Faith and Student Loans

What’s the riskiest financial decision you’ll have to make before you turn 18 years old? If you think it’s buying a car – wrong. If you think it’s the opportunity cost of backpacking for a year through the Greece – wrong. The answer is…drumroll please…taking out a student loan.

But, you say, you are using it to get an education so down the road you can make more money and have a fulfilling, challenging career! In other words, it’s an investment for future returns, like purchasing stocks or buying a house that both hopefully appreciate in value and provide a profit when sold.

Okay, let’s go with that. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 60% of Americans who attend college borrow to cover costs (including living expenses) of going to college. But how many times have we heard the stories of graduates who spend so much money getting a certain kind of degree to find out later they don’t like their first career choice?

We, as financial coaches, shudder when we hear that. Then there’s the size of some of these loan balances. That’s even more cringe worthy. The website, Lendedu, compiled some hair-raising statistics. There are over 43 million student loan borrowers who owe over $1.35 trillion (yes, trillion!) in debt. The average debt per borrower is $30,000. A graduate student has an average debt of over $57,000.

Roughly, with deferred interest at a rate of 4 percent, the average student loan payment is at least $300 per month or $3600 per year for the next 10 years or so. Loans can have higher rates, longer repayment plans, and of course, depending on debt, higher payments. By the way, the Department of Education will be making about $127 billion off their student loan programs. I don’t even want to go there.

In fact, there are broader risks than just not being able to pay or changing careers. Almost 30 percent of student loan borrowers move back in with their parents. (There’s a joke in there somewhere but I only have 600 words). At least 30-40 percent delay getting married or having families because of their debt. Saving for retirement takes a back seat, as 70 percent don’t do it. The housing market is affected which negatively affects our economy, as about 75 percent of borrowers put off buying a home.

Most importantly, careers that help society such as teachers, social workers, clergy, nurses, researchers, counselors, and not-for-profit program coordinators are struggling because graduates prefer to go into careers with higher salaries so they may pay off their student loans without sacrificing quality of life.

Recently I counseled a millennial who, after seeing her financial picture, said to me, “I wish I had known.” She was 8 years into paying off a student loan balance and still had $55,000 to go. The good news is she was employed, contributing to a 401K, and not living in her parent’s basement. The bad news is that she chose to work for a foundation helping distribute grants to not-for-profits. Her cash flow statement showed after all expenses, she had about $5 left at the end of the month. Realistically, without a humongous boost in income, she would probably never get ahead. I asked her what she wished she had known. “I wish I hadn’t taken out so much student debt. I should have worked and gone to school at the same time and graduated with as little debt as possible.” She explained she loved helping people but she didn’t know how long she could keep doing it. Her conclusion? “Investment banking, here I come!” Ugh, just what we need, another banker.

Presvytera Maria Antokas’s book, Don’t Call It a Budget – Personal Money Planning in the Age of Stuff Overload

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Presvytera Maria Antokas is a former banker who now teaches…
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