It happened to him: Making a solid plan can help you deal with the debt.
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Joe Dawkins knew he’d have to take out student loans to pay for college. But he saw the bright side: grant money put the cost of his top choice, a small private school in Boston, on par with the in-state option closer to home.
In 2006, the then 17-year-old took out a few government loans as well as one from one of the nation’s largest private lenders—a three-year loan that didn’t require a parent to cosign.
Eager to get out on his own, Dawkins wasn’t thinking about what he’d owe. “This was going to get me to school, to that good job that would help me pay for things later on,” he says.
But during his junior year, the loan company said they weren’t able to finance his final year at his original low rate: “They would give me the loan on the condition that my interest rate would be hiked to 14.5 percent,” he says. In “panic mode,” Dawkins acquiesced: “Just one more year,” he thought. “I’ll deal with [the consequences] later.”
Paying off student loan debt has become its own right of passage, often trickier than obtaining that advanced degree in the first place: The average college graduate enters the workforce today owing $37,172. When Dawkins moved to Southern California with his new bachelor of arts degree in communications, he owed close to triple that: about $110,000.
Drowning in debt, making bad choices
At first, Dawkins felt lucky. In a down economy, he landed a job as an executive assistant for a healthcare company. But six months after he got his diploma, the monthly bills for his student loans arrived, asking for $950 a month—almost $200 more than his monthly rent payment.
Essentially, he was working merely to pay for his education, and he began questioning the utility of his degree. He began wondering whether teaching would be a better fit—something he’d thought about years ago. Then he became convinced it was his dream career. Those student loan statements were, he says, “a constant reminder: ‘You made a bad choice.’”
So he began to ignore them, or, “pay a little, and then stop, and then pay a little more after a few months,” he says. But there was no escape: “They would call every hour on the hour, from different numbers, saying ‘we need the money.'”
Coming up with a repayment plan, with expert help
Eventually, Watkins got real: If he wanted the phone to stop ringing—and to start building a future—he was going to have to take action. So he reached out to a someone who has made a career out of helping families navigate the educational loan system: Jodi Okun, the founder of College Financial Aid Advisors.
Okun was direct about what Watkins really owed—and that there was no magic bullet that would make the debt go away. She understood Watkins’s shame; his biggest mistake, however, was not paying. “He’s a smart man, but deep down, emotionally, he thought, ‘Maybe there is another way around it,” says Okun.
They agreed going for a teaching certification was the best next step for Watkins—even if it would mean more loans. But Okun advised him to hold off until he paid off some of the interest charges that he had racked up so that he could start chipping away at the loan principal.
Negotiating with his lender
Back in good standing with his lender, Watkins approached his lender and asked to renegotiate the size of his monthly payments, based on proof of his income. “I took the first number they gave me—$712 a month—as it was doable,” he says. “I think the more proactive you are, the more receptive they are in the end.”
In 2015, Dawkins enrolled in a short teacher’s certification program that was less time and money (about $10k) than a lot of the other, more traditional master’s degree programs. When it was over, he signed up for loan auto-payments, which take the money out of his bank account before he can even think about spending it.
This year Dawkins is celebrating his 30th birthday, planning his wedding, and preparing for his first year teaching eighth graders. Though he still has close to $100,000 in student loan debt, he has an entirely different handle on the situation: “I’m in a school district that pays really well; I’m earning more money and paying off smaller loans, I am hoping to be paid off in the next 10 years.”
Dawkins has no regrets, he says, other than his lack of financial literacy at the start. “Still, there’s time,” he says. What helped Dawkins the most was having someone explain to him about student loans, that it’s something you have and it doesn’t go away.
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