Juggling Student Loans and Life: Lauren’s Story

Lauren Saalmuller

We believe that the best way to learn about something is to ask someone who has already gone through it. That’s why, every so often, we are going to run student loan stories contributed by our readers. Today, we hear from Lauren Saalmuller, a friend who graduated from The University of Connecticut with $80,000 in student loan debt (which became more than $100,000 including interest).

I graduated from UConn in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a double minor in music and women’s studies, with dreams of creating media content—essentially, storytelling—in whatever magazine, publishing house, firm, or company that would hire me.

I had previously worked at the Orientation Office at UConn, and worked the summer of 2012 on campus. During the summer, I interviewed for an assistant editor position at SAIL magazine in Boston, a magazine I grew up reading. As a life-long sailor, it would be the ultimate dream job for me. A week later, I got word that SAIL wanted to hire me, but due to a parent company transition and hiring freezes, the position was no longer available.

So, with head held high, I took a job as an editorial assistant at Zackin Publications, a B2B publishing company, in August. Three months in and halfway through my student loan repayment grace period, I heard from SAIL, which reopened the position, and I officially moved to Boston to start my new gig.

During my time at SAIL, I was quickly reminded that student loans aren’t monopoly money you can collect and never pay back. My measly journalist salary of $37,000, combined with student loan payments of $850 per month, rent, and utility costs of $1,100 per month (even with roommates!), and my $100-grocery bill per week made living in Boston no easy feat. To make it all work took a lot of, well, work.

The Lost Art of Bartering

I quickly realized I could barter to help make ends meet. By that, I mean that I could use my skills to gain access to things I couldn’t afford outright, and that if I eventually proved my worth through that barter system, I could eventually get paid for those skills.

For example, I wanted to live fit and be part of a community, so I decided to join a CrossFit box. In Boston, membership at most gyms with working, clean equipment cost at least $80 per month. CrossFit costs $250 because it’s all-inclusive in regard to classes, nutritional information, and access to coaches every day.

To offset the monthly membership cost, I worked the front desk and eventually began to write, edit, and maintain the gym’s website, as well as manage their IT systems.

My shift was from 5am-9am, and required me to wake up at 4am and bike seven miles to the gym. I’d greet members at the door, write, edit, and post to the website, and cram in a 30-minute workout, all before 8:30. After my shift, I’d bike to my full-time job, which started at 9am. Not only did three to four shifts a week cover the cost of my membership, but it also allowed me to bring in an extra $100–$250 cash per paycheck, helping me feel more secure in my finances.

Side Gigs & The New Economy

I’ve also worked several additional side gigs over the years to bring extra money in. For example, just to name a few, I’ve:

  • Worked as a runner at ESPN (as needed) on weekends
  • Filmed and created videos for various companies
  • Been a freelance writer and editor for six years (and continue to do that on top of my full-time job)
  • Purchased old computers from my friends and different companies, fixed them up, and resold them for a profit
  • Hand-crafted cosplay costumes and competed in comic-cons for reward cash and bragging rights
  • Dog-sat for extra cash (and snuggles).
Lauren-Cosplay-Costume
Lauren, wearing one of her cosplay costumes (Xena, Warrior Princess)

And, like many young women my age, I’ve considered donating my eggs to fertility clinics—for up to $20,000—though I haven’t actually gone through with it (yet).

Tackling My Student Loans

Right now, I’m six years out of college and I’ve paid down my $100,000 in student loans to about $52,000—all on a $35,000–$48,000 base salary and while living in one of the northeast’s most expensive cities. I count that as a win every day of the week!

Instead of paying the minimum monthly payments, I contribute also make sure to pay extra so that I’m whittling down the principal balance, too. I often split any annual tax refunds between my savings account and my student loan payments, and I’ve consolidated and refinanced my federal and private loans several times to get better rates.

My salary is a little higher than it used to be, so I don’t work the morning shift at the gym anymore. (The extra sleep beats the cash I’m missing out on.) But I do work at a non-profit sailing center that provides sailing and academic programs to underprivileged youth, so I continue to freelance, and I often struggle to fight the impulse to snatch any job or networking opportunity that comes my way.

Q&A

1. What do you wish you had known before taking out your student loans?

I think I knew what I was getting into—my parents were upfront about not being able to afford to pay my tuition, but I didn’t realize how tight my budget would really be on a small income once I started paying them back.

2. Would you do anything differently (regarding college/your loans) if you were to do this all over again?

I’d have gone to trade school or majored in computer science! Ha, but seriously, I did all I could and have no regrets. I worked part-time all four years of school, I got a job right out of college, and while I still get frustrated that I haven’t been able to save as much as others or previous generations, I’m so proud of myself for coming this far and that I’m doing alright! I’m crafty, and it’s paid off.

Perhaps the one change I’d make is to try to get lower interest payments or learn more about how it affects my loans. Unfortunately, I had to take out several private loans with interest rates of 12%. Those are killer!

3. Do you have a plan forward for paying off the rest of your student loans?

I still have about $50,000 left to pay off, but I plan to have them paid off in five years! I consolidated my federal and private loans through one lender to get a better interest rate of 5%, and refinancing them recently was extremely beneficial for me.

Be careful, though, because refinancing isn’t always in your best interest. For example, I needed to sacrifice some really awesome benefits associated with my federal student loans when I refinanced them into private loans. This worked out for me, but it might not be a good fit for others.

4. Any advice for today’s students?

  1. Do your research and read the fine print of any contracts you sign, whether for your student loans, rent, utilities—everything!
  2. Avoid taking out private loans if you can—interest rates are higher than federal loans. If you need to, do your research and see what various lenders can offer you.
  3. When you graduate, look into consolidation and refinancing options! This helps narrow the number of lenders you have to pay, which can be overwhelming and hard to manage. I felt like I was throwing money in the air hoping to make progress on my loans but didn’t know the exact amount I had to pay off until I consolidated through one lender. If you consolidate and refinance, you can often get a better rate and pay through a lender of your preference. LendEDU and  Credible are two great resources for students looking to refinance their student loans.
  4. ALWAYS inquire about potential discounts that a lender can offer. Whether it’s saving on interest if you autopay or being a loyal or long-time customer, there is almost always a discount to be had. Be willing to negotiate.
  5. Try not to defer your payments unless absolutely necessary—it’ll only cost you more money in the end!
  6. Keep your head up! This is a feat, but you’re making it happen.

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