CARE: Credit Abuse Resistance Education

My Student Loan Story

My Student Loan Story
A picture of me on graduation day (2015) blissfully unaware of my looming monthly payment.

My student loan story is full of numbers: May 17, 2015. June 27, 2037. $81,974.62. $77,606.98. $978. $655. 8.93% 6.74%. $111,400. 258. 761. Each of these numbers and dates holds significance and importance for me. They will follow me throughout my life as I tell my personal story of going to college, but my story is just one of tens of millions of Americans. These student loan stories are what drive and motivate CARE volunteers to educate, share personal stories and provide students throughout the country the tools to make responsible financial decisions. My story begins with a different number: 18.

Ian’s Student Loan Story

When I was an 18-year-old high school student, like most young people my age, I thought I had it all figured out. I was confident about my life plan. I planned to go to my dream school and study at my dream program. I even knew where I wanted to work and intern to build my career path. I had only done a single campus visit and I was dead set on my path forward. However, at 18, I wasn’t thinking about the whole picture, including one very large factor: cost.

I had chosen one of the most expensive private universities in an expensive city. It was only once I applied and was accepted that I realized the true cost of attendance. I received a fairly generous financial aid package. Scholarships, grants, and federal Stafford Loans covered about half of the total cost. But that left me with the other half to cover, approximately $25,000 a year.

Uncertain where to get that money for my education each year, my parents and I filled out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. My parents, who’d never had to pay for college with more than federal student aid and their own savings, weren’t sure how to do this process. Somehow, we found a company that “helps” with the FAFSA and we ended up paying $85 to submit the free application. It was the first mistake of many in my journey to move-in day.

Our FAFSA report came back and, after evaluating my parents’ income and the value of the house, stated that my parents’ assets meant they didn’t meet any requirements for additional financial aid. We had a difficult family talk that evening, realizing that the FAFSA’s numbers and my parents’ real-life financial situation paint a completely different picture. $25,000 a year is a lot for any family to tack onto tight budgets, especially with the recession not fully in the rear-view mirror.

Not understanding the grant and scholarship application process, I did what any young person would do to find answers about paying for college: I went to Google. After a brief Google search of “How do I pay for college?,” I found myself on the website for one of the nation’s largest student lenders with flashy promises of helping pay for college.

I submitted an application after speaking with my parents briefly and within 15 minutes of finishing the application, I was approved for a student loan amount of $25,000. I hadn’t spoken to a human being to answer questions about my creditworthiness. I had only a minimal credit history and had maybe $1,000 to my name between graduation money and my cashier’s job at the local Piggly Wiggly. At the age of 18, I was about to take on $25,000 in debt without understanding how credit and debt work—I was financially illiterate.

A $25,000 Decision: What Could Have Been

One of the reasons I love CARE’s mission is that I could have changed my story before taking out these loans and written a different ending. CARE presentations and the perspectives of the CARE volunteers offer students an opportunity to hear real-life stories about how crippling debt can be. They equip young people with the knowledge to make financial assessments, ask tough questions of themselves, and question the financial service providers who offer the loans.

If I had received a CARE presentation, I would have known to ask myself whether I was comfortable with the implications of having to pay back this loan. I would have known to ask the lender what protections I have in the case of major injury or loss of work. I would have known to not take a loan with a variable rate interest.

All of these questions and terms are generally covered in a CARE presentation on credit or student loans but, I didn’t have these tools. I wish I had.

Signing On The Dotted Line

I signed on the dotted line and took out those student loans for my freshman year. I then proceeded to take out a similar private loan my next three years of school. I wasn’t thinking about the numbers. I was thinking about my courses, my internship, my competitive ballroom dance routines, and all that my college town had to offer.

When I graduated, I was more fortunate than most. My degree took only three-and-half years instead of four after I took a semester off to work. My on-campus job my senior year paid for my senior-year housing, a perk that few received. Even still, I ended my college career with $83,000 in private student loan debt and another $27,000 in government student loans. I was 21 years old and had over $100,000 in student loan debt.

Six months after graduation, I received my first bill due for my private student loans: $978. It was like a bomb had dropped onto my lap. I had no idea it was going to be so high. Just the minimum payment alone nearly equaled my $1,051 rent payment.

Just before I began working with CARE, I realized I could refinance my loans and found a fixed rate and lower payment option that allows me to have some more breathing room in my budget. I also found a cheaper place to live and have a steady job (thanks, CARE!). It’s made this burden a little easier, but it’s still a burden. With the refinancing terms, if I only make the minimum payments, the loan will be in repayment until I am 44 years old.

Don’t worry, I’m paying more than the minimum payment, but not much more.

Why I’m Telling My Student Loan Story

I don’t share my student loan story with students to discourage them from attending college or taking out student loans. In fact, quite the opposite! I tell my story wherever I go because I believe it’s the perfect illustration of CARE’s value. I found the lessons of CARE too late in life, but with every student we reach and every young person we educate, we can help ask those tough questions. We can encourage them to better understand the terms and conditions before signing on that dotted line.

I wish CARE had been in my high school and I’m so grateful to work with the organization now. I get the opportunity to give the tools to young people that I wish I had growing up. I have the ability to help our volunteers do new and exciting things with our program, like reach alternative high schools and present to juvenile detention centers. But most importantly to me, I get the opportunity to share my love of education. I wouldn’t trade my experiences in college for anything. I loved learning and I loved the life experiences those four years gave me. I just wish I had better understood the implications of taking out student loans.

My student loan story is full of numbers, big and scary ones. My current private student loan balance is around $77,600, but there is only one number I’m focused on: $0. I can’t wait to get there.

About the Author

Ian Redman is CARE’s National Programs Manager and joined the team in September 2016. In his spare time, Ian is an avid gamer (both analog and digital games) and lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife and three cats. As of publishing this, his private student loan balance is $77,533.42.

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