I was approached with this question from a student: “I’m about to graduate and I have a lot of student loan debt. Any advice on what I can do?”
Loans can be a pain in the ass especially right out of school. I remember times looking at my bank balance, cursing my loans, and regretting ever going to school. That changed as I got a handle on finances, had a payoff plan, and started to see loan balances go down.
Here’s some information and ideas to help tackle student loans (it’s specific to the US but the general idea is the same no matter where you’re at). If you’re considering a degree or are still in school, see the later sections about how to minimize what you need in loans.
Putting together your financial picture
You can get one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit companies. Your credit report will give you student loan information and credit cards, car loans, etc. Tip: Check your credit every four months (only check one company each time).
Make a list of each of your loans, when you have to start paying them (grace period end), subsidized/unsubsidized, the interest rate (and if it’s variable or fixed), monthly payment amount, and whether it’s federal or private. If you took out any government loans, you can find those here
When you see the total, it’s ok to curse, yell, or sigh in relief (if you’re lucky). Then remind yourself it’s an investment that you made in yourself intended over a long period of time. It also gets easier/more manageable with time.
Making a plan
Get in the mindset. Your income will likely grow as your student loan balances shrink. The beginning is the hardest. You may not have any spare money right now but in a few years you might have a lot extra to put towards loans. The important part is that your loan payments are manageable; if they’re not, contact your lenders to look at other options (like income-based repayment or deferment).
Make a system for bill paying. Make sure lenders have the correct mailing address (so you don’t fall behind by accident). Some lenders offer an interest rate discount if you use autopay. Setup reminders or use a service like Mint Bills (bills.mint.com), which can keep track of your loans, payment due dates, and send reminders (Disclosure: I use Mint/Mint Bills).
Look into consolidating or refinancing your loans to save money. You may be able to combine some of your loans into one payment and also lower your interest rate.
Refinancing: Get quotes from companies like Nelnet.com or SoFi.com (Disclosure: Nelnet has been my servicer for 10 years.)
Set a budget (to ensure you can pay your loans). You can use something as simple as this or a budgeting website. Mint.com is a great free site to monitor spending and set a budget. “You Need a Budget” is another popular budgeting website (it has a yearly fee or is currently free for students).
Decide how you want to tackle your loans. There’s a lot of different techniques to pay down loans (especially if you have other types of debt like car loans and credit cards). The general rule with student loans is to prioritize private loans first, then variable-rate loans, then highest-interest rate. You may want to change the order depending if a loan is subsidized or unsubsidized. This article has a good breakdown of what order to pay off.
Find ways to make extra cash where the money can be dedicated to paying a loan. It’s a lot easier to take a crappy side gig or work overtime hours if you have a purpose. There’s a huge sense of accomplishment to get even one loan off your plate and that can keep you motivated to work towards the rest.
Remember there’s a tipping point. Not all debt is bad debt. Once you put out the fire on your most demanding loans, it might make sense to shift focus to other financial goals. If buying a computer or piece of gear will increase your workload (and salary), it might be worth investing in that before paying down a subsidized loan. Putting money in a retirement fund or saving for a house might benefit you more in the long run than paying off a low-interest loan. In time, you’ll have options.
If you’re not in school yet
If you’re considering audio school, here it is straight: You don’t need a degree to get a job in audio. Do your odds of getting a job go up with a degree? 95% of time – No (it takes just as much hard work as someone without a degree). Are there good reasons to get a degree or certificate? Absolutely (but that’s a whole other topic.) Life Lessons and Audio Education.
One very important detail that a lot of audio schools don’t advertise is that it can very realistically take one to two years after graduation to earn a paid position. That’s a year or more working for free likely followed by a minimum wage job (up to $15/hr). That’s a difficult wage to survive on – even more so with student loan payments. Most people pursue an audio degree to work in music, film/tv or video games but a lot of graduates end up working elsewhere – jobs like academics/research, sales, IT/tech, or not in the audio industry at all. When you see the bigger picture, is it worth spending $150k+ for a full-priced 4-year degree?
There’s value in an audio degree and there’s money-saving ways to getting one. For example, take as many classes as you can at the cheapest school possible (community college, in-state school, or somewhere you’re offered a good scholarship). There’s no reason to pay a music or film school $1,000/credit hour for a general ed class when a community college offers the same class for $50/credit hour (check first that it’ll transfer to your audio school). You can earn college credits without having to take the course by passing a CLEP exam, which is $80/exam, offered in a lot of topics, and accepted at thousands of colleges and universities.
Ask a lot of questions about the audio program you’re interested in: What percentage of graduates are employed in the field 5 years out of school? After 10 years? What kind of work are they doing? Where are they located? A school on the opposite side of the country (or out of the country) may not be the best choice if most of its graduates stay local and aren’t working in the field. If it’s affordable, pick a school where you might stay after graduation (this accelerates the process of meeting people, doing internships and low paid work, etc).
If you’re already in school
- Look into community college classes and CLEP exams to save money on tuition.
- Don’t take on student loans (or credit card debt) with the plan to “deal with it later”
- Take a part time job – especially at your school’s studio, a local venue or media outlet (doing anything paid – you’ll learn just being in the environment)
- Take professional projects so you can build up credits while in school
- If you want to experiment, do it while you’re in school. Do an internship in something you might be interested in but aren’t sure about. Move for a summer to a city you might want to live after graduating. It’s better to find out what you like/don’t like while in school than when you’re in the field, broke, and harder to make a change.
- Get in the mindset now of living frugally. It’ll make things a lot easier the first couple years out of school. Live with a roommate, eat cheaply, and don’t buy a lot of audio gear – yet.
- Save, save, and save more before and during your senior year.
- Consider taking a job that pays well (but may not be in the field) to build up your funds before jumping into the industry.
I recommend having 3-6 months minimum of living expenses saved up for post-graduation (a year is even better). The more money you have to cover expenses means the more time you can spend interning or working a low-paying job.
Student loans, like any loans, can quickly become overwhelming if you don’t manage your money wisely. It’s unfortunate to see someone have to leave a job they love because he/she couldn’t pay the bills. The first couple years out of school can be really tough – which is why it’s even more important to be organized, diligent, and careful with your finances. The habits you form now can affect the rest of your life and career.