Today’s post was sent in by reader Caroline Gillard. She had read our student loan case studies, but she hadn’t seen a personal story here of how one person was actually implementing a plan to pay off student loan debt.
In addition to wanting to share her story, she also wanted to let you know that she’s not a financial advisor, and she supplied the following bio:
Caroline Gillard is a PR Specialist and a current board member of Women in Listed Derivatives (WILD). WILD is a non-profit organization that’s mission is to promote networking and relationship-building among women in the listed and over-the-counter derivatives industry through social and educational events.
Sounds pretty WILD to me. Let’s see how Caroline is handling her student loan debt.
Refinancing for Retirement: How to Sort Out Your Student Loans
Student loans are a burden for over 44.2 million Americans, with the average amount owed at $39,400. Although this may seem like a modest amount compared to some horror stories you read about, it’s up pretty drastically from the average of $14,000 just 20 years ago. Even with inflation, that’s $21,869.72 in modern dollars – still $17,500 less than the average debt load today.
Keeping in mind the constantly building interest and other seemingly random fees, it can feel like you’ll never pay off your student loans, let alone start saving for your future and retirement. While I can’t speak to the overwhelming joy that sending off the final check must bring, I can tell you how I re-evaluated my student loan situation to better myself for the future.
Strapped down by student loan debt
I happen to be one of the 44.2 million Americans strapped down by my student debt. Luckily, I spent some time in the finance industry and learned a few tidbits of advice that I can share with others looking to better their budget or gain a little financial peace of mind.
In my position, I was working alongside former floor traders, financial advisors and professors. I was lucky that I could easily ask for guidance when it came down to my personal finances, since the finance industry vets were more than happy to help.
One time, after a near death experience for my cat, I was slapped with a $1,000 emergency vet bill. I promptly issued it to a sketchy line of credit I had to set up last minute, since I didn’t even have a credit card yet. I had 6 months to pay off the debt, or else I would be subjected to the 26% interest rate.
Luckily, when I went into work the next day, my coworkers helped me pick out a credit card with no interest for 18 months, no fee to transfer the balance and no judgment for the fact that I almost signed my soul away to a creepy credit agency. Phew.
However, that outlook changed when I told them about my student loan. Colleagues who had previously seemed unphased by any financial situation I had thrown at them were shocked when I told them how I had taken on this loan at 20 years old without knowing anything about it.
The rise in the prevalence of student loans is a generational phenomenon. My mom used to talk about how she would work during the summer months to pay off her tuition for the year. The entire year! And my dad joined the Canadian Navy to cover the cost of medical school at Dalhousie.
But in general, college used to be more affordable. Not only has the amount of the average loan balance grown (as we saw above), but the number of people taking out loans has skyrocketed, too.
Re-evaluating your budget
Along with figuring out how to best budget around my monthly student loan payment, I was worried because I wasn’t in a comfortable position to start saving for retirement.
A former floor trader from The New York Stock Exchange once said to me, “Caroline, the best tool for retirement is time. Enroll in your company’s 401(k) plan. Start saving, even if it’s just $100 a month.”
I wanted to implement his advice but couldn’t, which was frustrating. I even found myself in envy of my Nana, who’s been able to live comfortably in her twilight years thanks to the incredible savings that my Grandpa was able to accumulate for their retirement funds.
So, here’s what my actual situation looked like. I had taken out a $40,000 private student loan with a 6.25% variable interest rate from Sallie Mae. I’m sure everyone says this about their student loan provider, but I’m convinced that Sallie Mae might actually be the devil. They have no mercy for your financial situation, and will call you nonstop the second your payment is late. And if you don’t pick up, they’ll leave you voicemails. They’ll call your family. They’re callous.
To me, student loans are like icebergs. On the surface, I thought I knew what I was seeing. In reality, there is so much more that goes into it. I had been under the impression that when I had my six-month grace period to start paying off my loan, it was for my benefit.
Not realizing it, my loan had very quickly started building interest. I had just moved out of my parents’ house and into an apartment I found on Craigslist with three other roommates on the north side of Chicago.
I was taking home $1,600 a month at my first job. I was living a minimalist but comfortable life and paying my bills on time. At this point, I had been paying my loan off for about 3 months when 2015 rolled around. It was then that my $300-a-month payment grew to $500 per month, because I hadn’t been paying down the interest each month. That was 31% of my paycheck! And now with rent and utility bills, I was starting to get anxious.
I was forced to live pretty frugally, because even at this state, I refused to move back in with my parents. [Which is a little hypocritical. Whenever a college student asks me for advice I tell them to live at home for as long as they can.]
I eventually found a job that paid significantly more than my first job. That’s when I entered the finance industry and was able to start the conversation around refinancing my student loans.
Refinancing for retirement
At the time of my refinancing, the interest on my loan had gone up to 9%. Of the now $650 monthly payment, almost $200 was going to interest and fees. And as I had learned the hard way, variable interest rates are relentless. It seemed like every month when I logged into my account the interest rate jumped up 0.25%.
It was driving me nuts. I would jokingly tell people that I felt like I had a kid, and her name was Sallie Mae. The truth is, I wanted Sallie Mae out of my life. And seeing that I hadn’t won the lottery yet, it would have to come in the form of a refinance.
So, I did what everyone does. I turned to the Internet for help. I wanted to learn about all of the different refinancing companies and banks. I found great articles on student loans and researched a company called SoFi.
I looked up different interest rates offered, payment timeframes and the ultimate amount I would pay to refinance my loan. I knew I didn’t want to have a variable rate again, even though it was the lowest interest rate offered. From my past experience, I knew it had the potential to grow quickly and that it would be completely out of my control if it did.
At this point, I had about $23,000 to pay and 3 years left to pay it. I was tempted by the low monthly payment of a 10-year plan, but decided on a 5-year loan at 5.25% fixed interest.
I went through SoFi, but they partner with MOHELA to refinance student loans. I didn’t know this when I initially submitted my application, but it seems to be working out just fine. My required payments dropped to $430 a month, however, I plan to pay $550 a month to pay it off a little quicker.
I plan to use the extra $100 towards my 401(k) contribution. It’s not much, but according to a few retirement calculators I’ve used to help determine how long my money will last, even that $100 a month now can make a huge difference in the long run. Plus, I’m 26, so I have time to let the savings grow tax-deferred in an account like a 401(k) (although I haven’t ruled out opening an IRA).
I know some advisors would say to use the $100 to pay off my loan first. But, for me, I enjoy the peace of mind knowing that I’m actively contributing to my retirement. Because, as they say, the best tool for retirement is time.
[PoF: At 26, I was just getting started with student loan debt accumulation. It’s refreshing to see someone get a handle on hers. As with any debt, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making minimum payments and choosing to worry about paying it off “later,” which seems to be a time that never arrives.
Refinancing is only one option, of course. PSLF may be a better option if you have plans to work for a non-profit for 10 years, which many physicians actually do. Be sure to do your homework before choosing any particular option.]
If refinancing is the best option for you, please consider signing up via my links, which you can find in this post and on my Student Loan Resource Page, which has links to dozens of great articles. I’ll donate $50 to a charity of your choice if you can show that I was credited as your referral source.
If you’d like to consult with advice from a former Vanguard bond trader who has consulted on over 1,000 individual’s and couple’s student loan scenarios, or you would like a second opinion, consider a consult from Travis, the Student Loan Planner.
If you owe more than $100,000 in student loans and aren’t 100% sure that you’re doing everything the right way, he finds projected savings of 125 times his consulting fee on average (that one-time fee ranges from $295 to $595). That’s tens of thousands of dollars.
Be sure to mention that you heard about it from Physician on Fire on the consult form.