This is part of Debt Nation, a series of interviews with people about how student loans have shaped their lives. Read the rest here.
Education: Bachelor’s in political science, J.D.
Current job: Immigration attorney
Household income: $240,000
Relationship status: Married, no kids
Peak student debt: $240,000 in 2015
Current student debt: $0, last payment was November 2019
If you asked my mom how much student loan debt I had, I don’t think she’d be able to tell you. I tried not to burden my parents with that. Their combined household income has always been less than $40,000. They had enough worries just making ends meet. My mom cleaned houses and my stepdad worked construction, so they weren’t very familiar with the American education system and didn’t know anything about student loans. I felt trapped because I didn’t really have anybody else who understood what I was going through.
When I graduated in April of 2008, I had anywhere between $175,000 and $185,000 in student loan debt. Most of that was from my J.D. program at the University of Miami. I think it was less than $13,000 from undergrad at Florida State. I remember going to law school and looking at the brochures and percentage distributions for projected income. I remember at the, like, 25th percentile, the income was around $70,000 to $80,000, and I remember thinking, Oh, OK. I’m definitely going to be better than the 25th percentile. So I’ll probably be making close to $100,000, and I’ll be able to pay off my student loans. The school basically said, “OK, congratulations. You got admitted. You need to pay,” because I didn’t get any scholarships. I took out more than I should have.
I saw being a lawyer as a prestige thing. I thought it was an honorable career, and I also did have in mind that as an attorney I was going to be making a decent wage. But when I graduated during a recession, it was very hard. The big firms weren’t hiring in 2008. And so a lot of the students at the top of the class were getting jobs at middle- to small-size firms, and students like me, who graduated right around the top third, found it more difficult to get jobs.
In my first job I was making $42,000 a year, and I had $180,000 worth of student loans. I almost cried when I saw the payment I was expected to make for the first time. It was going to be something around $1,500. I ended up just deferring and deferring for about four years. I was making some payments, but it wasn’t even enough to cover the interest. I had two loans that were ridiculously high in interest, I think combined they were close to $100,000 at 8.5 percent. That’s why the balance eventually ballooned to well over $200,000.
The first time I got a raise, it was to $45,000. I rented a room from one of my friends. I was paying $500 a month in rent because that was all I could afford, and I could barely go out. It really stunted both my social growth and just personal growth. I didn’t start making decent money until six years into practicing law. The first job I got where I began making significant money was the job I’m in now, at a big labor and employment law firm, where I started at $120,000. It was life-changing. I’ll tell you what, the first year I did not get serious about paying my student loans because it was the first time I felt my head was above water financially. I bought a town house. I ended up selling it two years later to jump-start my student loan repayment. I took all that equity from the house, and it was literally in my bank account for two days before it went straight to Sallie Mae. I moved back in with my mom.
About a year after I got that law job, I started dating somebody, and when they found out how much I owed, they freaked out. At that point the debt was close to $250,000, and I think my monthly payment was less than $500. That was one of the contributing factors to us not working out, and that made me realize I didn’t want student debt for the rest of my life. And so, ever since then, I’ve been hitting it hard. More than 50 percent of my take-home pay was going toward student loans.
My ex referred me to Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University. Ramsey’s one of those individual financial-advice gurus. He gives you a series of baby steps you’re supposed to follow. Baby step one is you create a $1,000 emergency fund. And then, baby step two is to get rid of all your debt. You do that using this technique called the “snowball effect” where you start paying down all your debts, from smallest to largest. So I started doing that repayment plan. I had a car loan. I had a credit card. I just took care of those first, and then I started hitting the student loans.
My student loan debt has felt like an 800-pound gorilla is sitting on my shoulders. I had to crawl and beg and work extremely hard to get to the point where I am. I wouldn’t say I’m judging, but sometimes I find it difficult to identify with people who are not making a sacrifice to pay off their debt as early as possible. It’s easy for me to say. I make a decent wage. I can afford to pay $7,000 a month toward my student loans.
My goal was to be done by age 35. I turned 35 in January of 2019, and I was done in November. So I missed my goal, but life happens. My level of anxiety right now is nowhere near what it would be if I still had this huge burden on my shoulders. So far we have stayed busy because a lot of employers are coming to us with “Hey, how do we manage furloughs, layoffs, terminations?” If I don’t have a job in a couple months, the fact that I don’t have that debt allowed me to have enough savings that I can take two or three months, maybe even six months, to find another job and not be starving.
If I have children, I sure as heck don’t ever foresee letting them get into any student loan debt. I got married this year, and I’m lucky my wife is on the same repayment plan. She wasn’t when we met, but when I talked to her about it, she was willing to be on board. Her mom paid for her education, but she did have significant credit card debt. And together we budgeted. It became important to me that once I started dating somebody, I made sure that I was very transparent with them about my debt at the beginning. We went to Paris in December of last year as our celebration. Next we want to buy her a new car. She’s driving around in a 2008 Honda Civic right now. She stuck by my side, and I feel like she deserves something nice.
Jorge Acevedo is a pseudonym.