Financing higher education is a realistic possibility in the United States, provided that you are willing to spend the rest of your life pinching pennies to make minimum payments on your debt for the rest of your life. I wish someone had sat me down and explained that I would end up taking out more loans than a lot of people take out on their first homes, and exactly what that meant for my future post-graduation. At the start of this school year, I received an email from the federal loan program that contained both my full balance and the daily interest accrual (yes daily, not monthly or yearly – I am in enough debt to be accruing significant DAILY interest) of my student loans. I did not ask them to send me this information. They just sent it to me, unsolicited, because they are not allowed to bill me until I graduate and they were hoping to guilt me into opting to pay early. I had to resist the urge to reply and tell them that, if I had any money to pay back my loans, I would not have taken them out in the first place.
It is unbelievably stressful to think about. I am having anxiety typing this post. My partner is banned from asking me about my loans, even though it has been established that we will be working to pay down the debt together. My family describes me as financially responsible because I have paid my credit card bill in full ever month since I was 18, but how responsible can I be when my student loans might prevent me from ever owning a home?
So, just like the federal government presented me with unsolicited information about my debt balance, I present you with my unsolicited advice for financing your graduate education. It is too late for me – I found out that, if I only make minimum payments on my debt, I will not even pay the interest, and I will end up owing more and more until I default on an amount larger than what I borrowed in the first place.
So you’ve been accepted into graduate school. Maybe you have even been accepted into more than one program. Maybe one of those programs is funded and this does not apply to you. If so congratulations! If not, read on.
Before making any final decisions, take some time to examine your school’s estimated cost of attendance. Keep in mind that they are probably lying about your living expenses. (My undergrad published statistics stating that you only needed $75-$100 per month on spending money!) Research the area and get a realistic idea of what it will cost you to attend. Find out what your programs offer in financial aid. Sadly, PsyD programs tend to offer little to no assistance. Grad school expenses also not only include tuition and books, but rent, groceries, and transportation – it is difficult to work a full time job while attending school, and so your loans will probably have to cover at least part of your living expenses. So how much will graduate school actually cost you? Once you have that information, look into how much you can realistically work as a student. For my program, there was more availability for side jobs during the first year than the second and third, and so it was possible to save a little bit then.
Once you have all of this information, you can determine how much debt you will have to accrue. (Don’t forget to account for interest!) Please do not make my mistake and think that your journey ends here – look into how you can pay down that debt. It is a lot of work, but it is the only way to make an educated decision about whether or not a graduate program is the right financial decision for you right now.
I know, I know, it is maddening – all of this to go into a career dedicated to helping people! Despite the financial burden, I would not change my decision to get my doctorate. I do sometimes think about whether I should have more carefully considered funded programs. If you find something you love doing, something you are truly passionate about, you will find a way to pay for it. I have heard the expression “Do what you love, and the money will come,” and I have to disagree, unless you happen to love the stock market or inventing Facebook.
When it comes to my career path, my belief is, “Do what you love, and you will find a way to pay for it.” Maybe I will not have the means to buy a new car every few years, and maybe I will have to get creative about my repayment options. For now, I resist the urge to online shop and eat a lot of Ramen. I hope it will be worth it.