was bringing home nearly $400 per month, but I was also doing a whole lot more drinking and partying with friends. There goes that income. Good job, college me. $4,400 minus about 50% in booze and late-night pizza. I also worked as a transcriptionist for a few months. I didn’t work a lot of hours but the hours I did work were well paid. I made about $100 per week for a total of maybe $1,200.

Total income: $13,440. This number is optimistic.

Balance Due: $11,450

I didn’t plan at all for this to come out so evenly, but there you have it. I graduated with almost nothing in my bank account. My graduation gift from my father was enough money to pay my rent in Chicago for the first couple of months while I found a job.

Just for fun, let’s consider how much higher my expenses would have been if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have a scholarship. Tuition has more than doubled since I attended my large state university, but at the time it was around $3,000 per year plus books, if you didn’t attend a summer session. So I would have been staring down $12,000 in tuition costs plus around $4,000 for books, adding an extra $16,000. It would have been a steal as far as college costs go. That’s a total cost of just over $40,000, y’all.

a toast to my debt

Sure, I could have worked more hours in college and spent less time socializing, drinking, and making poor life decisions. But I also needed time to go to my actual classes, time to study, to see my family, and time to relax. Plus: I was a kid! We make mistakes. I didn’t understand my student loans. I thought I’d have some awesome job right out of college and never worry about my loans. Now, of course, I wish I’d been more responsible, but at least I wasn’t reckless. I had zero credit card debt upon graduating college. It’s just how my cookie crumbled and I’m paying the piper now.

The average student debt when I graduated was around $20,000. My first job out of college in 2006 paid $25,000 per year. In 2014, the average had risen to over $30,000. That’s a truly crippling amount of debt and a tough start to a young professional life, especially in an economy that requires an education more every day. This is 2015, not 1915, and college shouldn’t just be for wealthy folk.  But hey, that’s just my personal opinion.

If you went to college, how did you fare?


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