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How the Weight of Student Loan Interest & Debt Affects These 5 Parents

Here's how having substantial student loans has affected five parents.

When the cost of a medical emergency forced Scott and his wife to sell plasma to keep their family afloat, his hatred for the student loan industry hardened. 

“I had more frustration that the wealthiest country on the planet cannot figure out a way to provide relief to millions of people that are drowning in debt,” he said. 

He’s certainly not alone in his ire. Student loan debt is booming. In November, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that Americans owed a record high of $1.5 trillion, up from less than $700 billion a decade ago. About 44 million Americans have education debt, with the average borrower owing $37,000 and more than two million owing $100,000 or more. And unlike housing, credit card, medical or auto loan debts, student loan debt is inescapable, even in bankruptcy, thanks to the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. In fact, hundreds of thousands of senior citizens are having their social security benefits garnished to pay student loans. The good news is that federal student loans are controlled by the Department of Education, so a future president could forgive them. The bad news is that Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to create a separate agency for student loans to stop that future president.

Life changes when you have such enormous debts. For Scott and millions of other American parents, student loans make life precarious. The payments limit his ability to save money, so emergencies like car problems or periods of unemployment could wipe out his family’s savings and leave them back at square one, scrambling to cover daily expenses. 

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Fatherly reached out to five parents with massive student debts to learn how it’s effected their lives. Some were hopeful that their investment in their education would pay off; others viewed their student loans as a never-ending burden that threatened their family’s stability the cost was worth it. All their lives are, in part at least, defined by their debts. Here’s what they said. 

Who: Scott, a father of one from Arizona
Student Loan Debt: $75,000

I went to a community college for about three years. I was working full time on again and off. I then found my calling in education and went to a state university. By the end of it all racked up about $75,000 worth of student debt.

Since I graduated, I’ve been using an income driven repayment (IDR) plan. That’s the only way that we would be able to afford to pay off the student loans. On Sunday, I actually have to resubmit my IDR. If it’s denied, my student loan payments would jump to, I think, $697 a month. I honestly don’t know what we’d be able to do with our mortgage and car payments and daily living with the baby. [My monthly payments] are just under $200 a month. At my current rate, I will be 105 years old when I make my final payment. 

My daughter’s 17 months old. When she was born, she was in the NICU for about 28 days. My wife actually had to be life-flighted from one hospital to another because they didn’t have the equipment to perform birth at 32 weeks. We actually finally just got our final bill for that and I think it’s just under $10,000. Thankfully we had health insurance. If we didn’t, it would have been closer to like $250, $300,000. 

During that time period, my wife and I discovered plasma centers and we were starting to sell our plasma. I was going about twice a week for maybe three or four months straight, selling my plasma just so we can have some extra money to start buying formula. 

We shouldn’t be profiting from individuals that want to do something that’s going to benefit society. We shouldn’t monetize a system that educates the populace. I’m a big supporter of all of [Bernie Sanders’] proposals for tuition-free college and eliminating student debt. We monetize everything. When we make profits off the motive, that starts to erode at the integrity of the system.

Who: Colin Woodward, father of two, Virginia
Student Loan Debt: $22,000

After getting my PhD, it was about $40,000 altogether at the start. And I’m down to about $22,000 now. So I’m not even halfway down. And that’s after 14 years. I don’t know how this compares to other people, but I’m only paying like $220 a month.

I think people, they don’t really understand. Your interest is compounded yearly, so it’s like 3.5 percent of $40,000. That’s over $1,000, just in interest per year. So about every other payment is going towards interest and that’s where they kill you, of course, is with the interest. So you know, it, I don’t like it. I mean, it would be great if, you know, Bernie or someone else could kind of forgive the student loan debt, but you know, it’s less than a car payment. It’s not rent. But obviously it’s a good chunk of money and I’m always paycheck to paycheck. So, you know, it’d be nice to free up that $220 a month.  

It’s not make or break, but you know, everything’s just gotten more expensive. Healthcare and just about everything has gotten more expensive. And so you have this constant drain every month for something that you finished doing like 15 years ago. 

I don’t really buy much stuff for myself anymore. Or if, if I do, it’s something that’s kind of a necessity. I try not to treat myself too much.

I guess I’m probably making more than a lot of people but [my education costs] haven’t paid huge dividends. So if I had to do all over again, I definitely would rethink how long I was in grad school. 

Who: Bob, a father of one, New York
Student Loan Debt: $40,000

I owe just over $40,000 from law school. I passed the bar after graduating in 2008, so I was competing with Yale law grads for shit jobs.

Back when it was a real problem I was paying about $1,800 a month. I have the shittiest loan paid so it’s down to $500. At the time I was just scraping by with my family. I stayed at wildly abusive law firms because of my debt.  I had bosses who’d call at 9 p.m. just to insult me. 

[My student loan debt] played a role in my divorce. My ex quit half her job to be with our son. My stress broke the marriage. I suffered along at the last firm until the alimony was paid off.

Who: Ben Carter, father of three, Washington D.C.
Student Loan Debt: Six figures

We signed on to a house for a new build home in Maryland in December, 2017 and then we found out, I think, in April of 2018 that we were pregnant, which was the goal, so I was like “OK great. We’ll have a kid and build out this house.” Then we found out several weeks later that we had twins, and then a week later after that we found that there was an extra kid in there. No fertility treatments. It’s what they call “spontaneous.”

As you can imagine, it’s a pain to support the lives of three little infants and so now they’re coming up on 14 months. It’s pretty costly. I’ll give an example. Like formula is stupid expensive. And when you’re buying formula for three babies, it’s just crazy.

I have a six-figure student loan debt. It’s been both literally and psychologically challenging to deal with. It sits in the back of your mind. It’s like a little nagging, annoying thing that has to be managed. We’re going to manage it. Currently it’s just like a gnat. It’s annoying but you can’t seem to make it go away. It doesn’t really influence our day-to-day. My wife is actually approaching that point where she’ll be done with paying her student loans. So that’ll be something that’s a celebration, for her and for us collectively. And then it might also give us the freedom to kind of rebalance some things. 

As a professional, I’m going to it on a particular track that I am hopeful and believe will net me more money down the line. I have a television show and  podcast called Manage Your Damn Money. Like any entrepreneurial effort, you imagine might be able to change your financial situation down the line. Those are the kinds of things. It’s not necessarily like I’ll just deal with it when I can. I’m making an investment where there is potential for opportunity to come along and change things in such a way where the student loan debt won’t even be a conversation. 

Who: Amie Margolis, mom of one, Massachusetts
Student Loan Debt: $91,000

My child is six and will probably be paying off my student loans from my second degree long after I’m dead — even if I live to be 100. If my loans don’t die with me, my potential grandchildren will be paying them off. 

The current payments total about $700 month, which, on top of rent and bills with one income, and a kid, really sucks. I’ve had to do forbearance and refinancing several times, and have had to pay off interest so haven’t made much of a dent in my loans which are now higher ($91k) than they originally were, which I will never be able to pay off. When I took out the loans, one was for classes and one was for helping with rent and other living expenses, and I was working a part-time job.

I feel like I will never be able to own a home or even a bigger apartment unless I move far away from my friends and family. 

My second degree is in graphic design, which I’ve used, but not to the extent of being able to pull myself out of debt. My family has had to help me with some stuff which is humiliating and very humbling when you’re in your mid 40s. I graduated in December of 2006 and definitely didn’t think I would still have so much debt. 

Since that time, the school I went to closed and there are lawsuits pending because apparently many other people were also hoodwinked and miseducated about the loans they were signing and now have crushing debt.